Berlinale 2021 review: Natural Light (Dénes Nagy)

What makes man remain impassive in the face of evil? Situated in a time of great evil, Hungarian director Dénes Nagy’s debut feature Natural Light (after an array of documentaries and shorts) tries to find an answer to that question through a blank-faced protagonist (an excellent performance by untrained actor Ferenc Szabó) thrown into a pit of chaos in the Russian woods. Moving at a languid pace, Natural Light may not capture attention for the full length of its running time, but stunning photography and a lived-in sense of place and time make it a worthy entry into the subgenre of films that depict the psychological effect of the atrocities of World War II on individual humans: films like Sergey Loznitsa’s In the Fog, Sharunas Bartas’ At Dusk from last year, or the iconic Come and See by Elem Klimov, all perhaps not coincidentally films from Eastern Europe. Adapting from a 600-page novel by Pál Závada that spans two decades, Nagy takes just three days from that span to present an essentially goodhearted man being complicit in evil behavior.

István Semetka (Szábo) is a corporal in a Hungarian army unit that is scouring Russia’s wide forests for partisans. As the opening text informs us, around 100,000 Hungarian troops aided the German army in their campaign in Russia, mainly by securing occupied territory and rooting out opposition. Semetka used to be a simple farmer before the war, and he wants nothing more than to return to that life, but here he is between the birches, the never-ending birches. His company takes hold of a remote village, eating the villagers’ winter food supplies, acting like they own the place. When they finally move on they come under attack by partisans. With the company’s sergeant killed command falls to Semetka, who has to overcome his fears and control a situation that he hardly understands himself.

There is a scene about halfway through Natural Light in which Semetka is sent out with a few men to check on illegal woodcutters near the village. They find the woodcutters, but Semetka, who is in command, does nothing. He recognizes a group of people just trying to get through life in dire times. With that in mind the impassiveness he displays elsewhere when his comrades commit heinous acts (including one ripped straight out of Klimov’s seminal work) is baffling, but can be explained by Semetka being in over his head and above all trying to avoid any type of conflict, even if it costs other people their dignity or worse. Szabó, a non-professional, has the perfect face for this, his eyes both steely and sad, the rest emotionless. Nagy uses his face to show how human nature can sometimes get in the way of what we would like our true nature to be.

The languid and uneven pacing does pose a problem. The fateful confrontation doesn’t happen until halfway through the film, which makes the run-up to this incident feel unnecessarily stretched out. Tighter scripting would have brought this incident forward and cut the runtime, which would make Natural Light less of a test of patience on the audience. With sparse dialogue, especially from its protagonist, and the camera mostly fixated on Szabó, despite the actor’s efforts the mind can wander at times. Keeping focus on Semetka’s reactions does allow for an interesting aural experience, where most of what happens is off-screen but audible in the sound design and mix, to an extent employing the same technique as Son of Saul did. Working along the same lines is the star aspect of Natural Light, Tamás Dobos’ cinematography. Shooting mostly in, how appropriate, natural light, Dobos captures the cold, crisp air of the Russian woods (even if they are really in Latvia) in striking images, but turns on the shallow focus when needed to create the same effect as the soundscape does. This makes Natural Light an interesting and gorgeous film to look at. As an examination of human nature in the face of evil it works despite strong pacing problems, but it requires a lot of patience from the viewer.