The Door: Berlin Film Review

Good old-fashioned storytelling illuminates the relationship between two women in Istvan Szabo’s elegantly directed drama.

Istvan Szabo's drama, set in Hungary in the 1960s, stars Helen Mirren as a maid and Martina Gedeck as a well-to-do novelist who form an unlikely bond.

Faultlessly directed with Old World taste and conviction by Istvan Szabo, The Door describes the unusual relationship between a well-to-do novelist and her poor, elderly maid. A showcase for the formidable acting talent of leads Helen Mirren and Martina Gedeck (The Lives of Others), this character-driven drama feels too traditional, however, to rally the audiences that Mirren’s performance, in particular, deserves. Set in Hungary in the 1960s, the film faces the additional hurdle of English-language dialogue that sounds forced in the dubbing of minor roles. Still, the overall quality of the production and its powerful story are bound to draw some art house interest.

The symphonic music that accompanies an elderly washerwoman (Mirren) as she goes about her chores in the opening scene sets the stage for the intelligent adult movie that is about to unfold. Emerence inhabits humble ground-floor quarters in front of a grand house, where Magda (Gedeck) and her husband, Tibor (Karoly Eperjes), have just come to live. Surprised by, but tolerant of, the old lady’s blunt, often insulting speech and uncompromising manner, Magda persuades her to clean their house.

Rumors around the neighborhood hint darkly at secrets in Emerence’s past, which she does nothing to dispel. Her door has been closed to visitors for decades, and Magda believes Emerence is hiding Jewish property she stole during the war.

As grating as the old lady is, Tibor can’t do without her cooking nor Magda without her cleaning, so they put up with all her eccentricities, which include bursting into their bedroom unannounced and insisting they display a ceramic dog statue in their elegant intellectual digs. (Dogs and cats play an important role as surrogate objects of affection.) Gradually a strange bond is forged between the two women that brings out the strength of one character and the weakness of the other.

Gedeck is warm and unexpected in her portrayal of Magda, a writer whose latest novel, though heavily criticized by the Communist press, somehow pleases the minister of culture. She goes off to Budapest to receive a literary prize, just as Emerence falls ill and enters a crisis that will conclude the two women’s relationship in a fairly tragic way. 

Szabo (Mephisto) is a masterful storyteller who modulates the screenplay, co-written with Andrea Veszits, like a symphony, full of quiet moments dotted with sudden explosions of terrifying emotion, accompanied by frightening onscreen thunderstorms. The most unforgettable of these outbursts is Emerence’s recollection of how her two little twin sisters were struck by lightning under the tree where she had left them. This single scene could be the centerpiece of a film in itself, yet here it is a small part of the long, eventful life that has made this indomitable lady what she is.

An interesting footnote to the film is that it contains autobiographical elements from the life of the major Hungarian novelist Magda Szabo (no relation to the director), who wrote the novel on which it is based.

Production companies:  FilmArt Kft, Intuit Pictures

Cast: Helen Mirren, Martina Gedeck, Karoly Eperjes

Director: Istvan Szabo

Screenwriters: Istvan Szabo, Andrea Veszits, based on a novel by Magda Szabo

Producer: Jeno Habermann, Sandor Soth

Executive producers: Phil Hunt, Marco Mehlitz, Compton Ross

Director of photography: Elemer Ragalyi

Production designer: Lorant Javor

Costumes: Gyorgyi Szakacs

Editor: Reka Lemhenyi 

Sales Agent: Bankside Films        

No rating, 98 minutes