Set during the Nazi occupation of Prague, Czech filmmaker Zbyněk Brynych's "The Fifth Horseman is Fear" (1965) presents a riveting portrait of an atmosphere of paranoia and impending doom, as an old Jewish doctor is faced with a moral dilemma that could cost him his life. The title derived from the Biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse, refers to the German politics of fear that resulted in an environment of all round dread and unrelenting chaos.
Dr. Braun (Miroslav Machácek in a tour de force performance), forbidden to practise medicine any longer, is now reduced to being a sort of warehouse-man for the Nazis, cataloging confiscated property of Jews who have already been sent packing. Aware and apprehensive of what's to come, Braun constantly looks over his shoulder and sometimes hallucinates about the secret police following him. When an injured resistance fighter is brought to his attention for some treatment, Braun is faced with a quandary of a lifetime. Should he serve his lost profession in the name of humanity and face the naturally disastrous consequences, or should he go on living like a zombie puppet of the Nazis?
Of course, he chooses to jump right in, to heal a wound after several years, his hands trembling, both out of fear of messing up the job for lack of practice, as well as out of fear of certain death if reported. The question of keeping the deed under wraps proves to be a daunting one, as unavoidable physical pain threatens to make the patient scream and give everything away. Morphine would help, but getting a hold of it in such times proves to be a herculean task, let alone the tough job of hiding the patient from the secret police who often raid the building, given that the neighbours are just as helpless, and the sneaky building secretary/warden, Mr. Fanta (Josef Vinklár) could very well be an informant!
It is astonishing how dense the framework of the film is, for a modest run time of just above 90 minutes. The film begins on a deliberately off-kilter note with random shots of either crowded streets or empty back alleys, with suspicious looking men keeping a watch, edited in a seemingly haphazard manner. There are shots of fascist posters on the wall, urging citizens to report information, presumably about the resistance, in order to ensure their safety.
A rather disquieting piano score accompanies the introduction of Dr. Braun in the confiscated property registration department. It is a nightmarish setting, with large walls full of clocks, a depressing symbol of time itself being snatched away from hapless Jews. Other goods such as musical instruments and other belongings occupy the huge office building as the employees go about their jobs like the living dead.
The unusual editing and visual technique establishes a mood of chaos and uncertainty at the outset. It is a situation where almost everything remains unclear. A sense of tension looms, as most others await new regulations, while Dr. Braun seems to be certain where it's all headed, and it doesn't seem to be a pretty sight. Despite the setting being of the time of the rise of the Nazis, Brynych refrains from highlighting any of the actual events of the war or the holocaust.
The recurring shot of a smoking chimney perhaps reflects the grim picture of the holocaust, while the primary focus remains on the few who are still at an arm's length from inevitable doom, but living under tremendous mental torment. The psychological anguish resulting from the lack of stability in a society crumbling under turbulent conditions is the focal point of Zbyněk Brynych's film.
That the situation is wholly unpredictable is demonstrated in a brilliant sequence in which the injured resistance fighter is first discovered by the young boy in the building. He is seen from a distance riding his bicycle and falling off repeatedly. The boy is initially amused at the sight, thinking it to be some kind of a real life comedy of a bungling drunk, until he realizes what it is upon a closer look. Also during Braun's quest for morphine, one can see how most citizens are calming their nerves with booze while some others can't seem to control their debilitating mental state.
Dr. Braun's apartment building itself gives off an air of some kind of a claustrophobic chamber of death, with its echoing sounds of screaming inhabitants, crying children, and constantly fading lighting. Those low angle shots looking up at the winding staircase, sometimes with neighbours staring down suspiciously, while in turn evoking suspicion, resembles something straight out of a horror flick. These neighbours are another eclectic bunch and we meet them only briefly earlier on.
But in a rare masterstroke, Brynych completely shifts our attention to the other building tenants and their inside lives, instead of Braun in the final half hour when the suspense is at its peak. It is noteworthy how familiar the audiences get with these characters in a short period of time. It's just a slight letdown but not a major hitch, that in a drama so realistic and grave in nature, a couple of these characters are portrayed like unrealistic caricatures, notably Fanta, the warden and the cantankerous Mrs. Kratochvilova with her rabbits.
It is said that Brynych modeled this film as a veiled attack on Soviet communism, while narrating a story set against the backdrop of the Nazi occupation. "The Fifth Horseman is Fear" is an intense film that works either ways, given the similar oppressive political ideologies. With an intriguing central moral conflict, it succeeds in showcasing the resulting devastation, not of the physique, but of the psyche of man, in a very compelling manner.