Bleakly beautiful, Alois Nebel is visually stunning and deceptively simple. It is perhaps the perfect film noir; well, it certainly takes stark monochrome to new levels. The plot seems fairly straightforward – a tale of revenge and redemption in Eastern Europe, set when the Iron Curtain was collapsing in the late 1980s with echoes back to the Nazi atrocities of the war. And indeed, if this had been a straight live-action film then the story might have seemed a little thin…
…but the astonishing animation techniques used by the film-makers enhance the actors’ performances and the narrative so that it’s simply captivating. The live-action has been transformed into stark shades of blacks and greys in the style of a graphic novel (think Sin City and you’ll be close). The treatment of light and shadow in the set pieces is breath-taking. The opening sequence of dark forests, sinister branches, stag’s antlers, glowing canine eyes and a tumbling, swirling river of chaotic dark water is magnificent.
Similarly, there’s an eye-watering evocation of a steam train blazing through the night; saturating Alois, the central character, and the viewer in dazzling, subtly dangerous brilliance. Later, a brief car chase through the snow; the scenes set in Prague’s central railways station and the ultimate conclusion against the backdrop of a fearsome storm will stay with you for days.
Alois Nebel isn’t just about the animation, however. At its core is a straightforward story of a simple man coming to terms with haunting memories from his childhood. Nebel’s journey towards a more normal interaction with human society (at the beginning of the film his only friend is a cat, and he recites railway timetables for comfort) is an obvious metaphor for the uncomfortable and incomplete reintegration of the Soviet Bloc countries into a less fractured Europe.
The plot doesn’t hide from the other aspects of post-Soviet reality, either: coming to terms with the Nazi legacy, the acceptance of justice, the need for revenge, and the taint of corruption and profiteering. All that, and a love story too, in around 75 minutes. A remarkable accomplishment. Inevitably, it’s not quite perfect. Sometimes the animation effects distract the viewer from what’s actually happening. The translation and sub-titles aren’t always entirely clear – the English wanders around a little bit. And when you watch the 15 minutes of deleted scenes then there are definitely some moments which would have added to the film’s clarity and impact if they’d been finished and included.
However, those few flaws simply serve to underline the overall achievement of the film. It left us slightly stunned and soaking up the significance of what we’d just experienced. It’s one of those art-house films which would stand several viewings to absorb the intricacy of the performances and production. Alois Nebel won’t be to all tastes, however. It’s not an action anime. The pace is measured to the point of plodding in places – and silence frequently says as much as the dialogue. Much of the narrative is open to observation and interpretation. It’s one of those films where the viewer plays an active part in understanding what is happening. Don’t expect it to romp along like a Hollywood blockbuster.
Available to rent or buy on DVD at Amazon