‘Alois Nebel’ movie review: gorgeous adaptation of the Czech graphic novel

Tomáš Luňák’s Alois Nebel was the Czech Republic’s official submission to the 2012 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film; it also made the shortlist of features competing for a Best Animated Film nomination. It failed to score a nomination in either category, which isn’t really surprising; the story is so casually entrenched in Czech history and politics that it may be difficult to fully comprehend for foreign audiences.

The reception for Alois Nebel at home wasn’t exactly a slam dunk, either: while the film took Czech Lion awards for Music, Sound, and Art Design, it was shut out of the main categories. Among general audiences, it currently rates a middling 68% at ČSFD.

But this much is clear: Alois Nebel is an unqualified artistic success. Combining rotoscoping – shooting live-action footage with actors, and then tracing it over to achieve a kind of animated realism – with a high-contrast black & white palette (using only a few shades of gray), director Luňák has created something that both accurately captures the look of the original graphic novel (by Jaroslav Rudiš & Jaromír 99) and is visually striking in its originality.

The look of the film, however, almost seems at odds with the nature of its story. Rotoscoping has traditionally been employed to bring a sense of realism to what otherwise may seem too other-worldly; while used in mainstream animation since the silent era, its modern use was pioneered by Ralph Bakshi (Wizards, The Lord of the Rings), and it has been more recently used  by Steven Soderbergh in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly

The closest comparison to the look of Alois Nebel I can think of is the futuristic sci-fi thriller Renaissance.

Alois Nebel, on the other hand, features a low-key, barely-there narrative set at the sleepy railway station of Bílý Potok on the Czech-Polish border. The setting is late 1989, just as the Berlin Wall is falling and Czechoslovakia is emerging out from under Communist control.

The titular character, Alois Nebel (Miroslav Krobot), is a dispatcher at the small station who is slowly losing his grip on reality. He finds himself at an asylum, sharing a room with a mute (Karel Roden) who crossed the border in the middle of the night. 

We don’t know who the mute is, but a radio broadcast mentioning a Polish man who killed his mother with an axe is overheard. Flashbacks reveal a sequence at the station in 1945, when Alois was a child, and an older German girl was forced out of the town.

While the setting immediately calls to mind another Czech classic, Closely Observed Trains, the narrative is almost neorealist in approach. Elements of plot are only barely sketched for us; most of what we learn about the main characters must be inferred. But the images maintain our interest event when the narrative wanes.

My favorite section of the film is set in Prague’s hlavní nádraží (main station) during Christmas, 1989. As Václav Havel takes office following the Velvet Revolution, Alois finds himself among vagrants and prostitutes at the train station, enjoying Tři oříšky pro Popelku on TV, blissfully unaware of the changes that surround them.

This kind of contrast – the historic backdrop that might as well be irrelevant (at the moment, at least) for the characters in this intimate story – is also reflected in the film’s style. The stunning images that fill the screen – and the technique used to achieve them – seem to contradict the mundane reality of Alois Nebel’s existence. 

They also create a sense of hyperreality that causes us to look at this story much closer than if it were told using conventional methods. The style is essential: Alois Nebel couldn’t have worked any other way.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *