There’s a nicely worked metaphor in Dénes Nagy’s feature debut, Natural Light / Természetes fény, that encapsulates the predicament of its protagonist, István Semetka (Ferenc Szabo), a soldier in the Hungarian army during World War II. He’s carrying a bucket overflowing with water through a village his unit are using as a temporary base. A metal cup is buffeted by the water and tossed about, from one side of the pail to the other, before sinking to the bottom with a glug. This is Semetka’s situation, too; an ordinary man adrift in the madness of war, thrown around by events, some of them unspeakably dark. The question is, will he, like the cup, also sink?
Unfortunately, it turns out the metal cup has rather more warmth and personality than Semetka himself does. In making a film about the ways in which people are dehumanised by war, Nagy presents us with a largely expressionless character who barely speaks, let alone offers any window into his emotions. Is he meant to be a blank canvas upon which we can paint our assumptions, or is the idea that constant exposure to the danger and depravity of conflict has effectively shut down large parts of his identity? To survive, he must remain inert, self-preservation trumping any notions of loyalty or genuine humanity. Here’s a man who’s been reduced to a vague idea of who he truly is, and Szabo (a non-actor in his first screen role) sells that notion effectively, no matter how frustrating it proves to be for audiences.
Based on a small section of Természetes fény, Hungarian author Pál Závada’s 2014 novel, Natural Light is set in an occupied region of the Soviet Union and focuses on a military unit tasked with tracking down partisans (often Jews who’d joined organised resistance groups after escaping ghettos and work camps). A title card at the beginning of the film informs us that between 1941 and 1944, 100,000 Hungarian troops—who fought for the Axis powers—were used to “maintain order” in these territories. The soldiers travel from village to village in an attempt to root out the resistance, which is easier said than done; firstly, because the rural Russian terrain is about as inhospitable as it gets, and secondly because the partisans are able to easily secrete themselves within supportive village communities. Semetka is the unit’s reserve commando forced to step up when his superior is killed in an ambush for which the villagers are (probably rightly) blamed.
You could call Natural Light a character study if Semetka himself wasn’t so unknowable. Stoic and taciturn, he barely says a word for the first half of the movie, with the only glimmer of emotion on his face a combination of excitement and anticipation (maybe) when his comrades steal a dead elk from two hunters and expertly chop it up for meat. The plot summary tells us he’s a farmer but that isn’t made explicit by a screenplay that takes ‘show don’t tell’ to unnecessary extremes. We know he has a family (a wife and a son) and the way he looks at one of the villagers—Alina (Anastasija Jegorova)—perhaps a daughter too (although those looks could easily be interpreted another way). He has decided the best way to get through the war is to keep his head down and say as little as possible, even when he’s in a situation to help either his army comrades or the wretched villagers whose fate becomes more precarious as the film progresses. He believes himself to be powerless and seems resigned to that state of affairs, so scrupulously avoids any situation in which he might be called upon to actually do something.
Semetka’s non-interventionist stance sees him ignore the suspected partisans (or their helpers) he discovers ensconced in a cabin a little way from the village, and later looks the other way when he spots an escapee hiding in the undergrowth. While that might make him look heroic, it soon becomes clear his refusal to take any sort of action applies to war crimes too. When another unit—led by brutal Sergeant Major Matyas Koleszár (László Bajkó)—takes over and the villagers come under threat (in shades of Elem Klimov’s excoriating 1985 film Come and See), Semetka’s sidelined and puts up little resistance, his only concern being to survive long enough to go home to his family. He becomes the embodiment of that John Stuart Mill quote: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Far from a typical wartime drama, there’s nevertheless a clear narrative here, but Nagy’s less interested in plot than he is in making his film as immersive as possible. Taking place mostly in dense forests and ramshackle village settings, it’s a tactile experience full of cloying mist, freezing rivers and the kind of thick, squelching mud not glimpsed on screen since Aleksey German’s Hard to be a God (2013). Everyone is cold, filthy, and hungry. Cinematographer Tamás Dobos and the film’s sound design team do a lot of the heavy lifting while Santa Ratniece’s restrained score provides a perfect symphony of unease.
As if contending with the partisans and hostile villagers wasn’t enough, the army unit have a constant battle against nature, one in which moving men, horses, and supplies through forests and rivers becomes a serious feat of endurance and ingenuity. Nagy is interested in landscapes, both those of the rugged terrains he films and the ones etched upon the craggy, weather-beaten visages of the woodcutters, hunters, and villagers we encounter. Unlike the soldiers, who stick out like a battalion of sore thumbs, these people are part of the land, perhaps even inseparable from it, and the wrinkles, furrows, and scars on their faces reflect that.
Hungarian filmmaker Nagy may have won the Silver Bear for ‘Best Director’ at Berlinale, but Natural Light is easier to admire than it is to love. While the film smothers you in the austere beauty of its setting, it keeps one at arm’s length from its characters. Slow-moving and light on dialogue, some sequences are presented so dimly I wondered if ‘natural light’ was also a description of how many of the scenes were properly lit! The action, such as it is, happens off-screen or in frustrating murk. And while understanding his predicament, you struggle to connect with Semetka (the fact he’s fighting for the Nazis doesn’t help, frankly). Nagy has a background in documentaries and that ‘hands-off’ approach informs his work here, too. It means, as a viewer, you are a witness to events but rarely feel truly wrapped up in them. That dislocation ensures Natural Light is a tough watch and only occasionally rewarding.
HUNGARY • LATVIA • FRANCE • GERMANY | 2021 | 103 MINUTES | COLOUR | HUNGARIAN • RUSSIAN
Cast & Crew
director: Dénes Nagy.
writer: Dénes Nagy (based on the novel by Pál Závada).
starring: Ferenc Szabó, László Bajkó, Tamás Garbacz & Gyula Franczia.