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Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2002
Forever flying toward freedom
By KAORI SHOJI
Orson Welles said that making a good war film was much more expensive than making a good science-fiction film. Though that may still hold true, the more we see of big-budget productions like "Pearl Harbor" and "Windtalkers," the more we come to realize that money can also fall flat on its face. In World War II movies the bloated budget often -- and ironically -- serves to rob the proceedings of authenticity because so much of the 1940s was about deprivation and shortage. The task of re-creating this period onscreen calls for the art of subtraction rather than its opposite of piling on the money -- an art that is practically obsolete in today's Hollywood.
Knowing this, the Czech father-son filmmaking duo Zdenek and Jan Sverak turned down cushy studio offers and red-carpet treatment after their glorious hit movie "Kolya" six years ago. If they hadn't, we would probably have been able to see a Sverak film much sooner. But their latest, "Dark Blue World," is worth the wait, and a perfect demonstration of the art of subtraction.
Our eyes, used to stellar casts and extravagant explosions every five minutes, are in for a shock. In "Dark Blue World," the faces seem to have been scanned off sepia-colored photos of long ago, the production design speaks of genuine, intimate knowledge of Europe during the '40s and there are just two, count 'em, two explosions.
Written by the elder Sverak, who spent three years researching the material, and directed by son Jan, "Dark Blue World" enthralls with their sincere and sympathetic gaze on a little-known chapter of war history. Some 3,500 Czech air force pilots had slipped out of Nazi-dominated Czechoslovakia to join the British Royal Air Force. After the war, these pilots should have been welcomed home as heroes, but the Soviets stepped in, rounded them up and confined them in forced-labor camps for the next 15 years. The logic was that those who had fought for freedom once may do so again and must be kept under surveillance.
Many of the pilots died due to forced heavy labor and atrocious living conditions. Those that survived weren't officially recognized until the mid-'80s. "Dark Blue World" is a tribute to the pilots who helped free their country from Nazi domination, only to be trampled under Soviet dictatorship.
Franta (Ondrej Vetchy) was a Czech air force captain before he was forced to hand over his entire airfield to Nazi command. Out of patriotism but also determined to keep flying, he escapes with the young private Karel (Krystof Hadek) to Britain, where they join the RAF. Wing commander Bentley (Charles Dance), however, confines the Czech squadron to English conversation classes and flight simulations that involve bicycles with makeshift cardboard wings.
After many months, they are finally allowed to take off for aerial combat, which turns out to be much more difficult, risky and terrifying than they had bargained for. Karel is shot down and his plane disappears in the woods. He survives the crash and finds refuge in the home of Susan (Tara Fitzgerald), whose husband has been missing in action for a year. Karel immediately falls in love with the older woman and tells Franta all about his wonderful new "girlfriend." Trouble is, Franta falls for Susan as well and vice-versa. Only Karel is oblivious to the older couple's mutual affection and Franta is so pained by his betrayal of Karel that he can't bring himself to confess.
But even this becomes a fond memory for Franta, who eventually loses everything. There is no cathartic last scene that liberates Franta or the audience from the weight of his tragedy; there's just a slight hope that somewhere in the future, there must be a promise of freedom.
In the end, "Dark Blue World" goes beyond a war movie to become a celebration and appreciation of freedom, the fragile freedom that can only be experienced by fighter pilots. With just a thin sheet of metal between themselves and the wild blue sky, the gorgeous sense of liberation can become a terrifying descent to death in a split second. Sverak shows us again and again the utter fragility of that brief surge of joy, and how the sky, no matter how blue, has always been tinged with darkness.