An excerpt from the booklet essay by Jonathan Owen

Zbyněk Brynych’s The Fifth Horseman is Fear (…a pátý jezdec je strach, 1964) belongs to a surge of fictional works about the Holocaust in 1960s Czechoslovakia that ensued with the relative liberalisation of Stalinist censorship. Where the persecution of Jews under Nazi occupation had been an all-but-taboo topic during the previous decade, the 1960s saw an ‘outpouring’ of Holocaust-themed films – ‘still-unmatched’ in this context – that included Arnošt Lustig’s books and stories as well as distinguished films like Diamonds of the Night (Demánty noci, Jan Němec, 1964), The Shop on the High Street (Obchod na korze, Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, 1965) and The Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol, Juraj Herz, 1969). Brynych’s film also forms part of a wider international reckoning with the Holocaust evident in works like Kapò (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1960), Judgement at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, 1961), Passenger (Pasażerka, Andrzej Munk, 1963) and (perhaps Fifth Horseman’s closest companion)
The Pawnbroker (Sidney Lumet, 1964). The film is no less representative of its era in its modernist stylisation and tone of Kafkaesque menace (Kafka’s work had itself been effectively ‘rehabilitated’ in Czechoslovakia the year before the film’s production). But Brynych’s film is exemplary as well as representative: a work of both oblique horror and nightmarish intensity, sophisticated in form yet accessible in its humanity, it stands with the very best of its contemporaries.


The Fifth Horseman is Fear is based on Hana Bělohradská’s 1962 novella Without Beauty, Without a Collar (Bez krásy, bez límce). Bělohradská and Brynych are the credited authors of the film’s screenplay, though it is known that the important New Wave writer-designer-director Ester Krumbachová also had a crucial hand in the script (she is credited onscreen only for her costume design, befitting her ‘éminence grise’ status in 1960s Czechoslovak film). The screenplay tightens the sprawling, mosaic-like quality of the novella, reducing its much longer temporal duration – between May and December 1941 – to a few tense days, and bringing the figure of Jewish former doctor Armín Braun – who cedes considerable space to other characters in the novella – more clearly to the foreground. This tightening of focus contributes to the film’s noirish intensity, as obviously does its overall heightening of dramatic incident: in the novella, for instance, the resistance fighter whom Braun assists is suffering from pneumonia, not gunshot wounds [...]. The film also strips away much of the detail of the characters’ backgrounds (thus we never hear of Braun’s estranged wife or émigré son) and, most importantly, rejects the book’s precise establishment of period. This deliberate softening or even distortion of period specificities was reportedly Krumbachová’s idea, and was intended to indicate the story’s wider relevance: as Brynych put it, ‘our story begins in 1941, but it could have occurred at another time. We are not concerned with the historical setting, the fact that an SS man had a skull on the peak of his cap and the Jew a yellow star on his sleeve.’

Working for the second time with cinematographer Jan Kališ, and with regular collaborators Miroslav Hájek and Jiří Sternwald, Brynych crafted a style attuned to both the story’s noir elements and its rejection of strict realism. Where Brynych’s style can elsewhere risk seeming gimmicky, in excess of or at odds with his material, Fifth Horseman’s visual and aural language – its monochrome high-contrast lighting, its striking framing in which characters are posed off-centre or dwarfed against looming backdrops, its gliding, probing camera that constantly reveals new details, its unsettling antagonisms of sound and image and its soundtrack of omnipresent ringing – all contribute to the film’s jittery atmosphere of paranoia and surveillance, and serve the theme of the individual at the mercy of (in Brynych’s words) ‘the heartless machinery of State’.



Jonathan Owen's complete essay, from which this excerpt is taken, appears in the booklet which accompanies the release.

Disc Info

Czechoslovakia, 1964
Main feature: 98 mins
Sound - Blu-ray: 2.0 Mono LPCM (48k/24-bit)
Sound - DVD: 2.0 Dolby Mono
Black and white
Original aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Language: Czech
Subtitles: English

Blu-ray: BD50 / 1080 / 24fps Region ABC (Region Free)
DVD: PAL / DVD9 / 25fps Region 0 (Region Free)

DVD £12.99 / Blu-Ray: £19.99
Release Date: 30 Aug 2021


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