cast: Jan Meduna, Petr Vanek, Robert Nebernský

director: Václav Marhoul

100 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
High Fliers DVD Region 2 retail
[released 7 September]

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Max Cairnduff

Tobruk is a dark, atmospheric war film set in North Africa in 1941, focusing on the free Czechoslovakian forces stationed there and who took part in the allied war effort. It tells the story of two new recruits, privates Pospíchal and Lieberman (played respectively and effectively by Jan Meduna and Petr Vanek), as they train and go to war.

Tobruk shares the same title as a much more famous 1967 film starring Rock Hudson, covering the same battle. There is no relation however, the 1967 film is an action packed Hollywood movie, Marhoul’s film by contrast is about the tensions of war – the long waits, the boredom, the fear.

Although the characters and plot of Tobruk the film are wholly fictional, the siege of Tobruk the place was not and Czechoslovak forces did participate in it. The film, which is openly inspired by the classic Stephen Crane novel The Red Badge Of Courage, is dedicated to the veterans of World War II, to the Czech and Slovak partisans and above all to the 779 men of the 11th Czechoslovak Infantry Battalion-East. It falls firmly into the school of war film which shows war as something terrible, neither exciting nor adventurous but rather a mixture of tedium and terror. The film introduces privates Pospíchal and Lieberman as they begin training in the Egyptian desert, Lieberman struggling to fit in due in part to his lack of fitness and competence as a soldier and in part to open anti-Semitism. Pospichal is the more popular, the more successful, though both are fast friends with each other.

Over the next half hour or so, around a third of the film, the film follows the Czechoslovak troops as they train, take leave, grumble about lousy food, share gossip, talk about women, and generally live their lives. They have little to do, a sandstorm can keep them cooped up for days at a time, and their existence is made additionally miserable by the brutal corporal Kohák (played by Robert Nebernsk�), a man reputed to have come from the French foreign legion and a boxing champion who delights in beating to a pulp anyone who dares get in a ring with him.

Eventually, the battalion is sent to take part in the defence of Tobruk, surrounded by Germans and Italians and with nowhere to retreat save into the sea. It is a position that must be held, the alternative is to be killed because, as they understand it, to the Germans they are traitors – Czechoslovakia now after all being part of the Third Reich.

When they arrive in Libya, the Czechoslovakians are despatched to defend a seemingly barren patch of desert, with no sight of the enemy but the prospect of terrible fighting to come. There is no explanation of its significance, if it is important or not. The characters do not know, and so nor does the audience. Again, the film gives the characters time, showing them complaining about food, improvising makeshift showers, passing empty time and waiting for battle. When battle does come, however, it is impersonal, a matter of artillery barrages and German charges which are repelled by counter bombardments and machinegun fire. There is no opportunity here for heroism, survival is a matter of luck, and the men who die by and large do so at the hands of unseen German artillerymen.

Tobruk won awards in the Czech Republic for its cinematography, score and sound, and it well deserved them. The shots of the desert in particular are often beautiful. There is a sparseness and a desolation here, and watching the film you can feel the dryness.

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Similarly, the battles are powerful as vast plumes of dust and sand are thrown into the air by artillery barrages. There are a few more conventional notes, Pospíchal gets near-missed by a shell resulting in him going temporarily deaf, and so the volume suddenly decreasing on the film (as in Saving Private Ryan). For the main though, visuals and sound are both well judged and the desert becomes as much a star as any of the cast, with shots of empty landscape, scrub, dust and Sun giving the film often a bleached and beige look, everything covered in the same dust lending it all the same hue.

To add to the exploration of desert, Pospíchal spends a good 20 minutes or so of the film wandering through it, shell-shocked and lost after the battle, believing himself the last survivor. His journey underlines that here it is not the Germans who are the true enemy, it is the desert itself and the effect it has on the men’s courage and morale. On Pospíchal’s return, corporal Kohák treats him as a coward, cranking up the tension as he, Pospíchal and Lieberman are sent out on patrol together.

Tobruk is a serious and intelligent film. Its story is not a surprising one, and being based on a 19th century novel makes its plot largely familiar and expected, but its evocation of a battle fought remotely in which the face of the enemy is never seen is a powerful one. The conflict between Pospíchal and Lieberman against the increasingly sadistic corporal Kohák has genuine drama and when men die they die horribly, limbs torn off or breathing blood. It is a well made war film about a conflict that is not well known, and a meditation on the desert both literal and metaphorical. It’s a shame it’s unlikely to get the theatre release its cinematography deserves, but it’s still well worth catching on DVD.