Alois Nebel: Cartoons get hard

The animated Czech film Alois Nebel, by director Tomas Lunak, is as stylish as it is challenging, and the mysteries behind it can seem all the more elevated because of its fever dream presentation.

Rotoscoped visuals in stark black and white reveal the unassuming life of Alois Nebel, a train dispatcher who begins to have visions — perhaps memories? — of an incident involving a woman leaving on a train and what follows. Sent to a sanitarium because of this, and eventually stripped of his job, Nebel goes to Prague to plead his case to the railway and also look into a  mysterious fellow patient in the sanitarium.

If you don’t quite follow some of the history that haunts the film, don’t feel alone — although it seems to have to do with Nazis and World War 2, it’s really part of an intimate pieces of Czech history during that era when over 2 million ethnic Germans were expelled from the Sudaten Land to both East and West Germany in 1945. They were subject to massacres and internment camps, resulting in thousands of deaths.

The rest of the film unfolds against the backdrop of Vaclev Havel’s rise to power and the fall of the communist regime, showing how the sins of the past exist as ghosts buried beneath the sins of the present. Alois Nebel is undoubtably a tough nut to crack that requires some work on the viewer’s part and, no doubt, a little research to understand context, but it is a beautiful and evocative film, and repeated viewings might be prescribed for maximum soul piercing.

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