Natural Light (Berlinale review)
1943, World War II. A long winter is about to begin in the endless territories of the occupied Soviet Union. István Semetka is part of a special Hungarian unit tasked with travelling from village to village looking for partisan groups. One day, while heading towards a remote village, the company falls under enemy fire and their commander is killed. As the highest ranking officer, Semetka must take over. Wading through a vast swamp, he guides the survivors back to an occupied village.
Natural Light is Dénes Nagy’s feature debut. It won the Berlinale award for artistic contribution and indeed for a first film it is stunning. The photography in real locations, the costumes, the brute realism of the characters are among the strong points of the film. Bear in mind that the army of Hungarian soldiers the film follows are nazi collaborators, but in this swamp, this doesn’t really play a central role. In fact the moral dilemmas of the characters and mainly Semetka, are at stake with questions like: “What should one do to survive?” and “To what extent should they put themselves first?” being asked. Although the circumstances seem to have make the soldiers into animals hunting for their prey, deep down we see lots of them silently questioning what is wrong and what is right and how their involvement in atrocities makes them responsible, even if they aren’t the ones that decided for them.
The problem with the film is that it seems lost within its realism. Even though the events are completely realistic and the details seriously thought, these scholastically accurate depictions of the soldier life becomes tiring and pointless to watch in various parts of the film. It is even worse that this is happening on the expense of better character development. Even the main character is a distant to us person by the end of the film, not to mention the supporting characters that feel every now and then to be just there to fulfill some of the inner remorse and humanness of the protagonist.