The Dead Poet: Seven Tales of Miklos Radnoti (2016), dir. Daphne Samaras et al.

Screening at the Norwich Radical Film Festival

Placed outside of its Hungarian context, this film is somewhat difficult to get into. To call it a film is a stretch at all; it’s an anthology of shorts. It has no framing narrative between wildly different segments: historical, present day, animated, documentary, with only a couple of lines of exposition to give any sense of who Miklos Radnoti was as a poet and as a person. Should it show more or should it tell more? One wonders that this might be better suited as a rolling video in a museum exhibition than at a film festival.

Some segments fare worse than others: the second segment feels so far removed from the poet himself that it comes across as an everyman, joyful contemporary romance without any sense of personality, that might as well be a commercial.

“Don’t miss the train! Your lover’s frustration perfectly summarises our product’s mission statement!”

The stop motion animation sequence, The Willow is cute, but it again lacks any personality to define the couple as characters. It reminds me of Pixar’s Lava (2015), yet that short communicated more of a narrative about an actual human being, whilst also being much more cute.

The animated folklore genesis story has some great animation, but is horribly overdubbed in Hungarian over its original narration, and by trying to summarise his literary work, it adds nothing to his life story.

The section in what home means was so unbearable that I wanted to leave the cinema; the worst aspects of a viral Buzzfeed video summarised in one place.

But there are some genius works of art here. In the opening segment, we see his childhood life in a series of photographic tableaus, completely desaturated. Like Barry Lyndon (1975), it refuses to pretend the past should be shot as if it were the present, instead opting for the rigidness of the art of the time: which, in turn, somehow creates a false illusion of authenticity.

The fourth section sticks out as my favourite, framing Radnoti’s conflict between following Judaism or Christianity through allegory. Hanukkah; parties with Christmas trees; a sweater affixed with a large Star of David; a girl who opens asking him to name 10 concentration camps, forcing him to acknowledge his heritage, as he wakes up hungover the next morning to find her number written on his arm, as if it were tattooed on his arm – foreshadowing his eventual fate in the death camps.

The final sequence is the film at its most daring, and ends the film on a conflicting and upsetting note. We are told of his experience in the camps through a series of abstract images, shot through in red neon and an ancient VHS transfer. It feels truly terrifying. In one respect, it brings to mind the Academy aspect ratio of Son of Saul (2015), yet its lo-fi look can yet only bring to mind the more problematic exploitation films of the 70s and 80s, like SS Experiment Love Camp (1976) and The Night Porter (1974), which presented female victims as sexual objects to be exploited. Despite this, its briefness helps to make it one of the stand-outs of the film.

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