Fighter, a humane and precociously wise documentary by the young Los Angeles director Amir Bar-Lev, accompanies two Czech-American Jewish emigres in their 70s as they return to their native Prague to retrace the route that one of them, Jan Wiener, took to escape the Nazis. ”The motive is sad,“ says his old friend Arnost Lustig, a respected author who lives in Washington, D.C., and who, as Fighter opens, plans to write Wiener’s story. ”But we are going to have a lot of fun.“
On the face of it, the two men‘s lives are hardly suited for fun. After surviving the concentration camps and the loss of his family, Lustig spent some time in the Czech Communist Party before he cottoned to the fact that the Stalinists had simply repackaged fascism, at which point he fled to the United States. (His own escape was the subject of the 1964 Czech new-wave film Diamonds of the Night). Wiener, a university instructor who lives in Massachusetts, escaped from Prague through Yugoslavia to Italy, leaving a trail of sexual conquests that included, by his own enthusiastic account, the deflowering of a nun. He finished the war as a pilot for the British, then returned to Prague, where he languished for five years in a Communist prison for the crime of harboring ”anti-people’s attitudes.“
If its only purpose were to bear witness to the clash of two irreconcilable natures, Fighter would be dramatic and entertaining enough. An urbane and ironic Central European charmer, Lustig has a wider emotional range than his friend, and gives every impression of moving through life with the practiced ease of one who was forced to hone the skills of expediency and who learned from sour experience that ”Morality is the child of necessity.“ Wiener, for his part, is rigid, combative, and increasingly enraged by Lustig‘s speculative musings on the reasons for the direction his life has taken. What could one expect but rage from a man who was put in the position of holding his father’s hand as he committed suicide to avoid capture by the Nazis, and who now volunteers that all the while he was thinking, ”Die fast, so I can run and save myself“? For all his palpable pride in his physique and his resilience — at 77, this still-avid boxer remains an astonishingly handsome stud — pathos clings to Wiener like moss. And for all that his carefully nurtured hatred of those who wronged him and his family has given him an iron will to survive, it has taken its toll in a lifelong insensitivity. Lustig saved himself from cynicism by means of the same gifts that made him a writer — the flexibility to see a question from many different angles, along with a certain skepticism about the human capacity for goodness under duress. One of Fighter‘s many virtues is that it moves the discussion beyond the facile victimology and bogus uplift that disfigure so many current accounts of the Holocaust. Both men have been as much deformed as enhanced by what it took to survive.
Still, the fractious sparring between the two men is often very funny — until the moment when Fighter becomes not just a document of a great escape, but an accessory to the rupture of a friendship. Confronted with such a turn of events, many filmmakers would either throw up their hands or seize on a golden opportunity for exploitation. Bar-Lev is cool and tactful enough — and a sufficiently adroit editor — to allow the rift to unfold in all its heartbreaking, hilarious richness, while keeping it firmly anchored to the movie’s larger themes. In Fighter, the history of Czechoslovakia, a country that was handed to the Germans as a sop through the infamous Munich Agreement, and which then sacrificed and actively persecuted its Jews, speaks through its silences, a poisonous brew of forgetting and suppression: We see Wiener strolling wordlessly across the field of waving grass that now covers the former Theresienstadt concentration camp, where his mother was beaten to death. Elsewhere, as the two men swap tales of the horrors they endured, Bar-Lev shows us the unruffled beauty of contemporary Prague, or the impassive face of a bartender as he draws beer. Intended or not, the effect of this latter scene is to make us wonder how much the young man knows, or cares, about this inglorious chapter in his country‘s history — which bears as much responsibility for the destruction of the two men’s long friendship as do their incompatible natures.