Color, 1949, 103 mins. 38 secs.
Directed by Alfréd Radok
Starring Blanka Waleská, Otomar Krejca, Viktor Ocásek Second Run (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), Facets (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
One of the very first narrative feature films to deal with the Holocaust in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Distant Journey (Daleká cesta) has yet to earn the historical significance it deserves as a pivotal work of Czech cinema and a fascinating critique of the neorealist movement that was quickly ascending in Europe. The first of only three films from director and Czech theater innovator Alfréd Radok, it's a stark, harrowing, and often strikingly experimental work that's certainly difficult to shake off when it's over.
After a lengthy, dialogue-free opening setting the stage for the insidious wave of Nazism creeping across the continent (complete with copious real-life footage), the story beings at the start of the German occupation as young Jewish physician Hana (Ferat Vampire's Waleská) goes ahead with her marriage to Tonik (Krejca), a Christian with an anti-Semitic father. While many Jews are already planning to relocate to countries like Canada and Brazil including Hanna's parents, she decides to stay behind in solidarity with her people only to find herself pushed out of her job and plunged into the nightmare world of the Terezin ghetto.
With its elaborate camerawork and compositions as well as its startling clash of styles, Distant Journey is still a unique viewing experience that mixes newsreel-style footage, stylized melodrama (including some nifty low angle shots that drew immediate comparisons to Orson Welles), gritty realism, and even multiple scenes with layers of images on top of each other decades before Peter Greenaway would go wild with the same idea. The second half of the film is a harrowing experience even by today's standards with some haunting little moments of cruelty (that bucket...) and an escalating air of oppression and hopelessness that must have been like a cold splash of water for audiences at the time. It's also fascinating to see a Holocaust-themed film so early on before the more common tactic of adding a sentimental or uplifting message somewhere to counteract the despair; in this case we instead get an odd, pro-Communist finale (understandable given where this was made) that sits far more uncomfortably now than what was likely intended.
Distant Journey first appeared on English-friendly DVD back in 2005 from Facets in another one of the label's substandard transfers that might have been passable on VHS. The 2020 global Blu-ray debut from Second Run looks exceptional though and comes from a 2019 restoration by the Czech National Film Archive. An opening disclaimer notes that the intention was to make the film "available in a form similar to how it could have been seen by an audience at the time when it was first released in 1949," so any inherent damage in the newsreel footage and so on has been left understandably intact. The LPCM Czech mono audio is also in fine shape and features optional, newly translated English subtitles. An astute new audio commentary with the gang from The Projection Booth podcast -- Mike White, Samm Deighan, and Katt Ellinger -- has a lot to dive into here including the film's relationship to other Holocaust films, the nature of Czech cinema at the time, and the visual language being explored in all the different sections of the film. Most interesting is their take on the rationale behind the ending, which is referring to as "throwing Stalinism a bone." Also included are two short films starting with Miro Bernat's "Butterflies Don't Live Here" (14m24s) from 1958, is comprised almost entirely of drawings, collages, and graffiti by children who lived in the real Terezin ghetto; it's an effective depiction of how innocence persists under the saddest of circumstances. Then Radok's "The Opening of the Wells" (18m24s) from 1960 is shot in scope and is a representation of the Laterna magica technique Radok employed during his avant garde stage career. Plotless and almost a music video, it's set to a Bohuslav Martinu cantata and has an almost Krzysztof Kieślowski feel at times (as well as some surprising semi-nudity). As usual, the insert booklet is an essential extra unto itself with Jonathan Owen providing some essential facts and context about the director as well as writer Erik Kolar who came up with the original treatment.