Deep into the Second World War, István Semetka is a corporal in the Axis aligned Hungarian army. Being tasked with hunting down anti-Axis partisans, Semetka’s humanity is pushed to the limit.
Hungary’s World War II tale has its own fascinations and horrors overshadowed in historical consciousness by the Great Powers. The Kingdom without a King—ruled not by royalty but by de facto dictator Miklós Horthy—formally joined the Axis powers by signing the Tripartite Pact in 1940. Within a year it had participated in the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia, and that of the Soviet Union. It is amidst the latter that director Dénes Nagy sets his Hungarian war film.
Based on a novel of the same name by Pál Závada, Natural Light follows István Semetka (Ferenc Szabó), a Hungarian corporal serving in a special unit tasked with hunting down anti-Axis partisans. Marauding occupied Soviet territory, the group come across a peasant village, where Semetka must come face to face with the moral dilemmas tormenting him.
Natural Light has one true strength to promote—its cinematography, which is fitting in a way for a film whose title references light. Expansive visuals are introduced from the get-go with a lengthy landscape shot of an icy rural river, in the middle of which floats a riverman on a makeshift raft. This wintery, overtly contemplative approach typifies the rest of the runtime, its intended goal being twofold—to connect on the power of the image, and to create a sense of heft.
The former comes together in a climactic scene. His unit having been attacked by partisans, Semetka acts to round up all the villagers in a barn. Having a conscience, he refuses to carry out what we fearfully assume a corporal in his position would do. However, reinforcements arrive, and Semetka is sent to a swamp to investigate an apparent disturbance. On his return, he sees a glow up ahead. The camera pans around to the barn, ablaze against the blues and violets of the winter night.
As well as lingering on nature, the camera lingers on human expression as a storytelling device, necessarily so when large passages are wordless (though as will be made clear, what dialogue there is has a huge bearing). Ferenc Szabó conveys his character’s anguish according to the old acting adage that doing nothing is doing more. These points—especially the barn shot—are arresting in isolation, but regrettably they are outliers, for a crippling flaw pervades the picture.
All films have their cadence, be it fast, slow, manic, indolent, you name it. Nagy employs long takes, which doesn’t necessarily mean the tempo will be slow, and slow isn’t necessarily a problem. Son of Saul, another Hungarian war drama (and winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015), employed even fewer cuts than this does. But through its avant-garde camerawork and auteur’s choice of aspect ratio, director László Nemes maintains a gripping intensity. Nagy’s long takes on the other hand feel long, in part because they are, but in particular because of the direction he’s applied to the dialogue. Normal conversations have a natural rhythm—when unusual pauses come along, they stand out for dramatic effect. In Natural Light, every line is delivered with a halting emphasis of significance. There’s simply no reason for it—the enforced, unnatural stops render every exchange stilted and awkward. At first it’s tedious, eventually it’s downright maddening.
In turn this approach stultifies what little narrative there is. Semetka’s unit reach the village early on and further plot development comes to a standstill, somewhat inevitably given the first gear dialogue means the screenplay has about as third as much content as a film of this length ought to contain. The outcome is a serious grind.
I opened by characterising Hungary’s World War II history, a history filled with fascination and horror. Natural Light’s downfall elicits some of the former but far more of the latter—defeated in the end by a directional decision that strains for importance and delivers motionlessness.
Words by Alex Crisp
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