Review: Natural Light – Termeszetes fény (2021)


Natural Light – Termeszetes fény (2021)

Directed by: Denes Nagy | 103 minutes | drama | Actors: Ferenc Szabó, László Bajkó, Tamás Garbacz, Gyula Franczia, Stuhl Erno, Szilágyi Gyula, Mareks Lapeskis, Kozó Krisztián, Nánási Csaba, Fodor Zsolt, Mondovics Mihály

What about the common foot soldier on the warpath? ‘Natural Light’ follows the combat actions of the Hungarian corporal István Semetka during the Second World War. Together with many other Hungarian soldiers, he supports Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union and has to track down and eliminate partisans in occupied areas. The Hungarian production ‘Natural Light’ is based on the novel of the same name by Pál Závada. However, the originally documentary maker Dénes Nagy filmed only a very small part of Závada’s novel for his fiction debut, as the entire novel covers about thirty years of Semetka’s life. Although at times annoyingly reserved and aloof, ‘Natural Light’ is a beautifully minutely filmed study of the experience of one man being trampled under the mile-high boots of European war history.

The threat of war sweats from every pore of ‘Natural Light’, at the same time the enemy is invisible, hidden deep in the forest. Sometimes nerve-wracking. You can almost touch and smell the diligent work and the dragging through the impassable nature of the soldiers and local residents. The very realistic casting, from young to old, helps enormously here. The ensemble of actors mainly consists of amateurs, mostly farmers picked from their land, who were allowed to ‘live out’ the story after a short military training in Hungary on film sets in eastern Latvia. This once again perpetuates Nagy’s obsession with realism, in which he succeeds brilliantly.

The many checkered, somewhat smudgy and blurry camera shots create a highly narrowed look that is on par with Semetka’s perspective. As part of a war machine, you practically walk shoulder to shoulder with the Hungarian soldier and this crisis situation is hard to comprehend, let alone something to resist. The film crawls to the place where our evil nature can overgrow everything, including half-hearted attempts at a moral appeal. In the speed of nations, aren’t we just cannon fodder and, like Semetka, dragged into war by unprecedented forces with state portraits in every household? This rigorous subjective perspective is comparable to that of ‘Son of Saul’ (László Nemes, 2015), in which a camera is pretty much glued to the Hungarian Saul Ausländer who is part of the Sonderkommando in a concentration camp.

Within the war film genre, ‘Natural Light’ has interesting similarities with ‘The Thin Red Line’ (Terrence Malick, 1998). Like the nature shots in Malick films, Nagy’s camera zooms in on apparently insignificant details, yet of poetic and universal beauty. In addition, the two films have a similar approach. They are not necessarily against or for war, as if they sigh that these atrocities are inherent in human nature. Like Malick, therefore, Nagy has a more philosophical view of Semetka’s situation than necessarily pursuing an anti-war message, such as the war horror classic ‘Come and See’ (Elem Klimov, 1985) or the transcendental war thriller ‘The Ascent’ (Larisa Shepitko, 1977). That it evokes these classics is of course a bonus, but that makes it anything but a sinecure to excel.

Despite the fact that ‘Natural Light’ portrays threat and moral decline during war inexorably and realistically, Semetka’s story unfortunately also remains a fairly distant affair. You only get to know Semetka superficially through his actions, on the other hand sporadically in relation to other characters or through more personal history. Moreover, the well-intentioned meticulous realism slows down the film to such an extent that it further hinders the possibility of personal bonding. All in all ‘Natural Light’ is a sublimely realistically shot war film, but it is not that bolt from the blue and, like the dumbfounded Semetka, it still threatens to quietly disappear into the wings of the past.