Dir: Dénes Nagy | Cast: Ferenc Szabó, Tamás Garbacz, László Bajkó, Gyula Franczia, Ernő Stuhl, Gyula Szilágyi, Mareks Lapeskis, Krisztián Kozó, Csaba Nánási, Zsolt Fodor | Hu/Latvia /France/Ger | War drama Hungarian, Russian | 103’
“My subject is War and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity’ Wilfred Owen.
Natural Pine is an unusual name for a Second World War film but refers here to the vast snowbound forests of deepest Russia during the long winter of 1943 where Hungarian director Denes Nagy takes us for his powerfully evocative debut feature, screening in competition at this year’s Berlinale.
If ever there was a film to be enjoyed on the big screen it is this one, its inhospitable landscapes, incandescent skylines and sombrely lit scenes of grim human endurance install a feeling of unsettling gloom from the outset as we are plunged into a Russian heart of darkness. The story is simple, the emotional toll is the main focus. Hungarian farmer turned infantryman István Semetka (Ferenc Szabo) is part of a Hungarian task force sent out on a gruelling eight month stint in the snowy wastelands, looking for partisans. This is no action movie but a thoughtful and cinematic contemplation of the moral dilemmas he faces along with his comrades face, and the emotional and physical repercussions that follow. It’s a unique war film. And one that commands respect.
While heading towards a remote village, the company falls under enemy fire and their commander is killed. So as the highest ranking officer, Semetka must take over, guiding his men through a swamp to an occupied village where they regroup and begin to question the locals. In time Sergeant Major Koleszar (Bajko) arrives to take over, his story of a bear attack is restrained and moving. Several villagers escape and, at his own risk, the courageous Koleszar stays on with the weapons and seven of the men, sending Semetka back to base with those injured. At a solemn meeting with his commander in chief, he is ordered to take two weeks leave with his family before returning to his ordeal.
This meticulous film takes its sober subject seriously in portentous, slow-burn sequences that convey the pity of war in the faces of the characters. There is a intimate reportage quality to the way Tamas Dobos’ camera reflects and lingers on the human face of the conflict, alighting on details: an insect on a civilian’s ear, a baby bawling in its mother’s arms, a woman begging for food – echoing the style of Don McCullin or Robert Capa. Each frame brims with restrained feeling. A picture conveys a thousand words. And it’s these painterly frames that carry most weight in Sbabo’s impressionistic first feature. MT
BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | BEST DIRECTOR | Denes Nagy