Recent films detailing the Jewish experience during the World War II era have avoided the depictions of extreme brutality, violence, and despair that usually are concomitant with this genre (that is, “The Pianist,” “Schindler’s List,” and so on), and moved into new territory. From the hilariously surreal “Jojo Rabbit” to the serenely beautiful “Waiting for Anya,” audiences are being treated to fresh perspectives.
Hungarian director Barnabas Toth’s film “Those Who Remained” is another rich example. It begins in 1948; the Germans have already been defeated, and the iron-fisted totalitarianism of Soviet communism has been established in Hungary.
Sixteen-year-old Klara (Abigel Szoke) has an appointment for a gynecological exam. Her examiner, Doctor Korner Aladar (Karoly Hajduk), is a 40-something man whose face is a solemn mask of despair.
She is at first skittish and panicky, but sensing a kindred spirit in Aladar, she begins to open up to him. Klara is the lone survivor of a family of four, while Aladar lost his wife and children to the Holocaust. They share a common blight in that although they are going through the motions of normal daily life, their deep despair has made them hollow inside.
Desperately in need of a father figure and someone to end her extreme loneliness, Klara soon moves out of her great-aunt Olgi’s (Mari Nagy, “Budapest Noir”) place and in with the good doctor. Aladar becomes her doting mentor, helping her with her homework and listening to her confidences with delicate patience.
In an especially touching scene, he breaks out some old pictures of the family he lost. The two eventually form an indescribably intimate (although platonic) relationship that transcends their age gap. In fact, from the outset, Aladar sets some strict guidelines for physical contact between the two.
However, in the harsh Soviet rule that deems personal freedom and individuality as threats, their pairing raises the suspicions of some communist operatives. Aladar and Klara pick up on this and try their best to keep things on the down-low, but soon they are part of the cavalcade of gossip and distrust that go hand-in-hand in such a regime.
In one especially harrowing scene, Klara is hauled in to face a communist official after being seen with her head on Aladar’s lap during a visit to the local park. Meanwhile, Aladar’s friend and work colleague, Pista (Andor Lukats), warns him that locals have been vanishing in the night. He also tells Aladar that he’s thrown his lot in with the Communist Party and has been ordered to keep tabs on Aladar.
Hajduk and Szoke turn in some solid, very nuanced performances that convey the loneliness and despair of two damaged souls. The film is carefully paced and doesn’t move too fast; it’s just enough for the bonding of these two survivors to seem natural and authentic. There is also an almost palpable sense of tension as they try to remain as discreet as possible, even as their commitment to each other only deepens over time.
“Those Who Remained” is an endearing, heartfelt portrait of two people whose lives have been horribly shaken but, through mutual bonding and healing, have saved each other’s soul from being irreversibly shattered.
In these fractious modern times, it’s refreshing to see a male character whose frail appearance belies quiet strength and selfless heroism as he comes to the aid of a girl in need without taking advantage of her. In the end, it’s a beautiful mélange of tragedy and eventual hope, loss and recovery, and ultimately—the healing power of love.
‘Those Who Remained’
Director: Barnabas Toth
Starring: Karoly Hajduk, Abigel Szoke, Mari Nagy
Rated: Not Rated
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes
Release Date: Feb. 14 (USA, limited)
Rated: 4 stars out of 5