Wednesday, May 09, 2018

WJFF ’18: Budapest Noir

In 1936 Budapest, both Communists and Fascists were actively engaged in underground organizing. Just about everything going on was a crime, but a lot of it was just called politics. There was plenty of the grubbier, more conventional crime going on as well. That is cynical reporter Zsigmond Gordon’s beat. His latest story initially looks like the sort of sad case nobody gives a second thought to, but it threatens to implicate some very powerful people in Éva Gárdos’s Budapest Noir (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Washington Jewish Film Festival.

Budapest is on edge, but some people’s nerves are more jangled than others. The film commences against the backdrop of the funeral for recently deceased Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös. It might sound like an overstatement to call him “pro-Jewish” by contemporary standards, but for the head of state of a nation bordering Austria in the mid-1930s, he was about as progressive you could hope for. Alas, “was” is the key word.

Political issues are largely off Gordon’s radar. While laying low in a café during the state funeral, the reporter gets conned into picking up the check for a rather sultry young woman. The next time he sees her, she will be surrounded by a chalk outline. However, he knows she is not just another dead lady-of-the-night, because he found her file in the police chiefs desk. She also happened to be Jewish, which will be significant.

 Determined to see her case through, Gordon follows her trail to a ritzy brothel catering to the elite upper echelon of government officials and a sleazy Communist pornographer. He will have help when his on-again-off-again lover Krisztina Eckhardt returns from Germany with some incendiary photographs of life under National Socialism. However, he will use all the subsequent chases and brawls as an excuse to avoid the topic of their relationship.

Screenwriter Andras Szeker’s adaptation of Vilmos Kondor’s novel is not the twistiest, turniest narrative ever, but it addresses the 1930s Hungarian Jewish experience in intriguing and provocative ways. Frankly, it is an inspired selection for the WJFF. Yet, for most people it will be the ultra-stylish noir business that really matters. Technically, it is in color, but Elemer and Marci Raglyi’s cinematography is all shadows and noir. Plus, there is also a tasty swing soundtrack that is mostly appropriate to the era. Of course, there are plenty of old world locations in modern Budapest, but the sets and interiors are also carefully detailed. For instance, the wooden street trolley Gordon sometimes rides looks like it is the real deal, painstakingly preserved by a museum.

The cast never quite lands a knockout, but they are steady as it goes. Krisztian Kolovratnik is suitably square-jawed as Gordon (a former boxer), but he also develops some credible Nick & Nora chemistry with Reka Tenki’s Eckhardt. Tenki is terrific as the activist photographer, while Franciska Torocsik’s all-too-brief appearance as the ill-fated lunch guest definitely follows in the suggestive film noir tradition, as established by the likes of Martha Vickers.

Budapest is possibly the most beautiful city in the world, but all that old European elegance is absolutely perfect for a throwback thriller like this. Based on Budapest Noir, we can only hope Gárdos and Kolovratnik can continue adapting the Kondor’s four other Gordon novels. It is a great deal of atmospheric fun, but there is still holds serious historical implications. Highly recommended, Budapest Noir screens again this Saturday (5/12), as part of this year’s Washington Jewish Film Festival.