Alois Nebel Review (TIFF 2011)

Alois Nebel Poster

Tomás Lunák’s Alois Nebel was my final screening at TIFF 2011, a whole five days ago. I was maintaining a frantic pace of screening and reviewing, but it caught up with me in the end. I picked this film on a whim, because I am a fan of animation, especially foreign animation, and it looked dark enough to be up my alley. Alois Nebel was not the film noir murder mystery that I thought it would be, in fact it turned out to be something completely different. The film absorbed me from start to finish and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. It’s not that the film is disturbing or keeping me awake at night, it’s just a fine example of something different, executed almost flawlessly.

The story is set in 1989 and follows a middle-aged train dispatcher, named Alois Nebel, who works in Czechoslovakia, close to the border of Germany and Poland. Haunted by memories of the end of the cold war, when he was a small child, Alois seems to find little joy in life, however perusing the train schedules seem to keep him distracted. After losing his job and being admitted to a sanitarium for treatment, two chance in encounters, one with a mute man who has a hidden agenda, and the other with a kind widow named Kveta, have given Alois’s life some sort of meaning again.

The film is entirely in black-and-white and uses rotoscope animation, meaning that actual live-action footage was shot and drawn over top of using computer animation (rotoscope animation could also be done by hand). This unique process gives the film the fluidity of a live-action film, while allowing the director the almost limitless degree of artistic freedom that comes with animated projects; the scope of the artistic vision is only limited by the imagination and skill of the director and animators. Check out A Scanner Darkly for another example of rotoscope animation. The combination of black-and-white and rotoscope animation is stunning to watch, and immediately sets the sombre mood of the film.

None of the characters seem to be very joyous in the film, and the setting seems oppressive. These points are hammered home by the barrels of hard liquor and cartons of cigarettes that the characters consume throughout the film, and the numerous interactions with authority figures, such as soldiers, guards, sanitarium orderlies, doctors, etc. One does not immediately identify with Alois, but as we learn about his past, and the nature of his country in 1989, it is hard not to feel for the man.

I don’t feel comfortable commenting too deeply on the quality of the voice acting during the film, as it was in a foreign language, but I can say that the voice acting never detracted from the experience, and seemed convincingly emotional at the right times.

Alois Nebel is certainly a bit of a depressing film, but there are fulfilling moments. I’m having a difficult time explaining why I am still thinking about the film. The characters, story and visuals certainly possess a sort of ‘je ne sais quoi’ that must be experienced rather than discussed. Alois Nebel will inevitably be embraced by fans of art-house and foreign films, but I urge adventurous viewers to check it out when they are feeling like a totally different experience from mainstream North American cinema. I still feel haunted by the pasts of the downtrodden characters in Alois Nebel, but also stunned into silence by the otherworldly beauty of a lonely train, rolling loyally down the track.

4 thoughts on “Alois Nebel Review (TIFF 2011)

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