Monday, May 01, 2023

Those Who Remained, Oscar Shortlisted Post-War Hungary

Do not tell the new Hungarian Communist regime: “it takes village to raise a child.” Everything is now the state’s business, but it could not care any less about a lonely teen Holocaust survivor like Klara Wiener. Her great-aunt Olgi is all she has left, but the middle-aged woman is ill-equipped to handle a rebellious teenager. Their emotionally frozen doctor seems even more poorly suited to foster-parenting, but their common experiences help him bond with her in Barnabas Toth’s Those Who Remained (shortlisted for the Best International Film Oscar as part of the Parasite class), which opens Friday in Los Angeles (and is now playing in New York).

Puberty is coming late for Wiener, but that hardly shocks Dr. Aladar “Aldo” Korner, Olgi’s gynecologist, considering the trauma she suffered. He knows his wife and child perished in the camps, whereas Wiener still clings to false hopes. Given their shared grief and survivor’s guilt, Aladar starts taking an interest in her, which blossoms into an unofficial foster-parent relationship, with Olgi’s blessing.

That all sounds like a super-cute
Full House-ish arrangement, but the Party apparatchiks at Wiener’s school do not necessarily see it that way. Korner is especially vulnerable to their slanders, because the Party has marked him as a person of suspicion. He knows that for a fact, because one of his colleagues tells him he was expressly ordered to inform on him.

Despite the incredibly heavy subject matter (Holocaust survival and Communist oppression),
Those Who Remained is very personal in scope and surprisingly touching. It is literally about several highly damaged people coming together as an ad-hoc extended family. Even Olgi lost her closest loved ones during the war and finds solace with Wiener and Korner. Of course, the greatest obstacle to their healing is the Party.

Karoly Hajduk is quietly devastating as Korner, convincingly portraying his emotional re-awakening, like a Hungarian Silas Marner, except, under Communism, caring for someone again sometimes places them in jeopardy. Abigel Szoke is also completely convincing as Wiener, showing how the teen matures greatly over the course of the film. Even relatively smaller supporting parts make a powerful impact, especially Katalin Simko, as Erzsi, a patient of Korner’s, with an equally tragic backstory, who could also become something more to the doctor.

During the Communist era, Hungary’s Holocaust experience was sparingly addressed in the media and culture. As a result, a lot of discussions that should have happened, never did. Fortunately, many Hungarian filmmakers have explored that uncomfortable national history in acclaimed films like
1945, Son of Saul, and The Notebook. It is encouraging to see Toth follow in that tradition with Remained, especially doing so in the era of Orban.

However, it is important to kind in mind Toth’s film really is not a downer—quite the contrary. It is a lovely film, executed with keen sensitivity in all respects, most definitely including Gabor Marosi’s darkly-hued, but beautifully evocative cinematography. Very highly recommended,
Those Who Remained is now playing in New York at the New Plaza Cinema and opens Friday (5/5) in LA at the Laemmle Royal and Town Center 5.