The past is a black-and-white cartoon

My first impression is this: Alois Nebel wants nothing so much as to evoke the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, with its ligne claire images and its story and themes – in both movies an imperfectly remembered historical event is key to modern-day goings-on. Unfortunately, the ambitions of the recent Czech film very much outstrip its actual achievements, in spite of winning the European Film Award for Best Animated Movie in 2012. It’s a shame, because visually Alois Nebel is moody and sometimes arresting, but too much of it ends up feeling half-baked and derivative.

It starts with the film’s look: Alois Nebel isn’t a carbon copy of Waltz with Bashir, using rotoscopy rather than the combination of Flash and more traditional animation of the latter, but it is close enough to serve as a constant reminder of a stronger film that makes better use of the medium. Bashir reflected on the gap between memory and history, using animation as a more overtly subjective mode of representation. The Czech film, however, doesn’t seem to have much of a reason why it is animated, doubly so since the actual actors, surroundings and objects are clearly visible in the rotoscoped lines. Other than the choice of black and white, there’s little obvious stylisation; form and function seem to be uninterested in one another rather than serving a common purpose. In the end, Alois Nebel mainly seem to be an animated black and white film because this gives it a more unique look, but as such the visuals come across as a vaguely motivated Unique Selling Point, not a purposeful directorial choice.

Alois Nebel

Similarly, Alois Nebel is content to leave too many things unclear. Now, I like the effects that elliptic storytelling can have, but there’s a distinction between elliptic and vague, and the film tends distinctly towards the latter. Early in the story, the titular protagonist, a quiet-to-the-point-of-sullen train dispatcher is taken to a mental institution during the last months of Czechoslovakia as a Soviet satellite state – ostensibly because he has hallucinations about an event from his childhood, but the way the film represents it the one, sole hallucination he has, and in the privacy of his privy at that, could as well be a memory, a dream or simply a flashback. Why exactly is Nebel committed? Why is he released? What difference does either make to him? If it doesn’t matter to any of the characters we see, why should it matter to us?

After he is allowed to leave the institution, Nebel returns to this troubling memory several times, each time revealing a bit more about what happened, but the eventual moment of clarity comes as an anti-climax: it tells us little more than the original incomplete memory did, and it doesn’t flesh out Nebel. It does provide a motive for a secondary character looking for retribution, but that character’s story equally doesn’t add much to Alois Nebel – or indeed Alois Nebel. All of it feels like first draft material in need of being elaborated on; in order to pull off elliptic storytelling successfully, the author needs to have a strong grasp of the story, to know what to leave out and why, but this one seems to have been designed around pre-designated gaps to begin with. If the mystery comes before the story, it’d better be a damn good mystery, yet in this film the mystery is too perfunctory to matter much.

Alois Nebel

The film comes into its own most during its middle, when Nebel is released from the psychiatric hospital, finds that he has been ousted from his job in the village of Bílý Potok and goes to freshly post-Soviet Prague looking for work. While this episode of the taciturn, middle-aged railway man finding companionship, momentary happiness and later disappointment may not be original, it works better at telling a story than the overall film, which includes too many elements while doing full justice to none of them. It’s in the Prague section that the film focuses on one thing rather than a shopping list of ideas, and it does so well (if somewhat predictably). Its mood does not come across as atmosphere for its own sake, as a repeated moody railway station vignette does in the early movie, and it is the better for it.

Unfortunately the filmmakers were too intent on telling their story about past crimes and present retribution, axe murder and all. It’s as if the film forgets its title character, or quite simply isn’t interested enough in him. There’s potential poignancy in a story that sidetracks its title character (I’m wondering what the Coens would do with such a story) – but sadly, Alois Nebel’s poignancy lies mostly in how most of the time it reminds you of a film that is better because it has a clear understanding of what it wants to be.