It isn’t an international European film festival without some obligatory World War Two miserablism. This year’s offering, courtesy of Hungary, is a sluggish tramp through the dark, muddy, cloudy, grey, and sodden landscapes of the occupied Soviet Union. While boasting striking compositions that give the title, Natural Light, it’s fair due, this is one anti-War movie that inadvertently makes its message by showing us just how boring it can be, as opposed to displaying its many horrors.
István Semetka (Ferenc Szabó) is an officer in a platoon of Axis Hungarian troops — of which there were 100,000 in the war — moving from village to village in order to find partisan forces. They move very slowly, Natural Light using long takes to show the troops inching through the forest, leaving no stone unturned when it comes to uncovering their enemies. They finally spend an extended time in one village, harassing the unknowing residents in order to complete their mission. Then after a deadly ambush, Semetka finds himself commander of the division; finally facing up to the responsibility that such a position entails.
Semetka is witness to many horrific things — such as the uncaring bullying of the Hungarian soldiers — but he never seems to pass any judgement on their behaviour, his face a blank slate to project the banality of evil upon. As an essentially passive character, even when being forced to command his troops, he might be personifying how awful deeds can be masked by silence, but he sadly becomes an awfully uninteresting person in the process.
The film uses a hazy colour scheme, lingering on still ponds, rivers, animals, trees, and more; showing off the difficult landscape that these soldiers trudge through. Very little beauty seeps through as if the war has cast an ugly pallor over the entire landscape. The lighting and cinematography are painterly-like and striking, but it also ensconces the film within its own aesthetic. Nothing feels alive; very little compels.
Purposefully slow and unmoving, it shows the strange intrusion of these fascist troops in a land that’s not their own, but without giving us much detail as the backstory of these soldiers and why they act as they do — relying on the images to do the heavy lifting by itself. While war may reduce the humanity of both victim and perpetrator, this theme can be taken a bit too literally, especially when every character in your film seems devoid of vitality. By the time we get to the Andrei Tarkovsky (with the obligatory arthouse house on fire) and Béla Tarr homages, it struck me that Natural Light is a masterful copy of the aesthetics of slow cinema. But it felt to me that while it was playing all the right notes, the feeling of the music was missing.
Natural Light plays in Competition at the Berlin Film Festival, running from 1st to 5th March