One tends to have certain expectations about the sort of film that gets released on the Redemption label, so when one sees the image of a Nazi swastika flag emblazoned prominently on the front cover of this war time thriller from the Czech Republic, it's easy just to assume that we're in well trod exploitation territory here. It's not as though Redemption haven't mined such territory many times before, after all! Nazi breeding camps, all women dormitories: these are the usual starting points for torrid tales of torture dungeons, nudity and sadomasochism, usually with a few Nazi-uniformed lesbians thrown in for good measure -- just ask Max Mosley!
"Spring of Life" turns out to be something a little different from the usual Redemption fare though: a respectably budgeted, beautifully filmed adaptation of a novel by Vladimir Korner that attempts to address the issue of the Nazi Lebensborn programme, an organisation set up by SS leader Heinrich Himmler in 1935 as part of the Reich's attempt to implement Hitler's plan for repopulating Europe with the Aryan Master Race. And, as if to indicate the seriousness of their intent in dealing with the subject, Redemption go the extra mile when it comes to the supplementary materials that accompany the film's very pleasing DVD transfer (although once again, it's a non-anamorphic disc).
Not content with their usual collection of trailers and DVD photo galleries, we also get a four part animated historical archive of Nazi Lebensborn propaganda — book and magazine covers, posters, photographs — accompanied by explanatory notes that explain the context of the images as they appear on screen. An even more thorough examination of the subject is provided by author Michael Leapman ("Master Race") in a half-hour interview/lecture where he gives an overview of the subject and dispels a few of the more overblown myths that have sprung up about the programme in the post war years.
Milan Cieslar's film is a long way from crude Nazi-based exploitation, but it does to some extent offer a heightened picture that conforms to some of those myths Michael Leapman so ably puts paid to in his interview. Although, under the Lebensborn programme, the Nazi's abducted children who conformed to their Aryan ideal from all over occupied Europe, sending them to be 'Nazified' and raised by German families (some of them never to learn of their true origins) the institutions which housed those women deemed to be of sufficiently good stock to give birth under the programme, were not 'breeding' farms, as such. In reality the women were already pregnant after having 'agreed' to take part (although, conditions being what they were for these women, there would have been considerable incentive to do so) and the spas in which they were housed were really maternity institutions where they would go to give birth before the babies were sent off to be raised as pure German stock. The film offers a slightly more sensational picture for the sake of a good story, but in all other respects it remains a responsible attempt to address this bizarre and difficult subject.
After the German occupation of the Sudetenland, farm girl Gretka (Monika Milmerova) finds favour with the Nazi high commander in the region who, swayed by her blonde good looks, her symmetrical skull shape, her zodiac sign and the fact that she was born on the same day as him, singles her out to be sent to a remote snowbound alpine spa in the woods -- a former sanatorium where dozens of similarly good looking girls are raised on a diet of good food, exercise, fencing, shooting and choreographed ice skating on the frozen lake that fronts the grandly baroque institution. Here they also take part in cod medieval Nazi rituals and grand ceremonies. On her first day she witnesses the punishment of the young peasant boy who accidentally directed her onto thin ice when she first arrived looking for the spa. She strikes up a secret friendship with the boy, who is called Leo (Michal Sieczkowski), having started to feel guilty for his harsh treatment. Meanwhile, Gretka also learns exactly what will be required of her in her new home. After being examined by the icily cool gynaecologist and staff doctor (Johana Tesarova) she is paired up with an SS officer who has been judged to be the most suitable candidate for providing her with sufficiently Aryan offspring. But as her relationship with Leo deepens and her 'match' proves unable to perform his function, nature takes a different course to the one determined by the warped eugenic policies of the Nazi elite.
With its romantic classical score and sharp, classy cinematography, "Spring of Life" weaves a rather conventional narrative line through the subject, pitting the central sterility forged by the Nazi programme amongst the icily beautiful surroundings of the institute, against the earthy heartiness of the heroine and her 'impure' lover. Monika Milmerova is convincing in the lead role and is the spitting image of a young Lina Romey. Her designated SS suitor turns out possibly to be a homosexual, his strong jawed nordic good looks proving of little use for the task he has been assigned; the glacial gynecologist in charge of the programme turns out to be a lesbian who seems unusually aroused by X ray pictures of her charges' skulls. This is all standard, clichéd cinematic shorthand for Nazi corruption and hypocrisy, but it's always slightly ironic that such concepts should be illustrated by showing Nazi characters as being inherently unsuitable for biological reproduction, while the scorned peasant boy Leo proves more than up to the job of getting Gretka pregnant! Nevertheless, the film eschews the obvious temptation to make all the Nazis into total monsters. The overall impression conveyed is that everyone -- SS Nazis and naive prospective mothers of the Master Race alike -- is caught up in a mad, unrealistic system, their roles proscribed for them by a nexus of socially determined institutions. Cieslar has a liking for illustrating all this with cute visual metaphors -- swans dying stranded on a frozen lake, for instance -- but in general, it is the director's un-hysterical, considered approach that proves more effective in conveying the frightening, inescapable world of racial obsession the Nazi's threatened to unleash during the war years. This is a side of the conflict rarely looked at in cinema and Cieslar has come up with a properly worthwhile attempt to address the subject. "Spring of Life" is well worth a look.