VOD film review: Natural Light
Cathy Brennan | On 12, Nov 2021
Director: Dénes Nagy
Cast: Ferenc Szabó
Fictional representations of war crimes from the point of view of those who are either perpetrators or complicit inevitably brings up issues of representation. In 2008, Ari Folman confronted his own role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre through the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir. In Dénes Nagy’s Natural Light, the Hungarian director opts to portray the role of Axis-allied Hungarian soldiers in World War 2 by emphasising atmosphere over character. It’s an approach that yields some remarkable moments but feels hollow by the end.
The film takes on the perspective of Corporal István Semetka (Ferenc Szabó), whose battalion stalks the Ukrainian forests for Soviet partisans. After leaving a village, the soldiers are attacked, leaving several dead. Thinking that the villagers informed the partisans of their movements, the soldiers return, and things only deteriorate from there.
Dull browns dominate the film’s colour palette, causing the soldiers to blend into the landscape with their dirt-coloured uniforms. An air of tense uncertainty hangs over everyone, as the villagers treat them with fear and muted derision. Nagy keeps things understated throughout: The only battle scene takes place 45 minutes into the runtime and lasts less than a minute. It is shot with such minimal bombast alongside the combatants’ matter-of-fact reactions that it drives home the banality of war in this setting.
Such restraint produces some potent moments. A scene where Semetka enters the officers’ makeshift quarters and spots a young girl combing her hair says all that needs to be said about these men before we’ve even seen them.
Rendered as a passive cog, Szabó’s performance as Semetka relies on opaque stares that are framed in lingering close-ups. Dialogue is kept to an absolute minimum.
Understatement may provide Natural Light with its best moments but, in the end, it fatally inhibits the film. There’s not even a slight variation in tone and so watching the film becomes an interminable slog, even as the narrative turns towards its horrific climax. The lack of dialogue means that avenues for characterisation are severely limited. Despite the time spent with them, none of the villagers are named and are only framed in terms of gloomy destitution, which reduces them to objects of pity rather than breathing human beings.
Semetka’s secondary role as a war photographer gestures towards a self-reflexive commentary on the politics and ethics of visual representation, similar to3 what Théo Court achieved in White on White. However, Nagy leaves this element of the story relatively unexamined, only drawing attention to it a couple of times.
Nagy’s skill at establishing tone is undeniable in Natural Light, However, an under-developed narrative, together with a refusal to vary its unremittingly dour atmosphere, means that the film fails to truly penetrate the moral cataclysms depicted.