Saturday, October 13, 2018

Heartland ’18: Eternal Winter

Under Socialism, the state controls the means of production—those would be capital, natural resources and labor. That means your labor is not yours to control grant or withhold as you might see fit. If you think that sounds like slavery, the 700,000 Hungarians deported to Soviet work camps during the waning days of WWII would certainly agree.  It was a punishing existence in the remote Donetsk coal mines, but Irén Walter finds a way to survive and even start a new life worth living in Attila Szász’s Eternal Winter (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Heartland International Film Festival.

When the Red Army arrived in Walter’s village, they claimed they were only requisitioning labor for the maize harvest (naturally, they arrive during the Christmas festivities and only chose women at least partly of German heritage). However, it turns out they were really consigning the women to an unspecified term of hard labor in the coal mines. If some prisoners could not endure the toil, well that was just as well, because the guards make it ever so clear punishment for Hungary is just as much a priority for the camp as producing coal for the Soviet war effort.

Being a clergyman’s daughter, Walter does her best to help the other women, but just surviving on her own is a constant challenge. Fortuitously, she receives some unexpected help from Rajmund Müller, one of the male prisoners who arrived earlier. Müller is the camp scrounger, who keeps everyone supplied with hand-rolled cigarettes—for a price. Initially, Walter does not return his romantic interest, in order to stay faithful to a husband who has most likely been killed in action. Eventually, the combination of Müller’s charm and her own survival imperative kick in. Others certainly do worse things to survive—and both Walter and the film forgive them too.

Sunset, the new film from Son of Saul director Laszlo Nemes was the obvious choice for Hungary to submit to the Oscars, but Winter might have been a competitive dark horse candidate. It touches all the usual bases of films documenting historical human rights abuses, but it is also surprisingly forthright in the way addresses survival strategies. It is not what you might assume (stealing food and the like), but rather a matter of giving up hope of any eventual return, in order to reset your life in the camp at zero.

As Walter, Marina Gera truly looks like she is dragged through Hell and back during the course of the film. It is a brave performance, but it is quiet and natural rather than flashy. Yet, it is Sándor Csányi who really lowers the emotional boom as the roguish Müller. Even if it is partly born of necessity, their romance is ultimately quite beautiful, in an exquisitely sad kind of way.

Just when you think Walter and Müller might catch a break, the Communists throw them another curve ball—one that will be especially ironic to contemporary viewers who lived through the 1990s Balkan War and have followed the current refugee controversies in Europe. Szász and Norbert Köbli’s screenplay, adapted from János Havasi’s book, is smart, challenging, and heartbreaking. The former also has a keen eye for framing dramatic shots, but Gergely Parádi’s heavy-handed score does not match the rest of the film’s complexity (a minor flaw, at most). Very highly recommended, Eternal Winter screens this afternoon (10/13), Tuesday (10/16), and Friday (10/19), as part of this year’s Heartland International Film Festival.