Central Europe Review Call forpolicy proposals...
Vol 3, No 20
4 June 2001
front page 
our awards 
CER cited 
jobs at CER 
CER Direct 
e-mail us 
year 2000 
year 1999 
by subject 
by author 
EU Focus 
music shop 
video store 
find books 


Alfred Radok's Daleka cesta (The Long Journey, 1949) Living with the Long Journey
Alfréd Radok's Daleká cesta
Jiří Cieslar

Alfréd Radok's Daleká cesta (The Long Journey / The Distant Journey, 1949) is something of a legend in the Czech Republic, and even during the 40-year period for which it was banned it remained in the Czech collective consciousness as one of the country's film masterpieces. (Václav Havel, for example, wrote some important analytical essays on Radok's work in the 1960s and also penned a very impressive obituary when the director died in 1976).

It was well-received internationally at the time and is to the present day the definitive Czech Holocaust film, even in comparison with later classics such as Jan Němec's Démanty noci (Diamonds of the Night, 1964) and Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos's Oscar-winning Obchod na korze (The Shop on the High Street, 1965).

It is, unfortunately, now forgotten abroad. Hopefully, this is only temporary: a new print has just been made with English subtitles and received its first screening at the Imperial War Museum's Holocaust and the Moving Image conference in April. Last weekend, the film also opened an associated season of Czech Cinema and the Holocaust, also at the Imperial War Museum, which continues throughout June. [1]

Dark times

The plot of this cinematic work of art is very personal. Alfréd Radok (1917 -1976) was himself only half Jewish, but he lost a large part of his family to the concentration camps in the Second World War. His father and his grandfather died in a transit camp-the ghetto town of Terezín (Theresienstadt), where part of Daleká cesta takes place.

Radok was himself imprisoned in the last months of the war in the detention camp of Klettendorf near Wrocław, from which he managed to escape. Daleká cesta was his first film, started only three years after the tragic events of the Holocaust that affected his family so much. He shot the film partly in Prague's Barrandov film studios and partly on location in Terezín—for him a very difficult and painful experience.

Daleká cesta was filmed at a very difficult and dark time: in the autumn and winter of 1948 to 1949. The totalitarian Communist regime in postwar Czechoslovakia had just come to power (in February 1948) and Radok's film was one of the last expressions of cultural freedom for a long time to come. At that time, however, this freedom was already limited by new censorship and this fact influenced the final shape of the film.

Many levels

Daleká cesta has a strange and complex narrative structure on three levels. On the first level it is a melodramatic story about a mixed marriage between two young doctors from the same hospital, a Jewish woman Hana Kaufmannová (Blanka Waleska) and her Aryan colleague, Toník (Otomar Krejča). Their wedding takes place almost secretly against the dark backdrop of the anti-Semitic laws and at the time of the first call-up papers for transports to the concentration campsthe long journey of the film's title. The second part of the film is set in Terezín, and a third narrative level is provided by documentary excerpts that link certain sections of the film.

The first part of the story takes place in Prague, in "the ghetto without walls", in an environment full of fear and anxiety about the future. It starts when Hana is dismissed from her position. It is a sad fact that the first order of the Czech government in the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, two days after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia on 15 March 1939, was the exclusion of "non-Aryan doctors" from their practices. The action then continues chronologically; we witness the order forbidding the Jews to visit theatres and other cultural events which were enforced in the Protectorate after 1 September 1941.

The action shifts to Terezín, a small town about 60 km from Prague, when Hana's family and then Hana herself is transported there. Terezín was originally a military town fortress with an enclosing high red-brown brick wall. It was constructed during the reign of the Austrian emperor Joseph II between 1780 and 1790, although the historical irony is that this fortress served a purpose only during the Nazi's occupation of Czechoslovakia. During this period, Terezín functioned as a ghetto from November 1941 until the end of the war in May 1945. It wasn't an extermination camp but it was a transit camp from which Jews were, after a certain time, transported further to the east, particularly to Auschwitz and Treblinka.

Living conditions in this ghetto were relatively mild, at least in comparison with, for example, Auschwitz. However during the war 150,000 Jews were imprisoned in a very small and depressing space, the majority of them from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (about 60,000) but also from the West, France, Holland, Belgium and other countries. About half of them were transported to the east, which meant in most cases to their deaths.

In Terezín 35,000 Jews died of starvation, disease and mental distress. There was also a special place, the so-called Little Fortress, a Gestapo prison with the severest conditions. It was here that Radok's father Viktor was tortured and murdered. His son didn't enter this place during the filming of Daleká cesta, understandably perhaps.

A town "for the Jews"

In the Terezín ghetto, the Nazis granted the Jews very dependent self-government to create the illusion of freedom. They even allowed after a little while limited cultural freedom. So in Terezín a very specific culture existed in half-legal, half-illegal conditions. Many concerts, cabarets and opera performances (for example Verdi's Tosca, Smetana's The Bartered Bride) took place at night in Terezín's houses, especially in lofts. Also the premiere of the children's opera Brundibár by Hans Krása was held in Terezín. In Daleká cesta we see a group of children singing a song from this opera. Many drawings, scores, poems and secretly written diaries, for example by Alisah Shek and Erich Kassler, remain from Terezín's cultural life.

The Germans pretended, as the title of one Nazi propaganda documentary says, that Hitler "gave the town to the Jews." Also under international pressure they allowed Red Cross visits. The Terezín Jews had to make the town look presentable for international visitors, and we witness in Radok's film an echoAlfred Radok's Daleka cesta (The Long Journey, 1949) of these preparations when the women absurdly wash the pavement of one of Terezín's streets.

Terezín's reality was, therefore, very strange, complex, bizarre, absurd and full of contradictions. This closed world was also from time to time very hallucinatory and incredible. Radok, an expressionist stage director, drew upon that. He saw Terezín in a very subjective and imaginative way as a terrible dream, as a nightmare, as an inner and very personal experience.

Metaphor and symbol

In contrast with the very documentary-like and distant Polish feature film Ostatni etap (The Last Stop) by Wanda Jakubowska from around the same time (1947), Radok created a vision of Terezín as a large, crazy, grotesque railway station, as a vestibule to the extermination camps, as a place of chaos. It is a place without floors and ceilings and with many obstacles: steps, bars, oblique walls and with mysterious sounds off-screen.

Five years ago, I screened this film to one of Terezín's former prisoners who was very disappointed with it. He said to me,"there was order in Terezín, not this type of chaos." He didn't accept Radok's artistic style or license at all.

Radok not only took many things from his imagination but also from the dreadful reality of Terezín. In the film, for example, we see the night train travelling along the narrow streets of the town centre. It seems like a dream, but it was reality, and for Radok it was a metaphor for the madness of Terezín.

Such metaphorical scenes can be seen as ceremonies or rites in the centre of the melodramatic plot. Their protagonists take on symbolic features when the meaning or significance of the moment and situation increases. The number of these symbolic scenes naturally rises in the second part of the film set in Terezín. The scenes where a Jewish "band" on a funeral coach is playing to the steps of Jews going in the rain at night to the transport to the east comes to mind. At the end of the film we see the opposite scene of the arrival of a typhoid transport from the east to Terezín when Doctor Hana Kaufmannová waits for the train on the ramp dressed in dark clothes. We don't see her face only the silhouette of her body as a black statue.

Although such scenes are more noticeable in the second part, we can encounter first signs of these ceremonial situations already in the first part of the film, when the action is still in Prague. One of the first manifestations of these situations/rites/ceremonies, is for me the scene following Hana and Toník's wedding, when Professor Reiter commits suicide. The scene is composed of very unusual camera angles, with a highly impressive use of soundtrack and a variety of symbolic objects, such as: a Jewish rucksack with a special prisoner number (402) on it; a globe on the table, as a symbol of a world this professor refused to escape to; and also a clock, the hands significantly stopped.

We don't see the professor's jump from the open window onto the pavement, everything is done by means of off-screen sounds and by dramatic camera-shots of other places. Through this scene, we don't only witness the story of this one professor, but we get an overview of the general Jewish situation, a symbol of the Holocaust and, of course, the expression of very exceptional courage to choose one's own death and thus escape the suffering in transit or later in the concentration camp.

An artistic report

The third narrative layer of Daleká cesta is the documentary links. The fiction story is ever-present, however, in the form of a frozen frame from the previous scene which shrinks down towards the lower right hand corner of the screen—a frame within a frame. One of such linking, for example, comes at the end of the professor's suicide scene as an expressive counterpoint in which we see footage of Prague Castle with Himmler and Heydrich, the Reichsprotektor for the Czech lands.

Radok used these type of shots from German propaganda newsreels of that era and also from the famous documentary film Triumph des Willens (The Triumph of Will, 1935) by Leni Riefenstahl, to create a level of a larger external history which on the one hand is very distant from the story of Radok's characters but on the other hand has very fatal results for them. He also compares the Nazi propaganda slogans, with the truth of the real war situation as we can see in the documentary style prologue to the film. This prologue is narrated by the strange, sometimes ironic, sometimes tired voice of the commentator—it is a very personal, close, warm side of the film.

Radok filmed some apparently documentary shots himself and therefore Daleká cesta is a mixture of real documentary work and intentional mystification. This is linked with Radok's concept of an ideal film as an "artistic report," a multidimensional structure in which he can compare different points of view.

This artistic report, an apparently factual film and feature film at the same time, as well as the very expressionist style of camera and sound and lightning work was influenced by the famed Citizen Kane (1941) directed by Orson Welles. In a newspaper questionnaire in the daily Mladá Fronta in December 1947, Radok cited the film Citizen Kane as the greatest artistic experience of that year. It's more than likely that without Radok's knowledge of Citizen Kane, Daleká cesta would have taken another form.

There are obviously different levels of fame and value of both films, but on the other hand there are also many interesting similarities between Welles and Radok, not only in style but also in expressionist viewpoint. Both directors came to cinema from the theatrical background, but their inexperience in cinema work liberated them and supported their almost exhibitionist endeavour to demonstrate what they could create in film. Both directors used the artistic services of very experienced colleagues, above all cameramen: Orson Welles used Gregg Toland, and Radok used Josef Střecha.

Looking at evil

Daleká cesta, however, is only a fragment of Radok's original intentions. He based his film on an idea by Erik Kolár who knew Terezín as a prisoner during the war. Together they wanted to show the evil not only "in the others" (ie on the Nazi side); they also endeavoured to show the evil also "in us," in hidden or open Czech anti-Semitism.

From these original intentions, only a very small number of scenes and characters remained in the film. Of the surviving parts of this vision, there is a very minor character of a caretaker who shamelessly steals Jewish possessions and the character of the groom's father who represents everyday non-aggressive anti-Semitism (he is absent at his son's wedding). In the original screenplay, Radok and Kolár wanted, for example, to compare the scene when the German students watch the execution of Jewish professors in Berlin with the scene in which Czech nationalist students fight people sympathizing with the Jews. It is very probable that Communist censorship didn't agree with this type of insight into domestic anti-Semitism.

The Holocaust and archetypes

In spite of the director's inexperience (for example, in drawing out very dated styles of acting from his cast) Daleká cesta is a very important film. It explores the topic of the evils of war at many symbolic levels: as a Holocaust tragedy and also as a universal tragedy of man. Lastly, the film uses the Holocaust as a metaphor for an inner prison which potentially threatens each of us.

At the London Holocaust and the Moving Image screening of Daleká cesta, somebody said that the Holocaust was for him a thing of the present, a present state of mind. Of course, but the Holocaust is, at least for me—a person who wasn't alive during the Second World War—also a thing of profound "archetypes," to use this well-known and surely a little a la mode term by Carl Gustav Jung. The Holocaust draws on archetypes of violence, fear, anxiety, perhaps even of self-defense and creativity as in Terezín.

Radok's picture of Terezín is a vision of the inner experience, which nobody can ever escape from. When at the end of this film from the postwar Terezín cemetery the commentator says in his tired voice that "man was victorious," it's as if Radok in the same scene by his mise en scene is trying to relate to the viewer that there is specific experience that cannot be overcome. But this experience remains and what do we do with it? It isn't a question only for the survivors but for everybody.

A decade and more after 1949, when Daleká cesta was completed, we could read many books and see many films with deep insights into the Holocaust and the questions it raises: for example, books by Primo Levi, Tzvetan Todorov, Jules Améry and Rudolf Glazar or in cinema Claude Lanzmann's Shoa (1985) comes to mind. Daleká cesta is without doubt an early predecessor of these profound inside views into the Holocaust.

The film's fate

Radok's stylistic key was very expressionist, and this was the main reason why Daleká cesta after its first run in March 1949 had only limited release and in the same year was banned completely, at exactly the same time as the film was receiving accolades abroad. It was a typical phenomenon for that era of Czechoslovak history that words such as expressionism, formalism and structuralism weren't considered technical or aesthetic terms but were more like accusations.

Radok was allowed to make only two more films after Daleká cesta: in 1953 he shot a mediocre musical called Divotvorný klobouk (The Magic Hat)
Send this article to a friend
and in 1956 he made a comedy in the art nouveau style called Dědeček automobil (The Grandfather—Automobile). Afterwards he was a founder of the multimedia stage/film/dance/music venue Laterna magika, established in 1960 and internationally recognized. However, he soon had to leave this theatre. Although he had major opportunities on the stage, he had to move from one theatre to another (twice he was forced to leave the National Theatre) and couldn't form a stable team of actors, which was his dream.

Only three days after the occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 Radok emigrated to Göteborg (Gothenburg) in Sweden and his name became taboo in Czechoslovakia. He worked in Sweden with minimal success on the stage and faced many problems with actors and a foreign language. He died of a heart attack during a short stay in Vienna in 1976.

The Czech public, however, were not to see Daleká cesta again until after the Velvet Revolution: in 1991, the film was shown for the first time in forty years in its television premiere. Non-Czech speakers have had to wait even longer to see a subtitled version of the film. Hopefully, the new print will go some way to restoring the reputation that Radok gained internationally in 1951.

Jiří Cieslar, 4 June 2001

Also of interest:

Other articles on Czechoslovak Holocaust films:

Moving on:


1. For more details of the Czech Cinema and the Holocaust series of screenings in London, visit either the Imperial War Museum website or the London Czech Centre website.



Heather Field
Balkan Justice

Goran Cetinić
Yugoslavia's Battered Economy

Sam Vaknin
The Motherly West

Borce Gjorgjievski
Macedonia's Woes

Tim Haughton
Slovak Politics

Jan Čulík
Free Speech,
Czech Style

Jiří Cieslar
Daleká cesta

Elke de Wit
Vergiss Amerika

The Arts:
Isobel Hunter
Shostakovich Lite

Štěpán Kotrba
Sow and Reap

Brian J Požun
Shedding the Balkan Skin

Martin D Brown
Czech Historical Amnesia

Dejan Anastasijević (ed)
Out of Time

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Oil Scandal

Sam Vaknin
After the Rain

Czech Republic

CER eBookclub Members enter here