review by Dan Lybarger, 25 January 2002
When looking a Jan Wiener during
the opening frames of the documentary Fighter, the only
indication that he that he isn't made of stone is the fact that he
is in constant motion. Darting about with a quickness and agility
that would make a twenty-year-old jealous, the seventy-something
Jewish immigrant from Czechoslovakia has firm, toned muscles,
hard-chiseled features and a thick shock of bristly white hair. As
the title character in Fighter, Wiener has an intimidating
boxing stance. This came in handy when he had to flee from Prague at
the dawn of World War II.
While on the run, he did time in an
Italian POW camp and eventually became a pilot in the British Royal
Air Force. Sadly, his struggles didn't end with the Nazis eventually
fell. Initially welcomed back as a hero, Wiener's defiant attitude
upset Communist Party officials. He wound up spending five years in
a labor camp before eventually finding his way to the United States.
Had director Amir Bar-Lev merely
followed Wiener around Europe as he recounted his hair-raising early
life, Fighter would have been intriguing. Another factor,
however, makes the film engrossing and hard to forget: Wiener's
choice of friends.
Decades after making his home in
America, Wiener met writer-filmmaker Arnost Lustig. While Lustig,
like Wiener, is a septuagenarian Jewish Czech immigrant, the two are
diametrically opposed. Lustig survived Auschwitz and became a
Communist Party official after the war. Despite all the time that
has passed, Wiener still chastises Lustig. When Wiener's temper
flares, it's remarkable that Bar-Lev was able to continue filming.
The two men talk and talk as if no one were watching.
Bar-Lev's intimacy with his
subjects is remarkable, and it allows him to reveal how these men
have managed to become and remain friends. The straightforward,
almost didactic Wiener sometimes tires of Lustig's analytical
attitude toward life. Often, though, their demeanors are
complementary. In the film's most moving sequence, Wiener recalls
having to hold his dying father's hand. Half a century after the
fact, he still feels abandoned and betrayed by his father's suicide.
Lustig muses over the situation in a manner that provides his friend
with some needed comfort. He suggests that Wiener's father may have
killed himself to avoid being a burden to his son. In moments like
these, Bar-Lev reveals how a friendship like theirs can bridge with
widest of ideological divides.
Through these men, Bar-Lev is able
to look head on into the tragedies of the twentieth century.
Fortunately, the movie is hardly gloomy. Wiener and Lustig are often
a riot together. Their timing puts most professional comedy teams to
shame. At one point during their journey through contemporary
Europe, Wiener's memory lapses, leading him to warn the slightly
younger man that his ability to recall things will fail next. Each
man in his own way demonstrates remarkable courage. Despite all that
has happened to them, Lustig remains thoughtful, and Wiener stays
rebellious. The fact that these two fellows are close when they
would more likely be antagonists is a sure sign of hope.
NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
yet been rated..