On one level, this superlatively photographed film is about the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. On another, it is an expressionistic study of the psychological effects of calculated terror.
The story is slender: a Jewish doctor ministers illegally to a wounded fighter in the underground. But Writer-Director Zbyněk Brynych, a master of the Czech new wave, uses this somewhat shopworn situation as a structure on which to hang a number of unrelated scenes that are exceptionally powerful in both concept and execution.
On an improbable quest through Prague for morphine to ease his clandestine patient's pain, Dr. Braun seeks out his sister, who has been reduced to the level of working as a cleaning woman in a Nazi-run brothel. He first blunders into the girls' shower roomgiving Brynych an excuse for a breathtaking study of the splash and spray of water on naked female forms. Later, the camera encounters a nightmare revel of swinish soldiers among whom the girls are herded like cattle before being returned to their stalls. In a corner, Braun comes upon the body, ignored by all the revelers, of a girl who has killed herself.
The next set piece on the doctor's travels is the Desperation Barcrammed with middle-class types of all ages and stages of neurosis and nihilism, drinking their way out of life. After that follows a bedlam of a sanitarium, where the doctors give Braun the morphine he begs for under the impression that he is planning to use it to commit suicide.
Director Brynych's stark, symbolic explorations of human despair lift The Fifth Horseman to a high level of creative cinema. The search by the secret police for Braun's wounded patient is more conventional, though still visually exciting. When the other tenants living in Braun's apartment house are eventually implicated, they become only too willing to sacrifice him to the Nazis, and when at last they are forced to pass his dead body on the stairs, only a madwoman and a child so much as give it a glance.