'The Ambassador to Bern': Cairo Review

Courtesy of Cairo International Film Festival
This tautly paced political thriller bears comparison to the films of Costa-Gavras

Attila Szasz's thriller dramatizes the events behind the 1958 hostage taking at the Hungarian embassy in Switzerland

Credit must be given to Attila Szasz's political thriller dramatizing the events behind the 1958 hostage taking of Hungary's ambassador to Switzerland in the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution. A title card at the film's beginning informs us that "Maybe it happened differently, maybe it happened exactly like this." Would that Hollywood's similar real-life dramatizations were prefaced with such honesty.

Actually, The Ambassador to Bern deserves kudos for more than that. This tautly paced debut feature recently showcased at the Cairo International Film Festival is thoroughly engrossing in its concise depiction of this little-known (at least on these shores) incident that is here rendered with involving verisimilitude.

The screenplay by Norbert Kobli briskly sets the scene in the embassy, beginning with a well-written scene in which a Hungarian couple who have been living in Switzerland are told that they're free to go home, but if they do so they'll be arrested.

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Janos Kulka delivers a powerfully restrained performance in the titular role of Koroknai, attempting to keep the embassy running smoothly while angling for a promotion at the behest of his ambitious wife and dealing with a scheming underling (Remusz Szikszai) blatantly undermining his authority.

His life is briefly turned upside down when two armed Hungarian immigrants (Tamas Szabo Kimmel, Jozsef Kadas) calling themselves freedom fighters burst into the building and take him and the rest of the employees hostage. They threaten to shoot the ambassador if they're not given the contents of a safe supposedly containing secret documents. The building's diplomatic status poses a problem for the Swiss authorities: Responding to the entreaties of one of the hostages from a window, a local cop advises her to call the police.

"Call the police?" she responds. "You are the police."   

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A local police inspector arrives on the scene and is similarly hamstrung even as the situation grows tenser, with the embassy soon surrounded by Hungarian immigrants in an impromptu political demonstration.

Skillfully blending political themes — a little boning up on Hungarian postwar history probably wouldn't hurt for many viewers — with its engrossing imagining of what went on in the embassy, the film also features welcome doses of tension-relieving humor, such as when the savvy ambassador advises the intruders to give themselves up. "Prisons here are like hotels at home," he informs them.

Running a brisk 76 minutes with not a moment wasted, The Ambassador to Bern, which has been reaping kudos on the festival circuit, well deserves a U.S. theatrical release.

Production: Film Positive Productions
Cast: Janos Kulka, Tamas Szabo Kimmel, Jozsef Kadas, Rozi Lovas, Remusz Szikszai
Director: Attila Szasz
Screenwriter: Norbert Kobli
Producers: Tamas Lajos, Tamas Mink
Director of photography: Andras Nagy
Production designer: Istvan Galambos
Editor: Laszlo Hargittai
Costume designer: Kemenesi Tunde
Composer: Gergely Paradi
Casting: Szilvia Nemesdedi, Andrea Orban

No rating, 76 minutes

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