ZVONY PRE BOSÝCH – THE BELLS TOLL FOR THE BAREFOOTED (1965)
Director: Stanislava Barabáša
Script: Ivan Bukovčan
Music: Zdenek Liska
Cinematography: Vincent Rosinec
Cast:  Ewa Krzyzewski, Ivan Rajniak
Axel Dietrich, Vlado Müller

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Nearing the 20th anniversary of the Slovak National Uprising (SNP), several of the founding directors within the Czech New Wave took the time to explore feelings that were left in the wake of warfare. Stanislava Barabáša took this opportunity to move himself further away from Socialist Realism with his third feature film ZVONY PRE BOSÝCH, a film more about the lack of heroes and the absence of humanity during the war. Barabáša would go on to make one more feature film in Slovakia before emigrating from his homeland to Canada, and later Germany where he would continue his career in television and film.

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ZVONY PRE BOSÝCH follows two Slovakian guerrilla fighters, Ondrej and Stašek, who are attacked by Germans at the start of the film. While looting the German corpses for fresh boots, they notice one of them, a young boy named Hansa, is in fact still alive. They imprison him and set out to find their outpost among the snowy mountains, only to find that the outpost has been abandoned without any sign of where their comrades might have gone. Not wanting to be slowed down, the soldiers are torn about what to do with their prisoner – to set him free or to kill him. Unable to pull the trigger, they set out with their prisoner in search of their comrades only to find more Germans with whom they exchange fire, injuring Ondrej. With the help of Hansa, they carry the wounded Ondrej back to the original outpost and plan to set out in a different direction the next day.

While searching north, Ondrej and Stašek become trapped in an avalanche and Hansa is faced with the decision of helping his captors. After freeing them, they set back for the outpost, hopelessly lost and unsure of what is happening. They encounter a woman outside of a burned out cabin who is looking for possessions she has hidden during the war. Fearful of being captured, Stašek forces her to come back to the outpost where they try to plan their next move. ZVONY PRE BOSÝCH ends the next day with the same German squad discovering everyone hiding in the outpost, giving the option to Hansa to kill his captors. Hansa refuses this order and is killed along with Ondrej and Stašek.

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Barabáša constantly questions the idea of humanity and mortality, as his characters seem trapped in the landscape, unable to find anything or anyone. Why can’t either Ondrej or Stašek decide on the fate of the young soldier Hansa? As the film progresses, Hansa has many chances to escape, yet he never does and in fact helps his captors, which leads to his death. When Ondrej gets injured and can’t move, neither of the characters seek to abandon him.  Instead, they accept this new burden on their survival. However, none of this means that any of the characters are inherently ‘good’, and each one has faults throughout the film. Ondrej is the one who firsts understands the hindrance of their young captor and wants to see him killed, while later on Stašek practically rapes the woman they encounter.

The strongest element to ZVONY PRE BOSÝCH is the environment Barabáša creates. Constantly trapped in the complete whiteness of the snow, this landscape draws ideas of good vs evil and that of purity. Both Ondrej and Stašek hallucinate the sound of church bells and the actual sight of a town, none of which is real. Totally isolated from civilization, Barabáša’s characters are able to act freely, yet are still bound by a moral code that exists in spite of the seemingly immoral nature of the war. Stašek questions this himself in the film as he discusses being in jail before the war for killing a man, yet and now he is encouraged to kill helpless boys.

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ZVONY PRE BOSÝCH has the marks of maturity from director Barabáša by exploring just a few important themes and using the entirety of the film language to have that dialogue with the audience. The film is available in an English friendly edition from SME.