Director: Zbynek Brynych
Starring: Miroslav Machácek, Olga Scheinpflugová, Josef Vinklár, Jirí Vrstála, Jirí Adamíra
Duration: 100 min.
A Jewish doctor in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia risks his life and attempts to regain his identity by assisting a wounded political fugitive.
The Fifth Horseman is Fear is a Czechoslovak New Wave film directed by Zbynek Brynych. Set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, the film beautifully explores one man's moral dilemma when he is forced to choose between honor and his own self preservation.
The story follows the Jewish Dr. Braun (Miroslav Machacek), forbidden to practice medicine by the Nazis, he works as a clerk in a warehouse that stores confiscated Jewish property. After a brief montage of artistic shots in the Prague streets, the film opens with Braun walking through an almost surreal warehouse filled with stacks of luxury furniture, fine china, books, and walls lined with all kinds of musical instruments and clocks. He continues through a room filled with grand pianos, the dissonant sounds of one of them being keyed haphazardly by an unseen player are heard as the opening credits roll. This dreamlike introduction is soon revealed to be the nightmare reality of Nazi occupation.
Braun lives in an apartment building with a cast of eccentric neighbors including a collaborator, a lawyer, and a mad music teacher who each have their own way of dealing with this difficult time. He spends his free hours keeping to himself, and playing a contraband violin that he keeps in his modest room. One day, a resistance fighter stumbles into the building, suffering from a gunshot wound and in dire need of medical assistance, and Braun is summoned to help. Fighting his fear of the consequences, Braun decides to treat the man and after removing the bullet he goes out into the city in search of morphine to ease the man's pain.
It's this absurd almost mythical search for morphine that makes this film special. Knowing his own life is already at stake for helping the man, Braun selflessly sets out on a hunt that takes him to several bizarre locations including a nightclub called "The Desperation Bar" crowded with doomed patrons celebrating what just might be their last night before being sent to the trains; and an overflowing sanitarium where he is briefly mistaken for one of the patients from which an unnerving orchestra of nonstop yells and babbling are heard. In these places we get a real sense of being in a living hell, not just from Braun but also in the faces and demeanor of everyone he encounters.
This is a rather grim and unflinching story that uses some inventive widescreen camerawork and what can only be described as an array of unpleasant sounds to achieve its atmosphere of constant tension and fear. I can't say it's an enjoyable film, but it is a fine example of the Czech New Wave, and a visually arresting look at one of the darkest times in recent history. Unfortunately, I've just discovered in my research for this review, the version of the film I saw is missing a sizable and apparently pivotal sequence that occurs in a brothel frequented by members of the SS. I do hope that one day the full uncut version is released for all to see.
— Bonjour Tristesse