Alois Nebel is a moody Czech rotoscope animation in black and white about a railway man haunted by his memories of the final stages of the Second World War. Adapted from the graphic novels of Jaroslav RudiĹˇ and JaromĂr 99, TomĂˇs LunĂˇk’s feature film debut is a sophisticated reflection on recent central European history. Visually, it is stunning, with some resemblance to German Expressionism.
Ever since Art Spiegelman’s Maus tackled the Holocaust in a comic-book format, graphic novels and then animation have been very successful at dealing with serious subjects â€“ for example, Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2007), a coming-of-age story of an Iranian girl during the Islamic Revolution. Waltz with Bashir (2008), which recalled the horrors of the 1982 Lebanon war, was one of the first animated documentaries.
Alois Nebel uses flashbacks, like Waltz with Bashir. Its creator, the Israeli film maker Ari Folman, explained why he opted for animation: “If it was a classic documentary, it would have shown middle-aged men telling their war experiences and it would have to be covered with footage that you could never find and wouldnâ€™t come close to resembling what they went through. It would be a boring film.”
The same applies to Alois Nebel, even though it is not a documentary. But it deals with real trauma and is based on real stories. In a 2004 interview with Radio Prague, Rudis, co-creator of the graphic novels, said much of Czech fiction is observation from real life.
Alois Nebel comes from a German-Czech family and like his father before him is station master at BĂlĂ˝ Potok (German: WeiĂźbach or white creek), a remote village near Jesenik in the former Sudetenland on the Czech-Polish border, which is known as the wettest place in the Czech Republic (it rains a lot in the film).
It is 1989 and the Berlin wall has come down. But Nebel, a middle-aged taciturn character who prefers timetables and his cat to people, is stuck in the past. Every now and then a fog descends on him (Nebel is German for fog but read backwards means life) and he relives the traumatic events of 1945 when some 3 million Germans were expelled from the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.
In the sanatorium where Nebelâ€™s scheming switchman Wachek, who does a roaring black market trade with the Russians and covets Nebelâ€™s job, despatches him, he is mockingly called Mr Fog. Nebel recovers, however, and when he is released from the sanatorium finds the world has changed â€“ communism has ended, and his job has gone. So he goes to the main railway station in Prague in the hope of finding work.
In the sanatorium, Nebel encounters a mysterious young man again who doesnâ€™t speak (nicknamed the mute) and turns up at the station one day while he is still station master. After being arrested, the young man is tortured with electric shocks but wonâ€™t say a word. He carries an old photo that was taken at BĂlĂ˝ Potok station decades earlier. Gradually the mystery of who he is and the story behind the photo unravels.
This is what keeps the plot ticking over. But the film is as much about Nebelâ€™s inner world and how he perceives the changing world he finds himself in during the late 80s and early 90s. As Rudis put it: â€śThrough these ‘foggy trains’ on his railway he sees the whole century pass by, good and bad sides. There are German soldiers and there are Soviet soldiers, there is everything that destroyed this region in the last century.”
Aside from the war memories, the film does a good job of depicting the murky corruption of communism and its end. The melancholy of Nebelâ€™s world is well captured by the Expressionist black and white, and grey tones. This atmospheric Czech animation also evokes fairy tales and culminates in a dramatic, stormy night scene in the dark forest.
On a technical level, it is a rotoscope animation which means animators traced over live-action film movement, frame by frame, so the animated characters move like real people. It also uses cinematic-style lighting and effects to make it look real.
Alois Nebel is showing at the London Film Festival on Tuesday, 25 October, at 20:30 and on Thurday, 27 October at 15:30. Visit the LFF website for more information and to book.