Distant Journey is a Czechoslovakian film about the Holocaust which was made in 1948, only three years after the horror had ended. As the memory of events was fresh in director Alfred Radok's mind, the film has many powerful scenes of extraordinary verisimilitude. The story's protagonist is Dr. Hana Kaufmanova played by a well-known Czech stage actress, Blanka Waleska. The film builds in tension as we see what happens to Hana and her family as well as the Jewish community at large.
Throughout the initial scenes, there is graffiti as well as official signs plastered throughout the city of Prague telling the Jews to "get out". Then all Jews must wear the yellow star of David on their coats (there's a shot early on of the Kaufmanova family's closet filled with coats with the Yellow Star; later, after the family's been deported, there's only one coat remaining: that of Hana who was initially exempt from the deportations due to the fact that she married a non-Jewish doctor). The community faces escalating terror as people are soon systematically singled out by the Nazis for 'transport'. Most are headed for Theresienstadt, which consisted of both a small and separate main fortress across the river Ohre. The Gestapo used the small fortress to house allied POW's; the main fortress was turned into a walled ghetto. The Nazis used Theresienstadt as their 'model Jewish settlement' and actually made an entire propaganda film about how good they treated the Jews there. In reality, Theresienstadt was a concentration camp. Originally, there were 7,000 Czechs living at Theresienstadt; once the Jews were forced to live there, there were approximately 50,000 people packed like sardines in hellish conditions. The film features scenes of numerous people dying from typhus inside the ghetto.
We see the effect the Nazi occupation has on Hana's family. An uncle decides to commit suicide by jumping out the window. In a powerful scene, we never see the uncle actually jump—instead, in the background a child is playing scales on a piano in an apartment below; the music reaches a crescendo and then we hear the screams of the family members once they realize the uncle has jumped to his death. Each Jewish person has a backpack with a designated number; once the transports begin, we see them trudging through the streets carrying the backpack along with other possessions. But once they arrive at Theresienstadt, the bulk of their possessions are removed and placed in giant piles, later to be cataloged and sent to different parts of Germany; possessions confiscated from the Jews from other concentration camps are sorted at Theresienstadt and also sent on.
The cruelty of the Germans is shown with much subtlety. When the Jews are first processed to be sent to the ghetto, a barking SS man forces scores of people to line up against a wall, causing them to believe that they will be shot. He also upsets the large tables being used by workers who force the Jews to sign a 'power of attorney' indicating that they are leaving their homes upon their own free will. It's all a game the Nazis play, instilling as much fear as possible amongst the terrorized population. As the war progresses, the Germans become more ruthless. During a march of relocation, a Jewish women is pulled out of line on the street; we hear screams off screen suggesting that she's being raped or perhaps murdered. A Nazi officer viciously hits an old man in the chest who collapses, apparently suffering a heart attack. Inside Theresienstadt, a Nazi orders a woman to take a pail out of his path and she must crawl on all fours and take the pail away with her teeth, like a dog. Another woman, cowering on the ground, fears she's about to be shot; instead, a soldier simply stomps on her head with his boot.
At one point, a sympathetic Czech guard at Theresienstadt brings a message to Hana's husband that Hana's father is in need of black shoe polish. Apparently at Theresienstadt, the prisoners have learned what happens to old people once they're removed to Aucshwitz and other concentration camps. Hana's father believes he can dye his hair black to make himself younger. But later it's all in vain; once he's transported from Theresienstadt, the shoe polish washes off in the rain. Hana's husband manages to sneak into Theresienstadt but learns that Hana's parents have been already taken away and gassed. Eventually he's ordered to a work camp himself; Hana, now alone, decides to voluntarily surrender and ends up in Theresienstadt herself.
The catalog of horrors grows as we see how Hana copes inside the ghetto. Desperate for the smallest portion of food, people in Theresienstadt constantly fight amongst themselves. Desperate to survive, certain Jews are designated as overseers within the ghetto and treat their fellow Jews harshly. As a doctor, Hana helps the afflicted typhus victims. The film ends with a stirring scene in Theresienstadt, where the survivors celebrate their liberation. Hana survives and is reunited with her husband at the film's end.
Distant Journey uses techniques that are not usually seen in pictures from that time. Much use is made of the 'picture within a picture', contrasting the cruel militarism of the Nazis with the destruction of the peaceful Jewish community. Extensive use is made of German propaganda films, especially in the film's introduction where prominent Nazis are featured. Not all of these techniques work 100% of the time—on occasion, the director becomes a bit too bombastic in his attempt to highlight the Nazi horror. The music is also a mixed bag in that sometimes it's quite haunting but at other times it's over-melodramatic.
Anyone interested in the Holocaust or history in general should see this film. Unlike other recent films about the Holocaust, it was made by people who experienced the horror directly and without a great gulf in time.