Based on a graphic novel trilogy from Czech artists Jaroslav Rudiš and Jaromír 99 (who also write the screenplay), filmmaker Tomáš Luňák’s debut movie Alois Nebel is an existential rotoscopy animation about identity and disconnect. Film noir mystique filtered through Buñuel-like surrealism, it’s narrative problems don’t stop you from being compelled by the lusciously rich visuals.
Alois Nebel is the name of our dour hero, voiced and embodied on screen by Miroslav Krobot (who previously delighted in Béla Tarr’s The Man From London). Alois is a decoy protagonist, with his significance in the film’s overarching narrative being incidental; yet it is through his fractured perspective that the story unfolds.
An ageing guard at a baron train station, his life is as routine as the locomotives that pass him. At least, that’s what his stoney-faced exterior leads the people around him to think. Behind it all, he is tormented by hallucinations of his childhood: stripped from the clutches of his mother in Nazi-occupied Prague.
Back in the present day, the only tangible narrative thread is the story of ‘The Mute’ (Karel Roden), a silenced man who is chased over the Polish border carrying an axe, an old photograph, and skeletons in the proverbial closet. When Alois’ nightmares start to become more vivid, and his co-worker wants to steal his job, he is thrown into a local mental asylum. Bunking with ‘The Mute’, the pair form a taciturn relationship which will suffer grave consequences once they escape the ward.
Although there are further plot developments that help, I found Alois Nebel a difficult, confusing film to engage with. There are so many ways that director Luňák obfuscates the plot. Firstly, it’s already an illusory story – filled with contextual flashbacks and flash forwards, and two central characters (one an actual mute) who barely speak a word between them. Even when they are dominating the screen, the rotoscoped animation makes it incredibly difficult to register any facial expression or emotion (a problem that Linklater got around by making his actors exacerbate their movements in his rotscopic animation movie A Scanner Darkly). If you really want to ‘get’ Alois Nebel, having an extensive knowledge of the Czech Republic slang, rural locations, folklore and the relationship with Nazi Germany in WW2 may come as an advantage, as Luňák certainly isn’t giving us any expository tips.
Regardless of these plotting and cognition problems, Alois Nebel is a stunning mood piece. That mood may be glum, but the beautiful, Waltz With Bashir style rotoscopy is alluring from the very opening scene of a train sluggishly approaching the screen, right through to the unyielding shots of an inmate being lobotomised in the asylum. It’s pure aesthetic vision, and Petr Kruzík’s moody score often helps lay on some emotional attachment to it all, even if we fail to understand what the hell is going on.
I should clarify, my problems aren’t in being confused with the plot, but confused by the point or directorial message of the whole thing. Is it style over substance? Looking at individual sequences in the film, I’d disagree- the visuals really are that breathtaking. As a whole film, however, Alois Nebel coasts on the comic book-like design, and in the process deals with it’s war-time story a little too impersonally, or unjustly. In the end, at a slight 84 minutes running time, Alois Nebel’s canvas will certainly draw you in.
Yes, that was a pun. Fuck you, pun haters.