A BITE TO EAT (Jan Němec, 1960)

Three escaped Czech prisoners, starving, draw match sticks to determine who will risk his life fetching food for himself and the two others from a parked train that the SS guards. We see one man draw a long stick, another man about to make his pick, and then suddenly there it is: the short match stick in the palm of his hand. This cut, this ellipsis, if you will, disrupts the continuity of the scene and, with it, the logic of causality. An element of fate unexpectedly intrudes. The losing man has not chosen the short stick; it has chosen him.
     There is voiceover; this is a survivor’s reminscence. Adapted from a short story by Arnošt Lustig, a Jewish death camp survivor and runaway, Jan Němec’s 11-minute “Sousto”—variously translated as “The Morsel,” “A Bite to Eat,” “A Loaf of Bread”—achieves a claustrophobic atmosphere that further suggests fate’s pressure and crowding in. The action unfolds outdoors, but Němec creates images of darkness and entrapment by shooting under a train, or into another train as the “chosen” person stretches his hand down into a compartment in search of bread. The narrator counts as his fellow prisoner rushes back with the half-loaf that will have to do for the three of them. Shots are fired. The guards have discovered their Jean Valjean.
     The other two men hide as their comrade faces a guard who knocks him unconscious with a single blow. The same year as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, our attention is riveted most of all to one detail within the frame—in lieu of the money in Marion Crane’s motel room, the bread on the ground. Will the guard notice it? Three human lives seem to hang in the balance. We hold our breath.

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