When two Orthodox Jews return to a small village in Hungary at the end of World War II, the local Christians are thrown into an ever-deepening personal and social quagmire. Director Ferenc Torok and screenwriter Gabor Szanto speak with Director Talk about the history behind this strangely beautiful film. •Availability: Opens November 1, New York City, Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, with national rollout to follow. Click here for trailer and theater listings near you. Thanks to Aimee Morris and Sophie Gluck, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.
DT: What struck me most about the film was the absolute otherness of the Jews.
GS: In the original short story, they were Orthodox Jews whose clothes and behavior are different from the villagers’, so it was natural that we also represent their characters in the movie this way. This otherness comes from their religion, their tradition, their very strong morality. They came to this village for a religious purpose, for a moral purpose, and it’s an absolutely different kind of behavior from the villagers’ behavior, whose morality is deteriorated and who have very material desires, very, very money-centered desires. That is the opposition between the two main parts of the story.
DT: Ferenc, how did you go about capturing that as a director?
FT: The point of view of the survivors, the two Orthodox Jews, is basic in Gabor’s short story. After that, we built up the village society, starting with the young generation, the son of the clerk. Toward the end of our work—it was close to ten years we spent developing this script—we focused on the guilty parts of the society, the collaborators, the clerk, the policeman, the priests. That was our way of discovering this story: layers.
As for directing, the visuals were really important in this story. That’s why we use black- and-white as straight dramatic compositions. Also the expressivity is dramatic. It’s not really a dialogue movie; there’s a lot of silence and a lot of atmospheric voices, music, horses. This is really important. This is a non-dialogue movie, so the atmosphere is much more important.
DT: You captured the cult of silence really perfectly. How did that affect Hungarian society in particular?
GS: There was a long silence around responsibility for the Holocaust and the persecution of the Jews, because forty years of Communist regime didn’t help the process of focusing and making it clear what the responsibility was and how big the responsibility was. So the whole Hungarian society woke up after the political change in 1990 like from a dream, and they didn’t remember. The society didn’t want to remember, and it was lengthy work to put it into the center of the public debate. A very long process.
I absolutely remember that in the first one and a half decades of freedom, after 1990, it was very difficult for me to publish stories, not just on post-Holocaust issues but on contemporary Jewish issues, because the reviews, the cultural life didn’t care too much. People felt it belonged to a former age, the issue of religion is not so important, the issue of Jewish identity, the issues of post-Holocaust questions, we are over it now. I really felt walls around the topic—I really felt walls around me, because I constantly wrote these kinds of stories. A big part of my writings came from this source and used this material, not just post-Holocaust Jewish topics but Jewish lives, Jewish dilemmas under the Communist period, the questions of revival and the possibility of identity revival—or the failure of identity revival—after the political change. I focused on these topics, and I felt the walls for a very long time.
In the last five to ten years, society has started to be more open to these topics, not only in the nature of protest but as a countereffect to Holocaust deniers and people who denied Hungary’s responsibility. Talking about these topics came as a counter-reaction, so the whole media became open and the whole intellectual life became open to these topics that were very important for me.
FT: And also in our generation it became an important topic. We are close to fifty now, the second or third generation after the war. We’ve become serious grown-up people, and we need to answer to our kids, so it’s also our own way to know the facts and react to them.
There was another problem. Along with the liberal democracy that emerged in the 1990s after the big Communist silence and taboo came the extreme right—sometimes fascists—speaking in everyday politics. Not only politics; in the pubs and in the street too. During the Communist time it was pushed down, and when it came out in the beginning of the ’90s, everybody started to get afraid: What’s going on? Can we keep silent while they make these anti-Semitic topics again? So it was a counter-reaction, because not only good things came out with freedom.
DT: I’d like to talk about the artistic importance of the single gesture, like tipping one’s hat as a sign of respect.
FT: Yes, in Christian culture, but it’s a little bit opposite in Jewish culture. It’s really funny how gestures with the hat are really different in these two really close religious cultures. But these small details are just for really good critical viewers.
DT: That’s sort of what I’m asking. When you’re writing or directing, do you consciously say, What small detail can I put in?
GS: Absolutely. There was a moment in this film, for example—the situation at the railway station when the young Russian stops the young Jew and wants to take his cap. While Ferenc was shooting, he called me and said, “We need a scene at the railway station.” There were parallel story lines, and we needed a scene there. In an hour I sent him the scene. It was wonderful, because in this moment we got the platonistic idea that this scene existed somewhere and we had to find it because it was so important: how the Russians behave in front of the young Jew. There is aggression and there is playing in it, and the older officer who feels it too much.
FT: There is peacetime now, so don’t get aggressive with these guys. The basic gestures are normal, but the first gesture is aggressive.
DT: In April, the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation hosted an event in Budapest to prepare educators to teach your film.
GS: We have a connection with the educators of the Shoah Foundation, and they created educational material for the film. It’s already translated into English, so it will be available in the US too.
It’s a very unique time of history and a very unique perspective on post-Holocaust issues, this question of homecoming, the meeting between the survivors and the local people in Hungary. Not just in Hungary; it’s a very European story. We won a prize in the Netherlands, where the audience said, “This is our story!” There were survivors in the Netherlands who went back to Amsterdam and found local people living in their houses. So it’s a very European story.
FT: And in France, and of course East Europe too. In the last few months, the reactions in the Western European countries are really new for us. There was a different development after the wars, with a capitalist liberal Holland or Belgium or France, while we in Hungary are this Soviet dictatorship. But we had the same taboo, and together we recognized each other, we being the small, secret collaborating countries who always said, “It was the Germans. It was the Nazis.” It was a comfortable issue for a long time.
GS: Outsourcing the responsibility. It was not, as people said, the Germans but the local societies and especially the local political powers in East Europe who collaborated with the Nazis because they had their own agenda. What they wanted to have from the Germans, from the Nazis—they gave their loyalty for it.
DT: Hungary passed a law in 1939 making it legal to confiscate Jewish lands. That was one way that fascist regimes worked: they co-opted local populations. They had to give them something, so they gave them other people’s property.
FT: They corrupted them. And the Communists continued it later on.
GS: There were several smaller anti-Jewish laws between 1920 and 1938, but from ’38 there were three very strong anti-Jewish laws against the community and private persons that step by step pushed the Jews from Hungarian society. In 1944, after the deportation, even during the process of deportation, the country offered a great part of Jewish property to local villagers, who got it at auction. They got the property at discounted prices. It was a very cruel tool to make the people collaborators, because the human being is weak. The human being can be corrupted.
FT: And the people were really poor.
GS: There was real poverty all over Central Europe, so it was a very easy way to corrupt the people. There is evil in human nature. There was anti-Semitism—and still is anti-Semitism all over the world in different levels—but it couldn’t happen without this kind of government gesture, this very tricky way of pulling the people into sins.
FT: It was evil business because the political power needed the factories. The commercial companies and the banks of course got involved. It was absolutely a different level, but they were in the same part of the story.
GS: Three or four years later, the Communist powers also did the same. They confiscated the factories, the fields, the big shops from the owners, from the bourgeoisie. They nationalized or gave some part of this property to other parts of society. They gave it to the poor people or they made kolkhoz from it.
DT: I never thought of it that way.
GS: This is a crucial point in Central Europe four years later—change in ownership of the property. Behind every political change there is this factor of taking the property and giving it to somebody else.
FT: That’s also a reason behind the taboos and the secrets. After ’48, after three years of the Holocaust and the war, the state backed everything, and society had no kind of property, no houses, no factories. It was a common Soviet example.
GS: If you had a shop with more than five employees, it was nationalized. Everything belonged to the state. They killed private property.
FT: And in 1990 they started the new capitalism and redistribution of everything.
DT: Getting back to the film, how much is based on your short story, Gabor, and how much of it is autobiographical?
GS: It’s not autobiographical. It has historical records behind it, interviews, historical facts. It’s a fictional story, but I was involved in these stories because my parents were survivors of the Holocaust. They were kids when they were deported to Austrian camps by the Germans with the Hungarians’ help.
My grandmothers and parents survived. My grandfather died at the eastern front as a member of a forced labor battalion. Men of a certain age who had Jewish origins were sent there to work for the army because they didn’t get guns. They were secondary citizens. They had to go there, and they disappeared. I heard these kinds of stories from the family, and I was very much involved in them.
DT: How was the film received in Hungary?
FT: Good. We were afraid before the premiere. We’d worked on the film for twelve years, and the postproduction and distribution in Hungary were not easy. Nobody liked this movie.
GS: They were afraid of it.
FT: Everybody was afraid of it. We stayed with the project because we believed it’s a good movie and an important movie. We believed in the audience but of course we were afraid of the audience because maybe they’d say it’s against Hungary, or it’s not true, or it’s a Jewish movie…
GS: …and it’s black-and-white and it’s historical.
DT: It had everything against it!
GS: And in spite of all odds, there were 40,000 people who went to watch it, which in the case of an art-house movie in Hungary is a success.
FT: It was really important when international film festivals selected the movie, because after we had success abroad we started to release it in Hungary. It’s really surprising the reaction in Hungary is so positive. It’s not only from the Jewish community.
GS: It’s all over the media.
FT: The conservatives respect this work—not only the film, the whole gesture. Hungarians need it. It’s not a complete democracy, but I believe something is moving. We’ve grown up to the level of getting a mirror and thinking about the facts. We’re working on it.
GS: Ninety percent of the reviews were absolutely enthusiastic. They realized that the movie is partly symbolic but it touched the problem in a very realistic way. It has a very strong moral but it’s not judgmental. It’s very realistic. It shows the colorful reaction of the soul, the human being, it doesn’t want to homogenize, it’s not a stick with which you beat somebody’s hand. It tries to understand what happened; how could that have happened?
FT: Also important are the different relations and points of view about the old guilt. The characters aren’t just black-and-white, guilty or innocent, Hungarian is bad, Jewish is good. No. We worked on different attitudes and different ages, different ways of thinking. We are not homogeneous. Hungarian society has differences—women, young people…
DT: I was also struck by how anonymous the Jews were. They were just sort of…
DT: Exactly. The audience has no idea who they are. They are catalysts. They aren’t really characters.
FT: I think this secret is the best idea of the script and the short story. If these two Jews were from the village and knew the villagers and wanted something from them, it would be a drama, verbal, maybe with fighting. But this way the gossip starts…
GS: People wonder who they are…
FT: It’s like a bad dream or a frustration, where everybody stays alone with this scene.
GS: Because the secret—and everybody has secrets—of who they are catalyzed the process. People have to come out with their secrets, they have inner conflicts because their secrets come up.
END SPOILER ALERT
DT: How did your actors respond to the material the first time you showed it to them?
GS: They loved the screenplay.
FT: Peter Rudolf, who plays the protagonist, had a really, really good attitude. When he read the script, he understood everything. It’s not really a complicated story, but we need to understand it. Of course it wasn’t easy, because Peter needed to gain fifteen kilograms and become bald. He’s a comedian and a well-known Hungarian actor, but he believed it was important. It’s also a really good turn because it’s a different role for him. It’s not a positive character. But for an actor a negative character is sometimes much more interesting.
DT: Can you talk about the music? When the Jews approach the cemetery, there was a melody that sounded very much like Kol Nidre [very solemn prayer recited on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement].
GS: It is, it is, by Jancsi Toll, a Gypsy musician from 1924.
FT: It’s an archival recording of Kol Nidre by a Gypsy violinist.
DT: Why was a Gypsy playing Kol Nidre?
GS: In Central Europe there were several klezmer bands that played with Gypsy musicians. The Gypsy musicians knew the tunes of the Jewish melodies, and Gypsy and Jewish musicians played together at wedding ceremonies or other occasions.
FT: The violin is a Gypsy character in Hungarian or East European music. They are so good and so sensitive.
DT: But why Kol Nidre? It’s not a wedding song at all.
GS: It’s a big question. Kol Nidre has a concrete meaning. For me, who knows what Kol Nidre is, it was a bit strange, but it was so strong, it was so powerful, and in a way it represents the Hungarian guilt and the Hungarian confession of guilt by way of a Jewish melody. It’s an artistic mixture.
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