The publicist from the film company won’t be able to make it to the hotel in Leicester Square to introduce me to the Hungarian film-maker Dénes Nagy, whose gruelling slow-burn war drama Natural Light recent won him the best director prize at Berlin. But he emails to say that spotting Nagy shouldn’t be too difficult: “In the nicest way, he looks like the director of Natural Light.” And it’s true. There is a man in the foyer with an unmistakably auteur-like air: small wire spectacles, intellectual high forehead and a haircut he could have snipped himself in front of a mirror.
Natural Light is an unapologetically serious and beautiful piece of hardcore arthouse cinema. It’s set in the Nazi-occupied Soviet Union in 1943 and follows a unit of Hungarian soldiers, allies of the German forces. Bleakly inscrutable and with very little dialogue, it’s an intense watch. As one review put it, this is a film that “makes demands on its audience”.
Nagy adapted the script from a novel by the Hungarian writer Pál Závada that is 600-odd pages long and spans 20 years in the life of one man. But he ended up using around seven pages – just three days’ worth of story – for the film. He looks appalled when I joke that he could have changed the name of the protagonist, Istvan Semetka (played in the film by Ferenc Szabó), and dispensed with crediting the book. “No! What’s important is that the spirit of this main character is very much like it is in the book.”
Corporal Semetka is a poor farmer conscripted to the Hungarian army and sent to the Soviet Union. His unit’s orders are to trudge through a frozen forest, rooting out partisans in remote peasant villages. Nagy’s background is in documentary film-making; Natural Light is his first feature and he went to extraordinary lengths in the pursuit of authenticity. “Everything is real, to make it go deeper,” he says earnestly, then breaks into a mischievous grin. “Maybe I’m not inventive enough to create my own reality. I want to stick to reality.”
Against the advice of everyone, he insisted on filming in Latvia in the middle of winter. “They said it was a very crazy idea. But I am fascinated by this landscape, very foggy, muddy and swampy. This nature is hostile.” It took seven years to make the film – “but I didn’t have a plan B. I’m not this kind of person”.
When it came to the actors, Nagy cast the film entirely with agricultural labours, all non-professionals, the 21st-century equivalent of peasant farmers. He recruited a team of 20 film school students – “working only for enthusiasm” – who drove around Hungary visiting cow and chicken farms (a swine flu pandemic ruled out pigs). He was looking for people who do physical work outdoors all year, rain or shine. “In Hungary people who did this work they have this kind of exhaustion or tiredness in their faces, which I believe creates an authentic situation. You believe they [have been] several months in the war in very harsh conditions.”
The result is extraordinary: a gallery of faces that could have been painted by Bruegel: weather-beaten and etched deep with lines. Nagy didn’t give his actors full scripts or much in the way of direction – “They are basically playing themselves,” he says with a shrug – and so the actors give nothing away; mostly they glare grimly at the camera. It’s up to the audience to guess what’s going on inside their heads and hearts. “The face already tells a story in itself” is how Nagy puts it.
As a film-making style this has tuned out to be arthouse marmite. I found it hypnotic, watching these world-weary faces keeping their secrets. For others, it’s all a bit patronising. One reviewer got the feeling that Nagy considers his characters “slightly lower on the evolutionary scale”.
I ask Nagy if he was he hurt by the negative criticism? “I was more concentrated on the positive, so no, I wouldn’t say that I was bothered by that.” He giggles a little uncomfortably.
His own grandfather fought in the second world war, sent to Ukraine as a young village primary-school teacher. When he was a kid, his grandfather would tell the story of the time he was ordered to shoot a partisan. “But then in the moment, something happened, the enemy was coming maybe.” So his grandfather was saved from pulling the trigger. “I asked him several times: ‘What did you feel at that moment you got the order to kill this guy? What went through your mind?’” But his granddad never answered. “He couldn’t. He didn’t want to go back to all this.”
Later, when Nagy watched war films like Elem Klimov’s harrowing masterpiece Come and See, he couldn’t relate to the “wicked” soldiers with “satanic” faces. He could never picture his grandfather with an evil face.
In Nagy’s film, Corporal Semetka is neither evil nor good. His attitude seems to be that if he can just keep his head down and survive, he’ll get back to his family. But when he unexpectedly finds himself in charge of his unit, it becomes clear that Semetka doesn’t have the stomach for wartime leadership.
Nagy says he relates to Semetka’s existential crisis, his feeling that something bad is going to happen but without knowing in the moment what to do: “It’s something very human. We fail to make the right decisions.”
He reaches for an example from his own life. At the height of the Syran refugee crisis a few years ago, hundreds of Syrians camped out in a station in Budapest for several weeks, a few miles from his apartment. “I’m sitting behind my nice desk, drinking my nice coffee, looking at what’s happening on the news. Later, I felt so ashamed of myself – that I didn’t bring a blanket to them or didn’t bring some food to them.”
There was line cut from the script, where a young Soviet peasant boy says to Semetka: “You’re a good man, but you’re weak.” Nagy says he semi-regrets cutting it. “I liked it because we all tend to think we’re good,” says the director. “But we’re all weak.”