Natural Light is a film begrimed with the collective guilt of moral cowardice

Dénes Nagy’s bleak World War II drama is a bold debut, but amidst all the coldness and cruelty, its plot gets lost in the mud.

Ferenc Szabó as Semetka in Natural Light (2021)
Ferenc Szabó as Semetka in Natural Light (2021)Courtesy of Curzon

Natural Light is in UK cinemas now and is available to stream on Curzon Home.

The debut fiction feature by Dénes Nagy was rewarded with the Silver Bear prize for Best Director at the Berlinale in early 2021. It’s an accomplished, haunting film, which has rightly been claimed as part of the swelling wave of exciting new cinema from Hungary, alongside recent work by Ildikó Enyedi and László Nemes. That grouping may prepare you a little for its stark narrative technique, its confined focus and grisly mise en scène.

The film offers a dispatch from the horrors of World War II, specifically the occupation of Soviet lands by the Nazis and their Hungarian allies. The narrative is filleted from a weighty Hungarian novel by Pál Závada, and with a tight field of view that gives us access to little more than what’s under our taciturn protagonist’s nose. The film wallows in its own earthy palette, in which khaki and mud blur into each other, and there’s little dialogue, or music: the soundtrack is dominated by the tramp of marching boots, the metallic clank of guns against belt buckles.

Where the book covers 20 years, Nagy covers three days, giving only the outline of one of the novel’s characters under morally strained circumstances. He’s Corporal Semetka, a less-than-favoured officer in the occupying force, whose own personal tragedy we can easily guess, and who keeps his growing disgust for his work mostly hidden behind his mask of a face: pale blue eyes, taut cheekbones, creases and stubble. It’s a fine, unforced performance by a non-professional actor, Ferenc Szabó. The camera, wielded by DP Tamás Dobos, finds riches in that face, and the faces of Semetka’s colleagues and their victims. Nagy’s documentary background is put to excellent use in finding revelatory images of his non-professional cast: a young woman brushing her hair in the morning sunlight, a scene of everyday beauty in a chilling context.

It’s frustrating, then, that so much of the film is shot hanging behind Szabó’s shoulder. There’s little insight to be gleaned from Semetka’s grubby collar, and the limited view can feel irritatingly coy. While there’s a humane reason for keeping much of the violence off-screen, there’s a coolness at work that risks underplaying some of the troops’ transgressions.

The plot consists, roughly, of a grim catalogue of escalating war crimes, as the occupying soldiers steal both sustenance and dignity from the locals, ostensibly as part of a search for Soviet partisans, but transparently in order to intimidate and control the population. The film opens with soldiers commandeering an elk that is being transported downriver by two locals. They leave only the bones behind, but struggle to carry their confiscated meat uphill. It’s no place to be pillaging, and the moral implications of their unfettered greed are clear. “You already took everything!” protest some woodcutters rounded up by Semetka. “We have nothing left.” Walking away from a hut carrying a gift (bribe) of red berries, Semetka spills them wastefully on the forest floor.

Natural Light was shot in Latvian forests in October 2019, in hostile temperatures and with only eight hours of natural light a day. It’s not the light, though, that will linger in your mind after watching this film, but the mud – a corrupting element, a swamp that clings to boots and sucks in the hooves of overburdened horses. In one visually obscene moment, mud from a hut-floor seeps into milk flowing from an overturned jug, as a female villager is threatened with rape. Elsewhere the omnipresent filth is emphasised by repeated vulgar references to excrement. They are all of them, soldiers and villagers alike, somehow in the shit.

Inevitably, it all builds to a catastrophic cruelty. The film takes this tragedy in its stride, loitering only with Semetka, his muted moral crisis, and the disdain of his superior officers. It’s clear that neither a fortnight’s furlough, nor a prayer, will give him respite, and there is little for the audience either.

Nagy’s film is impressively austere, making bold narrative choices and raising difficult questions, without the consolations of a redemptive character arc or an easy outlet for audience sympathies. It’s a film begrimed with collective guilt and the shame of moral cowardice, determined to look no further than the muck, and away from the light.