The emotional fragility of Hungarians who survived World War II but lost loved ones and faced an uncertain future is acutely captured in Those Who Remained. This intimate second feature from Barnabas Toth, after Camembert Rose a decade ago, sensitively traces the vulnerabilities and needs of a middle-aged male doctor and a teenage girl in Budapest as they help each other find some safety and equilibrium amid the physical and emotional wreckage. Made and acted with unemphatic precision, this would be a welcome entry on any festival slate and marks Toth as a talent to watch.
Based on a 2004 novel by Zsuzsa F. Varkonyi, the film confidently walks a tightrope through some very delicate issues, most centrally the age difference between the quiet, tall 42-year-old doctor Aladar (Karoly Hajduk), a concentration camp survivor, and Klara (Abigel Szoke), a precocious 16-year-old who’s just come from the Israelite Community Orphanage, hates the world and is scornfully frank about everything.
Hitting puberty late, Klara meets “Aldo” when he’s called to administer a gynecological exam. Later, when he gently touches her shoulder to reassure her, she grabs and hugs him out of sheer desperate need for warmth and reassurance. This sort of compulsive, gray-area physicality persists when, refusing to return to where she was staying, Klara essentially moves into Aldo’s flat of her own accord. He assigns her to sleep on the couch, but it takes no time for her to slide over and into Aldo’s single bed, creating a proximity that prompts Aldo to warn that strict propriety will be observed.
With Aldo now installed as her father figure, Klara proclaims herself happy, a very relative term under the dire circumstances. The victorious Russians are due to take over the school system within the year, and Aldo, who lost his wife and children during the Holocaust, plays everything very close to the vest, so as not to attract attention. However, his unusual domestic arrangement does raise eyebrows, and the film, in a quiet but quite compelling way, illustrates how these two utterly different but complicit characters help each other find some stability and equilibrium in a very grim world and navigate the choppy political waters.
In one disturbing scene, Aldo allows the curious Klara to look through his old family photo albums, which he can’t bring himself to do. In telling signs of the kind of trouble that lies ahead, a stern female Communist official severely questions the relationship between the two, after which an old friend of Aldo’s confides that he’s joined the Party and has been assigned to report on him.
Realizing that they’ve been living in a little cocoon of safety between the Nazis and the commies, Klara pleads with Aldo to keep things the same, but he takes quiet steps to gently shift the nature and momentum of their relationship.
Toth and co-writer Klara Muhi maneuver the drama so as to suggest much but overtly manipulate very little. The film offers up a dramatic smorgasbord of small specifics — what there is to eat and drink, the attitudes and unspoken thoughts and suspicions of even inconsequential characters — that combine to create a credible, if restricted, view of life in a very particular time and place. Nearly every scene offers a general backdrop of tragic sadness leavened by the quotidian necessity of fulfilling basic requirements, doing a job, tending to the moment-to-moment needs of others and finding hope wherever one can.
Hajduk cuts a steady, confidence-inspiring figure as the inwardly devastated Aldo, who has quietly found a way to continue on in life by keeping a lid on his emotions and relying upon his keenly calibrated brain. Szoke is terrific as the traumatized late-bloomer who is led by degrees into a more normal existence and a semblance of emotional balance by the older man.
Production company: Inforg-M&M Film Productions
Distributor: Menemsha Films (U.S.)
Cast: Karoly Hajduk, Abigel Szoke, Mari Nagy, Katalin Simko, Barnabas Horkay
Director: Barnabas Toth
Screenwriters: Barnabas Toth, Klara Muhi, based on a novel by Zsuzsa F. Varkonyi
Producer: Monika Mecs
Director of photography: Gabor Marosi
Production designer: Laszlo Rajk
Costume designer: Rita Lengyel
Editor: Agnes Mogor
Music: Laszlo Pirisi
Venue: Telluride Film Festival