Twilight, György Fehér

György Fehér’s Brooding Hungarian Film ‘Twilight’

To some extent, György Fehér’s murder mystery, Twilight feels like a brooding film about Communist hangover, about an inability to breathe.

György Fehér

On 21 April of this year, Film at Lincoln Center unveiled the US premiere of Twilight. As the PR puts it, “not that one”. This Twilight (Szürkület) is György Fehér’s Hungarian film of 1990, and it’s a doozy of brooding style.

In theory, Twilight adopts the form of a detective thriller about the hunt for a murderer. Let the following statement serve as both spoiler and fair warning. Most viewers of detective stories expect the killer to be caught or at least identified. That’s not the agenda here.

The credits explain that the script is inspired by “motifs” in a work by Friedrich Dürrenmatt called It Happened in Broad Daylight (Es geschah am hellichten Tag). This gets complicated, so hold on. It Happened in Broad Daylight is a 1958 film written by Dürrenmatt and directed by transplanted Hungarian Ladislao Vajda. It’s an acclaimed film, so it would be nice it resurrected as well.

Dürrenmatt chafed at being forced to provide a standard happy ending for the screenplay, so he refuted it by writing a famous anti-detective novel called The Pledge (Das Versprechen, 1958). The novel’s point is that the detective obsesses over the case but never solves it, and it eats away at him. It has been filmed several times, including as Sean Penn’s The Pledge (2001) with Jack Nicholson.

So what we have in Twilight is one of the brooding, oppressive, deliberately anti-satisfying variations on this theme. You have been duly warned.

People who care about great-looking films won’t mind because the style’s the thing, and Twilight bursts upon us like a lost film from Béla Tarr, who’s credited as a consultant and often worked with Fehér. We’re tempted to call Twilight a black-and-white movie, but it seems all in smoky grey shades. More significantly, the style adopts such extended and elaborate takes that I counted only ten shots in the first 23 minutes. When there’s music, it’s either dark ambiance or mournful religious chorale.

The first shot is a slow, majestic overhead angle looking down, godlike, upon the forest before raising its vision to the dim horizon. This shot must be via helicopter since it dates from long before drone cameras made such things routine.

The second shot, inside a moving car, looks back at the two detectives in a darkness that is almost too complete to make out their faces and then swivels to gaze out the door and follow their trek up a distant hill after they emerge from the car. The detectives are identified on IMDB as Felügyelõ (Péter Haumann) and K (János Derzsi). Felügyelõ is short and pugnacious, like Bob Hoskins, while K is tall and thin with a floppy elegant hat to go with his Kafka initial.

The dialogue indicates that K is retiring and perhaps shouldn’t be dragged into this case of a murdered schoolgirl in the forest. As is unfortunately common, existential statements in crime films center on the literal and symbolic death of innocence represented by the corpse of a girl we’ll never really know.

The third shot is static, observing from a great distance as men gather on a hill by a cross, and the two detectives begin walking down the hill toward the foreground. The virtuosic and foggy fourth shot tracks with Felügyelõ beside a house and peeks into the window with him, where we witness the tableau of K informing the girl’s parents of her death. Seen from the rear and through the glass, they first express a numb shock and escalate to hysteria. This is when K makes his pledge to catch the killer. Then the shot retraces its steps as Felügyelõ walks in the opposite direction.

We could go on cataloging shots but you get the point. Some are static, some highly mobile, and most last longer than a minute. The style creates tension between its restraint and austerity and the sometimes fraught events occurring in front of the camera. This commitment to artistically considered long takes is almost a signifier of Hungarian cinema from Miklós Jancsó to Tarr, so we might think the country’s films don’t use any other style. That’s not true, of course, but it does almost feel like a cultural choice in the same way that Eastern European films, in general, often celebrate the mobile handheld camera for its immediacy.

For a while, Twilight fools us by following an almost standard plot about investigating a murder. A suspect has been arrested for convenience; of course, he’s a red herring. The fact that he found the body and reported it and that he’s not local signals the danger of calling attention to yourself and getting mixed up with the police, especially in countries not famous for their justice systems. (Come to think of it, I’m not sure which countries are famous for their justice systems.)

Twilight seems to take place at some vague point in the past, during the Communist era, from which the country barely emerged when the film was made. To some extent, it feels like a film about Communist hangover, about an inability to breathe. In that initial dialogue between the detectives, one says, “We’re nearing the end.” Does he mean the end of K’s retirement, Communism, or the world?

Instead of closing in on the murderer, the narrative spirals outward, like the winding roads, as the two detectives find themselves turning inward obsessively and at odds with each other. The final shot returns to the initial shot’s majestic overhead regarding the impenetrable forest. Fehér stated in 1990: “I want to show to what extent the search for justice stands in ridiculous contrast to the eternity of nature. Meanwhile, it is precisely this search that I am so fascinated by.”

Twilight won the Bronze Leopard (third prize) at the 1990 Locarno Film Festival, and that was pretty much it. Cinematographer Miklós Gurbán, who supervised this 4K restoration, is most famous for shooting Tarr’s jaw-dropping 2000 film Werckmeister Harmonies, also in black and white. Viewers waiting for a similarly gorgeous Hungarian enigma, especially in downbeat mode, will find Twilight to their taste.

Film at Lincoln Center held Twilight over for an additional week, and it will open at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles on 1 June, kicking off “Bleak Week”. Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center hosts it on 2 June, and the Cleveland Cinematheque 10-11 June.