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Divided We Fall: Subtitles, Sound, and the Postwar Reconstruction of Language

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This essay considers the ethical significance of language in a Czech film (Divided We Fall, 2000) about the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia during the Second World War. It argues that linguistic shifts from Czech to German, to French, and to Yiddish, in both the dialogue and the lyrics to background music, expose the politically and ethically contested terrain of the film. Bilingual Czech nationals make subtle language choices depending on their circumstances, and those language choices gradually assume ethical significance as they highlight both the characters' prejudices and their small acts of heroism. Language itself thus becomes a guidepost to the film's examination of the ethically complicated choices which Nazi authority imposed on ordinary citizens. By paying close attention to language, one can see even the reviled Nazi collaborator in the film as attempting to assert some small measure of the human charity which his status as a collaborator contradicts. The paper concludes with a suggestion that the linguistic choices of the film contribute to a larger project of reclaiming the German language itself from the corruption it suffered because of its wartime use as the language of Nazi ideology and propaganda.

Affiliations: 1: Trent University, Ontario


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