Jean Bodon, a professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Alabama, recently made a major personal discovery: his blond-haired, blue-eyed Czech father was secretly Jewish, and had been spared the unthinkable ghastliness of the Holocaust. This, put simply, is the impetus behind Bodon’s film, a 45-minute overview of his father’s activities during World War II as a freedom fighter in the Czech Resistance.
It is a distressing, and not altogether lucid story, retold by two narrators (of which Bodon is one, speaking in a somnambulant monotone) and a group of octogenarian men with often impenetrable accents. However, it is also a worthy portrait of a man whose decision to conceal his Jewishness in the face of so much horror reminds us of the continuing narratives of guilt, shame, and fractured ancestry that flow from those dreadful years.
Howling with the Angels was made by Bodon, his wife Theresa, and their 10-year-old daughter on a shoestring budget over a period of some 25 days. Yet for a film that so clearly has been prepared out of a deep personal need to come to terms with an obscured past – Bodon only discovered his true roots a decade after his father’s death – this family-made film conveys very little of the complexity of the human issues it approaches. Even more confounding is that it fails utterly to flesh out the character of Jan Boden, Jean’s father, even as we are on a journey through his past.
As the son narrates the father’s shady history, a second narrator offers the bigger picture of Czechoslovakia’s fate under Nazi domination. It is a bad sign that one tends to be more intrigued by the latter.
Czechoslovakia was, for all intents and purposes, an Allied country during the war, as its government-in-exile (led by a steadfast Edvard Benes) continued to organize aspects of the Resistance in collaboration with Britain. Indeed, the famous assassination of Reinhard Heidrich (the so-called “Butcher of Prague” and one of the central architects of the Holocaust) was planned, and its executors trained and armed, in Scotland.
The most engaging section of the film details the training regimen undergone by the resistance fighters at Ben Nevis, Scotland’s bleak northern mountain. Although Bodon’s father was not directly involved in Heidrich’s assassination, he recounts the story anyway, illustrating it with thrilling scenes from the 1975 Hollywood film, Operation Daybreak – this is, to say the least, a somewhat awkward decision.
As the film wraps up (the Soviets marched in and the Resistance was betrayed, leading to Jan Bodon’s self-imposed exile to France) there is little to grasp hold of – we don’t know much about Jan Bodon apart from that he was profoundly lucky to have been born with misleading skin pigmentation.
And about the real subject of the film, Jean Bodon, we know even less. We have heard his voice, but we must read the notes and watch the extras to learn anything substantial about him, about his motivations in making the film, and about the impact on one’s life following the tragic discovery of a secret, guilt-ridden ancestry.
Extras include a short, Holocaust-related film (My Dear Kassa), and illuminating Film Notes.