Hungarian director and documentarist Dénes Nagy makes his feature debut with this gruelling, slow-burning drama set in the vast trackless forests of the eastern front during the second world war, a film which won him the Silver Bear for best director at this year’s Berlin film festival. This is a world of brutality and fear from which the movie averts its gaze at key moments, but the chill is unmistakable. The title appears to refer to a light which is inexorably fading.
Having become one of the Axis powers, Hungary sends troops into the grim, freezing forests of Ukraine to secure the territory, keep order, establish supply lines and root out pockets of pro-Soviet “partisans”, naturally making an example of them to cow the other resentful civilians into submission. István Semetka, played by Ferenc Szabó, is a corporal with a machine-gun unit on this grim mission: a diffident, blank-faced man with the semi-official job of taking photographs, who is mocked a little by his commanding officers. They move in on a village which is, at least apparently, docile enough. But having taken food from these peasants, the Hungarian unit move on and are set upon in the forest, the villagers having evidently told partisans their movements. Almost all the officers are killed except Semetka, who gets back to the village with the other survivors, to be met by Hungarian reinforcements, led by Koleszár (László Bajkó), a friend of Semetka’s. It is Koleszár who, via his insolent sergeant-major, orders Semetka out on a spurious task searching the forest, simply in order to get his gentle old friend out of the way, so that he can get on with the job of carrying out the necessary terrible reprisals.
And how does Semetka feel about this? Is he, in fact, capable of feeling anything under these inhuman conditions? Could anyone? Apart from anything else, they are crucified with hunger nearly all the time. The film begins with an eerie extended sequence in which two peasants are carrying a dead elk downriver on a raft, when the Hungarian troops order them to stop and wordlessly begin cutting it up: this elk provides almost all their protein for the rest of the film.
The reprisals on both sides include a grisly form of humiliation. Two guards are punished for falling asleep on watch by being tied up with a placard around their necks; a village elder is murdered for fraternising with the Hungarian troops and punished the same way by the partisans with the placard “Traitor”. These ugly signs are almost a primitive war language, a crude declaration of meaning and identity.
And there is the most dangerous label of all: “partisan”. The point is that everyone is a partisan: everyone has picked a side, and everyone can get killed for disloyalty. Semetka is loyal to the Nazis: he is hardly a hero, and though he does not witness the brutality, or in some sense chooses not to witness it, he does not dissent from it in any way, merely gratefully accepting Koleszár’s order to return to the city with wounded men. His emotions, his very consciousness, have been worn down to a mute stub.
Natural Light is a reminder of the darkly inspirational potency of Elem Klimov’s 1985 war movie Come and See, surely an influence here, as it has been on Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird and Sergei Loznitsa’s In the Fog from 2012. Of course there is also Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1962 film Ivan’s Childhood, whose influences announce themselves in the film’s dreamlike quality and in the startling moment, like something from a Grimm fairy tale, in which Semetka sees a peasant woman buried in the underbrush in the forest, her serene face visible. Is she dead? Hiding? Or perhaps she is frozen there by supernatural forces beyond his understanding, forces of terrible malign power.
• Natural Light is released on 12 November in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema.