I was intrigued to hear that Alfréd Radok’s Czech drama, Distant Journey, was one of the first films to depict the horrors of the Holocaust. I was left gobsmacked, though, to hear that the film was released in 1949, only a couple years after the Holocaust ended. For Radok to be that fearless by shedding a spotlight on the crimes committed by the Nazis so soon deserves its recognition. And yet, time has not been kind to Distant Journey. Shortly after the film’s release, Stalinist censorship ruled over Czechoslovakia: this caused Radok’s first feature to be banned for more than forty years. Now that Second Run have decided to release the film in the UK, we can finally see it as the extraordinary piece of filmmaking that it is.
The film opens on harsh shadows on a brick wall as the credits roll by. Presumably, the shadows are that of persecuted Jews marching towards their harrowing fate. And Radok refuses to let go of the oppressiveness that he is building. The next sequence is clips lifted straight from Leni Riefenstahl’s legendary (and now infamous) propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. Radok reclaims Riefenstahl’s footage incredibly well to create a sensation of terror under Hitler’s tyrannical reign. Angry crowds swamp the street, Hitler Youth openly mock Jewish children: it’s a nihilistic vision that Radok is creating. We then settle on the film’s central narrative, a love story between a Jewish doctor, Hana (Blanka Waleská), and her future Gentile husband to be, Toník.
The wedding between Hana and Toník is one of Distant Journey’s many emotionally devastating scenes. Hana is forced to wear a yellow badge on her wedding gown and the ceremony is confined to a secluded room in Toník’s family home. One of Radok’s many skills as a storyteller is that he knows how to imply prejudices subtly and effectively. For example, there is an empty chair stationed close to Hana, indicating the absence of Toník’s father. I don’t mind saying I failed to pick up on rich details like this during my first viewing. It wasn’t until I listened to the excellent Projection Booth commentary Second Run provides that I came to appreciate Radok’s filmmaking techniques a lot more.
Distant Journey operates like this: it’s an immersive examination of the Holocaust. Yet, it never lowers itself to melodramatic emotion. The style is often expressionistic, unearthly, and distressing. But it never exploits the tragedy of the Holocaust. Radok instead evokes an almost surreal mood: what would such a frightening event truly feel like for a Jewish person? In one of the film’s more disturbing scenes, a Jewish professor decides to jump from his office window. The piano score ratchets up faster and louder to create anxiety, the professor sits firmly in his chair, and then he puts his half-lit cigar out. The piano then stops. However, the camera lingers on the ashtray and cigar; we never see the professor take his own life. Suddenly, we hear a screech of a car pulling over before the crowd gathers around the awful event. The camera moves back to reveal the open breeze from the window and the deportation documents on the professor’s desk.
The film fearlessly enters the headspace of anyone suffering under the oppressive Nazi regime, and it succeeds in portraying that. It’s worth noting that Radok came from a theatre background and you can tell that influenced the production. Inanimate objects clutter the sets, the camera frames the characters between rafters and bed frames. Radok is presenting a hyper claustrophobic nightmare that’s well fit with the traumatic subject matter. Additionally, Radok also uses snippets of newsreel footage to ground Hana and Toník’s fictional narrative into reality. When he drags down his fictional tale and contains it in a small screen on the right-hand bottom corner, it is this documentary footage playing in the foreground.
Distant Journey is an intimate story that nevertheless is commenting on the bigger picture of Nazism sweeping across Europe. It’s a daring display of technical craft that’s way ahead of its time. And for it to arrive this early after the Nazis’ war crimes came to light makes Distant Journey’s qualities all the more astonishing. It’s dark and anxiety-ridden, yes. You certainly don’t want to be watching this when you’re depressed. But it’s the work of some very brave filmmakers who had something to say about the nastiest of mankind’s atrocities. To put it simply; Distant Journey is the most unique film on the Holocaust that I’ve ever seen.