The end of the 1960s was a time, in several countries, for seeking a corrective to comfortable views about the Second World War. In France, Le Chagrin et la pitié caused outrage with its documentary revelations about attitudes to collaboration in Vichy France. Meanwhile in America Catch-22 was being filmed, and in Italy Luchino Visconti unleashed a frontal assault on memory and taste with The Damned. Britain took a little longer - we were still ‘enjoying’ fare like The Battle of Britain, though this was countered by the Brecht-meets-music-hall satire of Oh! What a Lovely War! (our revisionism had only got as far as the First World War).
It is immediately clear that Adelheid is more subtle and sombre than any of these in its treatment of the war, or rather of its moral and emotional aftermath. (Not that this subtlety helped director František Vláčil win official approval: it was six years before he made another feature film.) The film opens memorably with a view from a train as it follows the curve of birch-wooded hills, accompanied by the transcendent sound of a choral work by Bach. The viewer is jolted out of this Germanic idyll as the train is halted by a group of armed men emerging from the shadows at the mouth of a tunnel: the atmosphere of doubt and unease is established and remains unbroken.
Adelheid has other features distinctive of this time. It shares with contemporary American films like Five Easy Pieces not just a palette of dull earth tones but a slow-moving taciturn realist style and a sense of depressed purposelessness. These are particularly suited to the aims of Vláčil’s film, with its evocation of loss, desolation, and estrangement.
In general, it seems to me that what a work of art is expressing cannot be satisfactorily stated in words. It is diminished as an aesthetic experience if you try to reduce it to a message. But in this case, for once I believe it is possible to be quite explicit about what the film is ‘saying’ without undermining its effect. The male lead Viktor represents the Czech people. He returns from the war sick and troubled, feeling out of place in the new order that has been established. He seeks to recover in a place once beautiful, but which has been taken over, degraded, and seized back: this place now needs to be opened up, restored to light, made to work again. The female lead Adelheid is a representative of the Germans of Czechoslovakia: she has a proprietary relation to this place, where she has always lived, but her right to be there is now no longer recognised. She is connected to those who have committed crimes against the Czech people, though she is not represented as herself implicated in those crimes. She is in Viktor’s power: he finds her presence disturbing but compelling, and he seeks uneasily to establish a relationship with her, though this seems transgressive and improper. They feel their way to some sort of human companionship and mutual trust. But this endeavour is blighted by their situation: for her it leads to despair, for him to emptiness.
Adelheid is a reminder that the moral dimensions of war and what follows are not simple. It was not the case that being on the right side made everything OK again, and it was not appropriate for Czechs to be complacent about their moral standing. But the film doesn’t seem knowingly contentious in the way that the films I mentioned in the first paragraph were. This is partly because the moral challenge of its subject matter was not so simple. And perhaps because a quiet, intimate human drama like Adelheid is a better way to make an audience feel unwelcome emotions without resentment.