Wars are such acts of extraordinary inhumanity they’ve always inspired and continue to inspire art that examines, re-examines their every aspect. The latest, beautiful addition to the enduring filmography of war is Hungarian writer/director Dénes Nagy’s narrative feature debut NATURAL LIGHT, which premiered in competition at the 71st Berlinale.
The film is told through the eyes of reserve corporal István Semetka (Ferenc Szabó), a stoic, reticent everyman who, like thousands of his compatriots, is drafted to scout for partisans in occupied Soviet Union during WWII. Corporal Semetka doesn’t talk all that much. With cool, wordless efficiency, he leads his unit through expanses of forbiddingly wintry terrain. Even on the few occasions superiors or colleagues attempt a conversation, his monosyllabic answers reveal little about the man beyond the uniform.
A couple of things are evident about the corporal though. He has a strong sense of duty and not much escapes his keen, watchful eyes – qualities that should serve him and his mission well. When his team finds and takes over a rustic settlement in the middle of nowhere, he picks up more details about the detained villagers than he lets on. When the corps later get caught in enemy fire by surprise, leading them back to the village looking for a snitch, this unusual war epic starts to morph into a moral drama that ponders questions of conscience and salvation in a time of madness.
What strikes me the most about NATURAL LIGHT is its exceptionally elegant, understated take on the genre. Contrasting starkly with the DUNKIRK’s and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s of the world, it’s introspective, observational, driven largely by mood and not spectacle. It doesn’t try to recreate visceral, harrowing set pieces the way 1917, THE HURT LOCKER or Nagy’s countryman László Nemes’ Oscar winner SON OF SAUL did. No bomb ever goes off and hardly any gunshots are fired. Instead it maps the mundane horrors, the psychological carnage of war – the isolation, solitude, slow, imperceptible distortion of the mind – and becomes an immersive experience all its own.
The magic couldn’t have happened without the stellar work of DP Tamás Dobos and production designer Márton Ágh. Sure, it doesn’t hurt to have breathtakingly austere landscape as backdrop for your film. But Ágh adds vital touches of authenticity and humanity via the sets he created. The villagers’ common house, living quarters and the crucial location of the barn feel textured, lived-in. You can smell the desperation trapped inside these spaces that once held promise of happiness. And for a film called NATURAL LIGHT, Dobos does not disappoint with what he’s captured on camera. The exterior shots of misty dawns, icy forests and fire-lit skies look absolutely stunning. Moreover, they evoke the pristine, magnificent indifference of nature that’s somehow even more chilling than the typical wartime optics of devastation.
The interior scenes also shine. In fact, it’s two scenes of private conversation late in the film that reveal the true depth of NATURAL LIGHT. In the first one, Lieutenant Koleszár (László Bajkó) explains to Semetka why he purposefully sent him away before something terrible was to happen at the village. He starts off by recalling a perilous anecdote from his civilian life, only to conclude in a shocking admission of cowardice, shame and guilt. It’s the attempt of a damaged man to save the soul of another before it’s too late. In a subsequent scene, Semetka reports to a higher-ranking officer on the status of his mission. Looking straight into the other’s eyes, he lies by omitting key events that shaped the mission. Clearly noticing the gaps in the story, the listener lets Semetka go without so much as a follow-up question. Both of these exchanges expose something essential about the parties. They show the men as who they are, not soldiers but human beings with demons, weaknesses and the capacity for empathy, seen briefly in the natural light of day before turning into nameless pawns of war again.
Szabó is an incredible find for the lead role. Being a first-time actor, it’s quite remarkable how he can be both unselfconscious enough to disappear into the character and able to command your full attention with his presence alone when needed. There’s also the added challenge of playing someone as nonverbal as Semetka, which limits the tools available to a performer. But Szabó delivers an utterly compelling performance as someone struggling with their scrambled moral compass, thanks especially to the attentiveness and stillness of being he brings to the part. Every flash of emotion across his face feels real. Also noteworthy is Bajkó, who has only one key scene but infuses it with such quiet pathos you can’t help but be struck.
Intelligently conceived, artfully executed and acted, NATURAL LIGHT is an impressive, confident debut that offers new ways to consider the casualty of war. If it receives endorsement from the Berlinale jury, we might also be looking at Hungary’s submission for the Oscars next year.