Director Jan Gebert explores themes of radicalisation and far-right ideology in Slovakia with his first feature length documentary. When The War Comes follows 20-year-old Peter Švrček, leader of paramilitary group the Slovak Recruits, as the size and infamy of his group (and his reputation) grow exponentially over the course of the film.

It opens with Švrček’s final day at school, showing the young man pass a graduation test before calling his mother to tell her the good news. He drives home his impressive white SUV and we have an image of a seemingly normal – if privileged – young man.

Soon, though, we are shown another side to Švrček – a side that dominates his life and that of hundreds of other boys and men under his command. Every other weekend, members of the Slovak Recruits don military gear – complete with gas masks and deactivated guns – and head into the woods to train in military combat and obedience.

The mismatched uniforms and dummy weapons, combined with the presence of Švrček’s girlfriend sat on her iPhone in civilian clothes, make it hard to take the group seriously at first. Yet before long amusement makes way for concern, as Gebert shows us the extreme levels of pressure and intimidation which Švrček and his two right hand men put on the recruits, pushing them beyond their limits both physically and mentally.

More troubling, though, are the brash far-right views which Švrček expresses in the company of his friends, family and recruits. Particularly how that contrasts to his public speaking when interviewed for television, after his exploits are challenged by national media. Švrček is cunning and almost charming in front of the press, yet Gebert’s access shows us the man behind the facade; the way he speaks about refugees is vulgar and the autocratic manner in which he runs his organisation is equally alarming.

The film progresses to show Švrček attempting a venture into politics which, considering his clear astuteness and cunning combined with his radical views, is troubling to say the least.

When The War Comes lacks structure at times, and you can’t help but feel its message could be more powerful considering its subject matter, and the fascinating character Gebert has available to him in Švrček. Yet the film ends in an unsettling and appropriately cyclical manner, with Švrček returning to school. Not as a pupil, but to represent his movement and enforce the importance of Slovak heritage to a group of young children, before taking them outside for a military demonstration.

A final sequence shows Švrček standing in a town square, barking orders to dozens, if not hundreds, of men. In these shots Švrček really is painted as a military leader, with the men echoing his exclamations back to him. It is a stark contrast to the rag tag team of recruits we saw in the first scene, and an alarming indication of the growing influence and power of the far right in Central Europe today.

3 stars

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