The Exam: Karlovy Vary Review

No one can be trusted in this nifty Hungarian thriller set in the Communist era.

The Hungarian thriller from director Peter Bergendy follows two lovers living in 1957 Budapest, a city under surveillance by its Communist secret police.

Karlovy Vary—In recent years a number of films from central and eastern Europe have looked back at the repressive policies of the Communist era. It has taken a decade or more for European filmmakers to take stock of these past crimes, just as many of the best American movies about Vietnam were made years after the war had ended. The Lives of Others remains the best of these post-Communist films, but a number of other notable films have enhanced our understanding of this dark period. The new Hungarian film The Exam, which played in Karlovy Vary, offers another variation on the theme. Audiences will enjoy the film, though the subject matter may be a little too familiar to garner much attention in the American marketplace.

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The film is set in Budapest in 1957, a year after the failure of the Hungarian uprising. Like The Lives of Others, it dramatizes the obsession with surveillance by the secret police. Jung (Zsolt Nagy) is a teacher who is also acting as a mid-level agent informing on many other citizens who come to report to him. Every Hungarian must go through an elaborate testing process to ascertain his loyalty, and Jung does not realize that he is also being watched and photographed by higher level policemen who want to be sure of his commitment. Jung’s superior and mentor, Marko (Janos Kulka), is overseeing the surveillance, even though he feels a fatherly interest in Jung.  Marko and his cohorts are surprised when Jung receives a visit from Eva (Gabriella Hamori), who was one of the freedom fighters in the revolt of 1956. It soon becomes clear that the two young people are lovers, which casts doubt on Jung’s loyalty to the Party.

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The entire film takes place over several hours on Christmas Eve and is mainly set in two apartments—Jung’s and the apartment across the way where Marko and his colleagues are keeping watch on the young teacher. Director Peter Bergendy does a fine job building the claustrophobic atmosphere, and yet there is just enough action to keep the film taut and suspenseful. An erotic scene between the attractive young stars helps to keep us hooked. Both Nagy and Hamori give compelling performances, though veteran Hungarian actor Kulka has the richest role. Marko is reminiscent of the conflicted secret policeman played by the late Ulrich Muhe in Lives of Others. Marko is a loyal Party functionary, but he also feels affectionate concern for Jung, and his humanity makes him a somewhat unreliable Party member. Kulka’s portrayal is deeply nuanced.

There are a lot of twists and turns as the film moves toward its bitterly sardonic conclusion. The film does a fine job capturing the paranoid atmosphere within many Eastern bloc countries, when everyone was spying on everyone and no one felt safe. The tight editing helps to sustain tension, and Zsolt Toth’s appropriately dark-toned cinematography makes the most of the clammy atmosphere in the apartments and on the chilly streets of Budapest. While The Exam doesn’t break any new ground, it’s an effective low-key thriller.

Venue:  Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

Cast:  Janos Kulka, Zsolt Nagy, Gabriella Hamori, Peter Scherer, Andras Balogh.

Director:  Peter Bergendy.

Screenwriter:  Norbert Kobli.

Producer:  Istvan Bodzsar.

Director of photography:  Zsolt Toth.

Production designer:  Balazs Hujber.

Music:  Gergely Parudy.

Costume designer:  Janos Brecki.

Editor:  Istvan Kiraly.

No rating, 89 minutes.