The only other Czech “new wave” films of the 1960s I’ve seen are Jan Nemec‘s Diamonds of the Night and Jan Kadar’s The Shop on Main Street. Like The Fifth Horseman is Fear, they deal with the German occupation, and they specifically deal with the Jewish experience of that time. I don’t know how representative these three are of the entire period (The Shop on Main Street is certainly the best known here), but in that latter regard, they’re definitely ahead of the curve. I can’t think of another concentration of films in the 60s that deal so explicitly with the anti-Jewish practices of the Germans; it’s conspicuously absent from French films of the period.
They also share a commonality in that they are quite stylized and make no particular claim to hard realism, a trend that has unfortunately infected and limited so many recent Holocaust films (the straightforward but limp adaptation of Imre Kertesz’s Fateless being the most recent example). Even The Shop on Main Street, which is the least stylized of the three, has a strong impressionistic scene at the end when our hero encounters the finished German ziggurat in the town square. Diamonds leaves realism behind as it gives a subjective experience of the internal fantasies of two boys on the run from Nazi guards, intermixing them with reality without clear differentiation.
And then there is The Fifth Horseman is Fear, which minimizes the flow of its story–a simple tale of a Jewish ex-doctor who treats a resistance fighter who hides in his apartment building–to present the daily experience in unsettling and unsettled fashion. It’s here that the movie is strongest; the treatment of the everyday material is menacing and instills the anxiety present in the places during war and occupation where atrocities aren’t taking place. The straight up or straight down shots of stairwells; the program music score that blares car horns and piano tuning (especially impressive in the opening and ending); the whiter than white walls. All of these things are transformations of quotidian materials into something sinister without the addition of any other content. The plot seeps into the everyday without disturbing it, because there is already the sense that nothing was ever okay.
It’s tempting to think that the loudness and severity is a reflection of the ex-doctor’s mental state, but the movie drifts towards other characters for significant periods of time, and ultimately the stylized, nerve-wracking environment is clearly not one man’s experience, but everyone’s shared nightmare.