Genre: Animated Drama
Director: Tomás Lunák
Starring: Miroslav Krobot, Marie Ludvíková, Leos Noha, Karel Roden
Duration: 84 min.
A lonely train dispatcher at a small railway station on the Czechoslovak border, lives a quiet life. However, whenever the fog rolls in and he hallucinates, seeing ghosts and shadows from the dark times of WWII. One day he encounters a mute stranger who propels him on the journey to resolving his nightmares.
Alois Nebel is the debut feature film by Tomás Lunák, based on a series of graphic novels by Jaromír Svejdík and Jaroslav Rudis. It premiered out of competition at the 2011 Venice International Film Festival, and it was the Czech Republic's official submission to the 84th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.
In a small village near the Czechoslovak/Polish border, Alois Nebel (Miroslav Krobot) works as the local train dispatcher as his father did before him. It's 1989, the eve of the Velvet Revolution, a time of transition and hopeful future, but Nebel is stuck in place, troubled by memories of the past. When at the end of the Second World War, the ethnic German population of the area was forcibly displaced from the region. However, a chance encounter with a mysterious mute stranger (Karel Roden) starts Nebel towards a path of discovery and reconciliation.
It's a visually striking effort from the first time director, using rotoscope animation to emulate the artistic style of the source graphic novels. A film noir inspired palette of blacks and greys that perfectly fits this somber and atmospheric tale. Full of dark shadows and intense moody weather effects, with particular attention given to dense clouds (fun fact: 'nebel' is the German word for fog), heavy rain, and drifting snow. Also the sound is handled impressively throughout, and is especially stunning at the film's torrential climax.
The story unfolds very slowly, there is a brief text intro that sets the stage, but Lunák paints the scene with little exposition, relying mainly on the stark imagery to tell the tale. The conversion of live action to animation lends a certain level of realism to the action and captures the natural movements of the characters in a way that could not otherwise be easily reproduced. One thing to be aware of, is it might be slightly confusing for some, because there are important background details sprinkled throughout that could be missed if one is not familiar with recent Central European history.
A couple of subtle nods to the country's film history can also be seen. The film's quiet setting provides a fond reminder of the small-town train station from Jirí Menzel's Closely Watched Trains. There is also an early sequence that surely is a nod to Czech director Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
However, you don't necessarily need to have studied history or have watched those films to enjoy Alois Nebel. The heart of the story is an universal one, and the mesmerizing images are a joy to behold. A very promising start to this young director's career, I will definitely be keeping an eye out for his work from now on.
— Bonjour Tristesse