“The striking thing about Erasing Frank is its intensity”
In the days of the Iron Curtain your political views or your faith could land you in trouble if it was deemed not enough in line with the totalitarian regime. One method was that of ‘political psychiatry’, in which people were deliberately diagnosed with a mental health issue and put in psychiatric wards. These people were submitted to torture and at times executed under the guise of psychiatric help. Estimates put the number of victims in the hundreds of thousands. This evil but effective way to suppress dissent has gotten too little attention when looking at the history of the atrocities of communist regimes, but Hungarian director Gábor Fabricius’ Erasing Frank puts it front and center, and niftily warns us that this kind of crime is not unique to the regime in the film and the time period it is set in.
Budapest, 1983. The regime in question is the communist one, although this is never explicitly stated. Frank (a charismatic Benjamin Fuchs) is the singer of a popular punk band in Hungary’s underground scene, voicing resistance to the oppression they have to live under. They are not far enough underground, however, as the ever-spying eyes of the state have their sights on Frank and his band, leading to his arrest in the film’s opening scenes. He is bailed out by a young psychiatrist (Andrea Waskovics) who turns out to be Frank’s love interest. They have plans to go to New York together. She manages to get him admitted to a psychiatric ward so he can lay low for a few days until they can get their hands on fake passports. Frank takes pity on a young female patient (Kincsö Blénesi) who has a secret of her own to tell the world. As the authoritarian regime slowly turns the screws to silence Frank, faced with betrayal, he is prepared to give everything to get the truth out, even his life.
The striking thing about Erasing Frank is its intensity, which Fabricius achieves by keeping the camera on his protagonist throughout the film, often in close-up and often over the shoulder in long tracking shots, akin to what fellow Hungarian László Nemes did in his seminal Son of Saul. This has the effect of the audience following Frank around, and being followed is exactly what feeds his increasing paranoia. A by-product of this choice in mise-en-scene is that most other characters are fleeting, peripheral ones, which furthers the growing idea that everybody is keeping an eye on him, but also emphasizes the claustrophobic bureaucracy and the grinding effect of the system. Tamás Dobos’ black-and-white cinematography is somewhat reminiscent of Kirill Serebrennikov’s recent Leto, which also has thematic similarities. In both films this choice adds to the immersion, but Erasing Frank depicts a world in which this immersion is almost suffocating, and the psychiatric ward that Frank is kept in becomes a hellscape.
“You can kill me but the system lives on,” says a high-ranking bureaucrat to Frank, chillingly. But what system is he talking about? Communism in Hungary in the ’80s is the straightforward answer, but Fabricius takes care to make both Frank’s lyrics and the state’s radio propaganda unintelligible, making the whole premise a bit more universally applicable, as if to say that this is not just a relic of the past but can happen anywhere when a totalitarian regime springs up. Like, say, Hungary, the present. So in that regard Erasing Frank in itself can be seen as an artistic form of resistance against a current regime, and should be cherished as such.