Czechoslovakia, 1942, during the Nazi Occupation. Hanka, a Jewish girl, escapes the transports to Theresienstadt by hiding in the attic of a large apartment block. Hanka is helped by Pavel, an 18-year-old boy who uses his mother’s attic storeroom as a darkroom. Pavel brings her food, drink and books and his daily visits become her only contact with the outside world. Predictably, the two teenagers fall in love until Hanka is discovered by the mistress of a Nazi officer living in the house. While echoes of Anne Frank are present within the story, Romeo, Juliet and Darkness is not a wartime thriller but a love story set in the midst of the fear and violence of occupation.
Film director Jií…(TM)íÂ Weiss knew his topic intimately; as a Jewish refugee Weiss spent the war years in London and later fled Prague for the US after having established himself as an award-winning filmmaker. There are echoes of the nouvelle vague and Italian neo-realism in his style, and as in MiloÅ¡ Forman and Roman Polanski’s early work, there is a strong nod in the direction of a more politicised and yet consistently lyrical use of melodrama. The use of the house as a realist location is cunningly devised with much of the action taking place on the windy stairs, which separate as well as bring together, in both ethnic and social terms, the various occupants of the house. Even more impressive is the sparse use of sound effects that help to temper as well as accentuate what is naturally an overtly melodramatic story line. Throughout the plot, the melodic and at times piercing song of a caged canary evokes the situation that Hanka finds herself in; caged and kept by Pavel whom we first meet as he is about to recuperate an abandoned hamster in a flat previously occupied by a Jewish family.
Weiss was quoted as saying that he was attracted to the subject matter firstly as a love story, and only secondly because of its social and political implications. In reality, Weiss could just as well have said that he was motivated by cinema’s ability to affectionately portray the minutiae of human circumstance rather than the sturm und drang of forbidden and tragic love. Because of this, the love element in the film is almost downplayed and the two youngsters spend most of the time gazing at the stars from the attic window rather than engage in corporal pleasures. Miles apart from, for example, Bergman’s portrayal of young love in Summer with Monika, Romeo, Juliet and Darkness displays no fresh eroticism or vigour, and Weiss’s lovers are instead shy embodiments of dreams hindered by circumstance. As in that infinitely more extravagant version of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, the lovers here are caught in ethical and moral dilemmas that have more to do with larger affiliations than with intimacy. Even faced with his wholesome blonde girlfriend in a swimsuit at the local pool Pavel cannot forget that his fellow countrymen are simultaneously being executed by the Nazi occupiers.
Herein lies the film’s curious strength as well as its outdated-ness, perhaps, for more modern viewers. What seems to matter is not so much the relationship between these two young people as how a young boy is forced to make extraordinary decisions in the face of imminent danger. The camera lingers over actress Dana Smutní¡’s classically beautiful features as if to remind us that the character of Hanka is indeed the vessel for Pavel’s romantic yearnings but with little information to flesh her out as a person, she remains just that. Consequently, Ivan MistríÂk as Pavel is more effective in the scenes at home or at school, where he has to externalize his internal torment, than when he is looking at Hanka.
To a large extent, the story is told through the little details such as the balance wheel that Pavel’s watchmaker grandfather spends all day working on, or the incessant yapping of the Nazi mistress’s dog who nearly discloses Hanka’s whereabouts. The viewer is well aware that time is running out for Hanka, and in Shakespearean terms, it provides the lovers with no other opportunity than to turn night into day, when Pavel can visit Hanka unseen. Likewise, it is no coincidence that Pavel dreams of being an astronomer: the lovers are genuinely ‘star-crossed’, their fate determined by forces much larger and insurmountable than mere mortal love.
Despite such little nods in the direction of Shakespeare, the film, it seems, chooses to downplay whatever complex literary references one might expect in favour of a more guileless visual and spoken language. If it works, it is because the actual horrors of the Holocaust are left unspoken. Ultimately, the first image of the film is perhaps its most poignant as Pavel helplessly watches a Jewish family dragging their few possessions through the empty streets of Prague. Romeo and Juliet may have been the instigating factor for Weiss’s melancholy film but it is the darkness of the impending genocide that we are fittingly left with.