The tragic 50 kilometer cross-country ski race, which took place on the ridges of the Giant Mountains on March 24, 1913, is perhaps one of the most famous stories of the highest Czech mountains. On that fateful day, Czech ski pioneers Bohumil Hanč and Václav Vrbata froze in an unexpected blizzard. The first competed as a champion, the second came out of the valley to help him.
The story was already filmed in 1956 by director Čeněk Duba under the title Sons of the Mountains. Now a documentary filmmaker and beginner screenwriter (Blaník’s Office), Tomáš Hodan returns to him in a feature film. Its main attraction is to be the correction of the past – the rehabilitation of the history of the key man erased from history, the German of Prague Emerich Rath. And also a new, more personal vision of relations between the Czechs and the Germans on the border. The rehabilitation was a success, but the second ambition did not work very well. The film is more successful, where it turns into an exciting survival thriller.
Memories of a former athlete
A group of enthusiastic skiers follows the track. The camera captures old wooden cross country skis time lapse from above. After a while, they are replaced by a barefoot running kick. The legs stop. The camera is posed on the weathered face of a 70-year-old man who, after a descent, suffers in a company chalet, where he starts as a new firefighter. The dynamic mixer will feature a peculiar man and the main narrator – Emerich Rath (Oldřich Kaiser). A versatile athlete, former Olympian, vegetarian, who participated in ski races with Hanč before the First World War, and after the Second the Communists confiscated his shop in Prague and sent him to sit for a few years.
The picture described jumps over forty years. From 1913 to 1959. The film will pass between them for the rest of the story. Rath takes over the reins and his curious manager listens in on him in the boiler room of the cottage full of ROH vacationers. He first came to resign from the one who had received the suspicious letters from the Olympic Committee. But now it depends on his every word.
Narratively, the former participant’s memories of the events are the path of least resistance. Just switch between two time planes, in which a man’s personal story is used to reflect more generally on time and society. What unites the two times is that Rath is not welcome in either. At a time when five Czechoslovaks had five years to establish an independent state, he was friends as a German and ran with the Czechs. Unlike the members of the German ski associations who ignore the Czechs. He is not interested in the nationalist tensions that have shaped the coexistence of the two nations for decades. When there is a confrontation between Czech and German elements in the Jilemnická pub, he leaves the train with the unhappy expression of a man caught between two sides. Fifteen years after World War II, he is out of sorts again for selling tools to hikers and promoting the American way of life.
According to Hodan, he wanted to rid the Hanes and Vrbat of history of the “nationalist ballast” carried by communist ideology, which he used in the 1950s to build national identity and claim the border as historically Czech territory. . “The noble victims are forever etched in the memory of the people,” Radovan Lukavský says dramatically in the prologue to the aforementioned Sons of the Mountains. Hanč’s will to die means the German would win the race. Because the Giant Mountains are Czech, ours. At the same time, Hanča was driven more than by nationalism – like any athlete – by the desire to win and blind devotion to performance.
Unlike other films dealing with relations between Czechs and Germans or the so-called Czech-German question, it is a plus that the film seeks another type of stories and destinies. At the same time, however, it repeats certain myths and stereotypes – in particular the figure of the “good German” cultivated after the Second World War. In essence, it needs a “bad German team”, whose good Germans could stand out by helping the Czechs. That’s exactly what Rath does. Otherwise, in the film, the Czechs and the Germans clash irreconcilably. The Czechs are fighting for their honor, their self-determination – they stage a revival play, which the nobility can ban at any time. And the Germans watch them menacingly from the pub table. The panic fear of the Germans then persisted in the late 1950s.
Czechoslovakia’s turbulent history The last race is drawn with very broad brush strokes. Bad Germans are replaced by bad Communists in the 1950s. Hanč (Kryštof Hádek) is paradoxically portrayed in the same way. Weaving loom, cross-country skis, depressed woman after the death of a premature baby (Judit Bárdos). The Sons of the Mountains are better able to show the social reality and the life of the weavers on the border. Hanč’s best friend Vrbata minimally fades into the fog in the background. If there was no information that they were best friends, it wouldn’t be clear from the story.
Rath, whose young version was played by Marek Adamczyk, naturally gets the most space. But again, not enough for the essential facts of his life – he lived as a homeless man in a nursing home – not to end up as an obligatory suffix in the closing headlines. Thus, several lines come to attention in the film, and the result is gaps and gaps in relationships or reality, which the viewer must either fill in with their own knowledge. Or just accept them.
Strongest is the film where Hodan captures the relationship between runners, cross country skiers and the final race. His comfort zone is anticipated by the introductory scenic drive along the sunny slopes of the Krkonoše Mountains. The apparent idyllism of the Krkonoše Mountains characterizes them, but a rapid change in weather can turn them into deadly mountains within minutes. The film accurately captures the puzzling betrayal of the Giant Mountains. Including the gaps between valleys and peaks a few hundred meters apart.
The final run is not Angel in the mountains, but a dynamically captured mountain epic. The highlight of the film is the race itself. It is constructed as a closed micro-study in the genre of survival thriller. Frozen characters disappear in fog and blizzard, emerge and disappear again. The thrilling event, supported by the impressive camera of Jan Baset Střítežský, heads for a tragic finale.
The proof that Hodan’s part of the film succeeded is that the viewer knows how the whole situation is going to unfold, but can keep them on their toes. If anything impresses the feet of an awe-inspiring thriller, however, it’s the musical drama. The scorched music will basically start at the very beginning, where it doesn’t hurt too much, and in the finale it degenerates into an almost parody parody of how “epic” and emotional music should sound. As if the creators believed neither in their tragic characters nor in the spectator. At the same time, they have one of the most exciting national sports stories in their hands. Despite the off-roading, they managed to make a thrilling sports movie. And that’s not enough.