'Natural Light': Film Review | Berlin 2021

Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival
A long, slow march toward atrocity.

Hungarian soldiers in World War II patrol the icy forests of Ukraine in Denes Nagy’s feature debut.

Hungary’s most recent contribution to the implacable flow of war films pouring out of Eastern Europe is a far cry from the Russian tank operas and spectacular disaster films like Battle of Leningrad. Denes Nagy’s sensitive first feature Natural Light (Termeszetes feny), bowing in Berlin competition, is the opposite of these: a slow starter high on atmosphere but low on action, whose horrific main event takes place discreetly off-screen.

The story salutes Elem Klimov’s 1985 anti-war masterpiece Come and See (reissued in the U.S. last year in a 2K restoration) and its stark, unflinching gaze at the Nazi invasion of Byelorussian villages. Nagy’s story, set in Ukraine, poses the moral question of how far a person of conscience is obliged to go to decry the wrong he has witnessed, and how much responsibility he bears if he remains silent. Since the hero is a Hungarian soldier allied with Nazi Germany, it is a true dilemma. But one wonders how many viewers will have the patience to wait for the moral climax.

The long-winded set-up is heavy on muddy clothes, dirty faces and gritty realism, as a company of soldiers tramps through an icy forest. The time is 1943 and opening titles inform us that Hungary has deployed 100,000 soldiers to the vast reaches of the Soviet empire; their mission is to maintain order and root out Soviet partisans.

There is a sinister beauty, heightened by Santa Ratniece’s brooding score, to the snowed-over fields and icy rivers these stoical army men traverse. On a makeshift raft, two local men with weather-beaten faces float down river with a dead elk. They say not a word when the soldiers appear out of nowhere and butcher the animal on the spot. The drawn-out details of hacking the bones and skinning the carcass highlight Nagy’s documentary origins and sensibility, as do so many of the film's  descriptive passages in which a hand-held camera roams over faces and details.

Very gradually, the gaunt poker face of Corp. Istvan Semetka (Ferenc Szabo) emerges from the pack. He seems to be the official photographer who documents events and takes souvenir pictures on request. When the tired troops finally reach a peasant village made up of a few poor thatched huts, he takes pictures of those. He's a sensitive, thoughtful man and reacts with natural human empathy to the villagers’ needs in scenes whose determined lack of dialogue makes them almost a pantomime.

But a sense of foreboding, which had been vaguely present in the woods, now begins to take shape, and of course it involves the villagers. On the surface, they seem innocent and cooperative enough, a feeling DP Tamas Dobos emphasizes in shadowy pictorial lighting that brings out the harsh individuality of their faces, bringing to mind paintings like Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters. But when the elderly village head recommends a certain onward road to the commander, the company walks straight into a deadly ambush.

As the highest-ranking survivor of the skirmish, Semetka reluctantly takes command, a role he seems unsuited for. Now the trees turn skeletal and the would-be magical forest is revealed to be a soggy swamp haunted by dark shadows.

The action picks up a bit with the arrival of reinforcements and Capt. Koleszar (Laszlo Bajko), an old buddy of Semetka’s, who takes charge. Though he seems to be from the same type of educated background as the photographer, Koleszar is made of tougher army fiber, as Semetka soon finds out.

The finale is telegraphed far in advance, yet when it comes the drama is so down-played it doesn’t register in its full horror. This is where the director’s aesthetics of faces and landscapes really falls short. Perhaps Semetka’s guarded, expressionless look has something to do with the distance one feels at the end: a disquieting feeling of helplessness, rather than the screaming moral outrage expressed by directors who lived through the war.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Campfilm in association with Mistrus Media, Lilith Film, Propellerfilm, Proton Cinema, ZDF/Arte
Cast: Ferenc Szabo, Tamas Garbacz, Laszlo Bajko, Gyula Franczia, Erno Stuhl, Gyula Szilagyi, Mareks Lapeskis, Krisztian Kozo, Csaba Nanasi, Zsolt Fodor
Director: Denes Nagy
Screenwriter: Denes Nagy, based on a novel by Pal Zavada
Producers: Sara Laszlo, Marcell Gero
Coproducers: Inese Boka-Grube, Caroline Piras, Melanie Blocksdorf, Viktoria Petranyi, Olivier Dubois
Executive producer: Melinda Erdos
Director of photography: Tamas Dobos
Production and costume designer: Marton Agh
Editor: Nicolas Rumpl
Music: Santa Ratniece
World sales: Luxbox

103 minutes