review by Dan Lybarger, 25 January 2002

When looking a Jan Wiener during the opening frames of the documentary Fighter, the only indication that he that he isn't made of stone is the fact that he is in constant motion. Darting about with a quickness and agility that would make a twenty-year-old jealous, the seventy-something Jewish immigrant from Czechoslovakia has firm, toned muscles, hard-chiseled features and a thick shock of bristly white hair. As the title character in Fighter, Wiener has an intimidating boxing stance. This came in handy when he had to flee from Prague at the dawn of World War II.

While on the run, he did time in an Italian POW camp and eventually became a pilot in the British Royal Air Force. Sadly, his struggles didn't end with the Nazis eventually fell. Initially welcomed back as a hero, Wiener's defiant attitude upset Communist Party officials. He wound up spending five years in a labor camp before eventually finding his way to the United States.

Had director Amir Bar-Lev merely followed Wiener around Europe as he recounted his hair-raising early life, Fighter would have been intriguing. Another factor, however, makes the film engrossing and hard to forget: Wiener's choice of friends.

Decades after making his home in America, Wiener met writer-filmmaker Arnost Lustig. While Lustig, like Wiener, is a septuagenarian Jewish Czech immigrant, the two are diametrically opposed. Lustig survived Auschwitz and became a Communist Party official after the war. Despite all the time that has passed, Wiener still chastises Lustig. When Wiener's temper flares, it's remarkable that Bar-Lev was able to continue filming. The two men talk and talk as if no one were watching.

Bar-Lev's intimacy with his subjects is remarkable, and it allows him to reveal how these men have managed to become and remain friends. The straightforward, almost didactic Wiener sometimes tires of Lustig's analytical attitude toward life. Often, though, their demeanors are complementary. In the film's most moving sequence, Wiener recalls having to hold his dying father's hand. Half a century after the fact, he still feels abandoned and betrayed by his father's suicide. Lustig muses over the situation in a manner that provides his friend with some needed comfort. He suggests that Wiener's father may have killed himself to avoid being a burden to his son. In moments like these, Bar-Lev reveals how a friendship like theirs can bridge with widest of ideological divides.

Through these men, Bar-Lev is able to look head on into the tragedies of the twentieth century. Fortunately, the movie is hardly gloomy. Wiener and Lustig are often a riot together. Their timing puts most professional comedy teams to shame. At one point during their journey through contemporary Europe, Wiener's memory lapses, leading him to warn the slightly younger man that his ability to recall things will fail next. Each man in his own way demonstrates remarkable courage. Despite all that has happened to them, Lustig remains thoughtful, and Wiener stays rebellious. The fact that these two fellows are close when they would more likely be antagonists is a sure sign of hope.

Directed by:
Amir Bar-Lev

Jan Wiener
Arnost Lustig

NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
yet been rated.





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