One of the many stories covered in the deluge of media surrounding the recent attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center is the growing refugee crisis along the Afghanistan-Pakistani border. Driven from their homes by the specter of U.S. retaliation, thousands of Afghanis have become displaced and are now dependent upon humanitarian aid to provide their shelter, food, and medical treatment. While images of these refugees have appeared on tv and in print frequently, network news has utterly failed to represent the dire plight of those who have fled their homes in fear for their lives. An in-depth examination of the trauma of forced human displacement is, however, available in Daniel Takes a Train. This Hungarian film explores at length the tensions and sorrows that befall the lives of political refugees and details how those lives persist, even in the grim face of war.
Adopted from a novel by Andras Mezei, the film is set amidst the crumbling rubble of Hungary in 1956, following the country’s invasion by the Soviet Union. The titular character Daniel (Peter Rudolf), is a teen-aged boy who leaves his home in Budapest to reunite with his girlfriend Mariann (Katalin Szerb), who has been spirited away by her parents in order to escape the Soviets. Accompanying Daniel is his good friend Gyuri (Sandor Zsoter), who has served in the rebel Hungarian militia (now defeated) and who looks to elude capture by Soviet forces. As their trip, and the film, progresses, Daniel and Mariann must confront the hostilities of Mariann’s parents, who see Daniel as a shiftless roustabout, while Gyuri must reconcile with his estranged father, a former member of the government he once sought to overthrow.
The film’s focus, however, is more widespread than the stories of these few protagonists. Daniel Takes a Train is concerned with constructing a portrait of an entire nation besieged by the horrors of war and with detailing the personal costs to individuals swept up in the cross-currents of political affairs. One train Daniel takes is filled with just such a national cross-section of Hungarian society. Crammed into the confines of a single passenger car are grandparents, young parents expecting their first children, businessmen, prostitutes, and children. All have been equally affected by the Soviet invasion and all face the same terror at fleeing into the unknown to escape death and destruction. And yet the film does not merely depict those affected as a faceless mass of suffering refugees.
Instead, the train’s inhabitants are shown to be distinct individuals brought together by extreme circumstances. Like any large group of people, they bicker, as when one girl yells at two debating men to stop speaking of politics. But they also laugh, often in macabre, “inappropriate” situations. In one particularly jarring scene, a father tells a joke to his family. He is interrupted, however, when someone notices an exhumation taking place in a graveyard they are passing. The film cuts from the jocular father to the grotesque spectacle of two men dragging an emaciated corpse from its grave, but then returns to the father who turns back to his family and friends and proceeds to deliver his punchline—much to the delight of his family. This scene embodies the larger project of Daniel Takes a Train: to show that, even in the face of unspeakable suffering and tragedy, people argue, people commune, and people laugh. Although altered by violence and chaos, life, in sum, goes on. Though filmed in 1983, such a message seems particularly relevant to the September 11 attacks, as the United States and the rest of the world wrestle with how to get back to “business as usual” after such tragedy. As Daniel Takes a Train ably illustrates, this process varies widely from individual to individual. Political rhetoric would lump all Americans together under a new banner of unity, but the processing of these events is an entirely personal and differentially structured undertaking. The film’s focus on the respective concerns of each of its main characters, as well as its attention to the peripheral individuals likewise affected, personalize the tragedies of war and bring the often faceless victims of military action into sharp detail.
In the wake of the attacks upon America, much has been made in the media, and by the government, about the need for a “return to normalcy.” The world is learning, as this film demonstrates that “normal” is quite a relative term. Life, certainly, continues in the face of unspeakable horrors, as it goes in so many forms in Daniel Takes a Train. But these forms are indelibly and irrevocably changed by the tragedies of strife. At the film’s conclusion, both Daniel and Gyuri are profoundly traumatized by the Soviet invasion, which comes directly to bear upon their respective personal lives. As the world anticipates a military conflict in Afghanistan, we would do well to heed the grim depictions in Daniel Takes a Train of the irreversible effects, the personalized trauma, and the immeasurable casualties of war.