There is an utter starkness to Eastern and Central European films that is not achieved anywhere else. While this is partially due to the natural evolution of these countries artistic styles, it also is the direct effect of the consistent and brutal conflicts that have raged across the continent over the centuries. However, few events in modern history have profoundly affected any population more than World War II (only comparable to the current state of affairs in Western Asia), with atrocities being committed on all sides in appalling numbers. Walking arm-in-arm with the Holocaust, the Soviet Gulag, a widespread system of forced labor camps, literally worked hundreds of thousands of people to death. This became the Soviet vengeance for the massacres carried out by the SS and Belarusian Auxiliary Police (among other criminal barbarism) during the war. Attila Szász has crafted Eternal Winter (original title: Örök tél) as an unflinching look at a frozen hell, where survival may depend on completely abandoning our humanity.
“…Soviet soldiers arrive in Hungary to force all young women with possible German origins away from their village.”
Irén (Marina Gera) is trying to celebrate a melancholy Christmas with her parents (Anikó Für, Tibor Gáspár) and daughter Ági (Norina Fehérvári), despite her soldier husband (Gábor Jászberényi) being long absent from the dinner table. While they struggle to maintain a unified household, Soviet soldiers arrive in Hungary to force all young women with possible German origins away from their village. Effectively kidnapping them and transporting them to a Gulag camp, the women are forced to work in the nearby coal mines. While the abysmally inhumane conditions bare down on everyone in the camp, Irén meets Rajmund (Sándor Csányi), who decides to teach her his rules of survival.
“God is not here. Just you and me.” This quote from Csányi surmises the whole tone of the film. Throughout the majority of the runtime where any respite or glimmers of hope are shared, the light is snuffed out even harder than before. The cold is so deep that skin rips off when people pull off their socks to bathe, all the while going without food for days, and trudging through blistering winds and knee-deep snow to mine and shovel coal. Even when the film eases up with its relentlessly desolate observation towards the final third, good feelings are still liabilities, with hope being the worst pain. To call this film bleak would be a massive understatement.
“… the considerable adherence to detail…is down-damn-right astounding.”
Its power resides in the performances of its stellar cast, Viktória Horváth and Zsolt Nánássy’s production design, and the amazing work by the makeup department. I can empathetically absorb the ever-present bite of absolute despair that digs into these characters deeper than the bone-deep cold. The conditions of the camp and mines are appalling, yet some aspects seem a little too well-designed to be believable; not a deal breaker by any stretch, but it does produce some artificiality. The soot and feverish sweat clinging to the faces of each person, the typhus sores on wrists, the cigarettes rolled from bible pages – the considerable adherence to detail in almost all design aspects is down-damn-right astounding.
While its final act does succumb to some cliched narrative pitfalls when trying to neatly wrap up an experience defined by struggle rather than a precise plot, Eternal Winter remains a severely effective gut-punch of emotion, struggle, and loss.
Eternal Winter (Örök tél) (2018) Directed by Attila Szász. Written by Norbert Köbli, Attila Szász. Starring Marina Gera, Sándor Csányi, Laura Döbrösi, Diána Magdolna Kiss, Franciska Farkas.
8 out of 10