A person who is faced with fear sometimes does interesting things. Decent people can lose their qualities, and, at the same time, people who were considered weaklings can act like heroes.

— Jan Hrebejk, director of “Divided We Fall.”

LOS ANGELES, May 31 (JTA) — Millions of civilians faced the ultimate test of character when Nazi armies occupied their countries and started deporting their Jewish neighbors.

Most looked the other way, when they did not actively collaborate with their conquerors. A few risked their own lives and those of their families by sheltering Jews.

And some gave in to terrible fears and pressures at one point, but acted with supreme moral courage at other times.

It is the third group that Hrebejk examines with perception and sympathy in the Czech film “Divided We Fall,” an Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film.

Based on a true story, the film takes place in a small Czech town during the war years of 1943-45. The central characters are Josef Cizek and his wife Marie — played by Boleslav Polivka and Anna Siskova — a childless couple who do their best to get along while facing occupation and the private sorrow they share because of Josef’s sterility.

One night, Josef has a chance meeting with David Wiener, played by Csonger Kassai, a young Jewish man and the son of his former employer. David has escaped from a concentration camp by bribing an SS guard.

Josef’s first instinct is to get away from David, but then he has a change of heart and shelters him for one night. Finally, Josef creates a permanent hiding place for David in his home.

David’s presence tests the true mettle of the rescuer, which lies not so much in the initial decision to hide a Jew, but in the constant fear of detection by snoopy neighbors, Gestapo agents, unexpected guests and even stray dogs.

With the exception of the consistently resolute Marie, all the characters are conflicted. There is Horst, the Nazis’ chief Czech lackey, complete with Hitler moustache, who saves the lives of Josef and Marie when the chips are down.

Another resident, in a moment of sheer terror, tries to turn David in, but later becomes a resistance leader.

Even the chief German official, who proclaims his pride because two of his soldier sons have fallen for the Reich, gains some sympathy as a man broken in body and spirit when his youngest boy is shot as a deserter.

“Divided We Fall” is not primarily a war or Holocaust film, but a masterful study of the complexity of the human mind and spirit.

The film opens at theaters in New York and Los Angeles on June 8 and at later dates in other cities.

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