1989, and in this area of Czechoslovakia near the Polish border, a call has gone up to stop a refugee from breaking through illegally. The unkempt man is a mute (Karel Roden), and making his way through the forests which are turning from autumn to winter, not the most hospitable landscape to flee through, but before long he has sought shelter in a nearby railway station. Working there is Alois Nebel (Miroslav Krobot), a quiet, unassuming man who keeps himself to himself, but when he sees the mute he doesn't want to send him away - which is more than his colleagues do...
According to the filmmakers, when adapting this graphic novel for the screen their chief inspiration was Sin City, but while that was aiming for a viscerally broad appeal to hip audiences, Alois Nebel couldn't have been more different, an ominous example of mistrust among the Eastern Europeans at the fall of Communism, and one man caught up in it, yet remaining a marginalised character. Poor old Alois is middle-aged now, and even throughout the rest of the film he's not giving anything away if he can help it, making for a rather blank protagonist for whom the viewer has to piece together the clues of what we see of his past and present to understand what is going on in his troubled mind.
Naturally with such a specific rendering of a place and time, it helped to be familiar with the politics and upheaval of the Czech region it depicted, for if you were not the filmmakers refused to spoonfeed you the facts behind what has provided such turmoil. What you can work out is that when Alois was a boy, and the Nazis had lost World War II, the German population of his homeland were carted out of the area, this in spite of them having lived there for some time. This was excused because their countrymen in Germany had caused so much disaster, but in effect Alois sees this as a great injustice, mainly thanks to the German girl Dorothe (Tereza Vorísková) who used to look after him being one of those deported.
Things have not much improved for him since, as we see when he tries to help the mute but ends up in a mental asylum getting shock treatment; whether he actually needs that is a contentious point, but the story moves on unafraid to be confusing as Alois finally makes a connection with a bathroom attendant, Kveta (Marie Ludvíková), which may allow him some contentment, though not before his assisting of the mute leads to the resolution of a revenge plotline. All the way through we are told in passing about the state of the nation, as the Russians leave and Vaclav Havel achieves the Presidency, with asides from the characters around Alois about what they think about all this: seems nobody is really satisfied with anything much.
But what was most arresting about the work was not so much its moral maze than its visual style, every shot rotoscoped with actors and sets and rendered in stark black and white (with a dose of grey for definition). It is this utter lack of colour which could have been indicative of the cliché Eastern European art movie with all the miserabilism that brings with it, and it was true they didn't shy away from that, but that could have strengths as well as weaknesses. The atmosphere of unease and grimness was so thick that many would find this offputting, and it certainly was not an entertainment for fans of the kind of cartoons which filled the planet's multiplexes, but this part of the world had a rich history of challenging animation, and Alois Nebel could be seen as an addition to that tradition. But this was going to mean so much more to those who had experience of its issues, so if you did give it a go, you might be appreciating its artistry if you had not. Music by Petr Kruzík.