Written for RAF News November 2021
In the icy woodland of Soviet-occupied Ukraine, Hungarian soldiers allied with the Axis, try to secure territory and root out the pro-Soviet partisans in the forests, in a slow and trudging test of morality.
Istvan Semetka (Ferenc Szabó) is an Hungarian farmer turned Corporal who appears hollowed out by his 8 months service. Quieter than most, more of an observer, it is no coincidence that he carries a camera alongside his rifle. Much of the film is communicated through silent exchanges, forcing us to interrogate people’s expressions and find the meaning or emotion.
Peasants in the village become hostage to these soldiers, forced to look down at the ground in deference for fear of arousing hostility. But when Semetka catches one of the villagers eyes, you get the impression that he sees them, that he is allowing himself to be empathic. Through a stony blank-expression and pained silence we understand that he is a man tortured. This is hardly the Hollywood heroics of Oscar Schindler, Semetka isn’t even a hero, he is simply a man reckoning with the deeds that he has committed, opening his eyes to the horror.
The stillness of the remote village plays against the occasional bursts of violence, of attacks from the camped out partisans – a reminder of the barbarism that is being resisted. Whilst Semetka’s impassive gaze may give an emotionless feel to the film itself, especially when shielded from the more ghastly actions off-screen, it draws you in to find the humanity. Dénes Nagy makes his feature debut with Natural Light, but his documentary experience bolsters the film in its use of observation.
If you have the patience, and find its stillness intriguing, it is an involving watch and shows how complex human emotions can be communicated without dialogue.