Director: Stanislav Barabás
Starring: Ewa Krzyzewska, Vlado Müller, Ivan Rajniak, Axel Dietrich
Language: Slovak, German
Duration: 96 min.
Towards the end of WWII, two partisans are returning to their headquarters after a fight, bringing with them a young captured German soldier. In the middle of deserted woods enemies walk side by side, however the partisans cannot locate the rest of their unit, and their German hostage starts to lose hope for survival.
The Bells Toll For The Barefooted is a film directed by Stanislav Barabás, based on a story by Slovak playwright Ivan Bukovcan titled Cakanie na smrt (Waiting for Death).
Set near the end of WWII in the cold Fatra Mountain range in the Western Carpathians of Slovakia, this film explores the fascinating and complex psychological results of placing a small group of enemies together, quite similar to the scenario in Karel Kachyna's Coach to Vienna.
Anti German partisan fighters Ondrej (Vlado Müller) and Stasek (Ivan Rajniak) are separated from their unit and searching for a way back when they stumble upon a very young German soldier Hans (Axel Dietrich) who has also lost his way. The pair take the boy captive and plan to deliver him to headquarters for questioning, but discover that their former camp is now deserted.
It's cold, they have nothing to eat, and worst of all, they have no idea which way their comrades went. Things get even more difficult and complicated when one of them gets wounded and the other two must carry him, and further still when they come across a burned out village and meet Verona (Ewa Krzyzewska), a young woman searching hopelessly for her stash of luxury goods in a pile of smoldering rubble.
The screenplay is beautifully written and executed, full of difficult moral dilemmas that each character must face, brilliant dialog that reveals the harsh mental toll that the war has taken on them, and many instances of humor that helps them make it through the day. Early on while they are camped for the night huddled together for warmth, Ondrej quips, "The worst thing about war is that every night I have to sleep next to a man". To which Stasek replies, "Whoever invented war must have been gay".
The acting is excellent all around, Müller and Rajniak share great chemistry and camaraderie, and you can instantly tell they have been through and seen a lot together; Dietrich is also very impressive, every emotion expressed was convincing, displaying just the right mixture of fear and youthful courage of a green recruit not yet seventeen, has never even shaved, and who faces an uncertain fate. Completing the cast is Polish actress Ewa Krzyzewska, who is simply outstanding as a young woman whose life has been brutally affected by the war, and who manages to give the men a shard of hope despite everything that has happened.
The cinematography is also solid, perhaps lacking the same overall astonishing visual beauty of some other Slovak productions from this era, but it makes up for that and more with it's profound and delicate humanistic story. One that expounds on the tragic senselessness of war while labeling neither side as black or white, good or evil.
A true forgotten gem of Czechoslovak cinema that deserves to be seen.
— Bonjour Tristesse