“In the Shadow,” the Czech Republic’s official Oscar entry, takes place in 1953 Prague, during the currency reform. World War II has been over for the better part of a decade, but the stench of anti-Semitism is still thick in the air, and a tightly controlled police state looms. Detective Jarda Hakl (Ivan Trojan) falls upon a seemingly routine burglary case -- a safe broken into, jewelry missing -- that leads him down a labyrinthine rabbit hole with murder, lies and relentless surveillance in its cavernous depths.
The burglary has apparently been committed by a local Jewish man, an arrest that initially feels right to Hakl, until the creeping suspicion of a set-up begins to nag at him. Why are officials from State Security brought in to handle what would otherwise be a local police case? And why is the head official Zenke (Sebastian Koch, “The Lives of Others”), a German agent with a murky past and an incriminating tattoo on the underside of his arm? Hakl asks these questions to his police chief in not so many words, and is promptly bumped from the investigation, with under-the-table consent to continue his own private inquiries.
Trojan has an uncommon screen charisma. His performance is quiet and observant, yet he has a warm intensity behind his eyes that is at once shrewd, trustworthy and a tad mischievous. He has the same magnetic pull of David Strathairn, albeit with a softer face, more along the lines of an aged Anthony Perkins. While “In the Shadow” is well-made, Trojan as Hakl anchors the drama and pathos. The detective has some unspoken problems at home (he routinely sleeps in the armchair), he’s compelled toward a case slowly morphing into a suicide mission, and he’s obstinately weary of his country’s Communism. Yet he continues to push on everything like a bruise, because doing otherwise would be giving up.
David Ondricek, who was recently named one of Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch, shows a talent for neo-noir. The gorgeously rendered set design and sleek, uniformly colored cinematography recalls the Coen brothers’ “Miller’s Crossing,” another masterful latter-era crime film. Of course, the Coens’ adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest” is set 30 years prior to “In the Shadow,” in Prohibition-era America, but the look is similar. Men bundled in trench coats, obscured under fedoras, slip like ghosts behind doorways and through back alleys. The filmmaking is stylish, yet clean and controlled, never flashy.
Indeed, “In the Shadow” has a visual lyricism that makes it feel like a finely drawn graphic novel come to life. Late in the film, Hakl visits his battered wife in the hospital. The culprits wanted to send a message. Racked with guilt, Hakl steps into an elevator, which lurches downward. As we see the previous floor move up and away through the slatted doors of the old-fashioned lift, a shadowy figure appears for a moment. “Think of your a family, Hakl,” it says from behind its coal-grey hat and coat, before disappearing. When Hakl stops the elevator, and flies up the stairs, the threatening apparition is gone. The editing during this sequence is balletic.
I usually cringe at wall-to-wall score, but in this case I liked it. Jan Muchow and Michal Novinski’s music achieves a sense of dynamism, of a one-way train ride that can’t be abandoned. I mentioned a rabbit hole earlier, which in fact opens wide like the mouth of a monster. When Hakl discovers a slaughter of bullet-riddled bodies in an office, and then minutes later a woman savagely murdered in an attic, he knows he’s tumbling perilously into something sinister. But he’s also obsessed by it. Film music communicates obsession. And obsession, like Hakl’s desire for the truth and his society’s desire for muffling it, is ceaseless.