There have been dozens of films made attacking the injustice of the Stalinist years in Eastern Europe, most of which have centered on the wrongful imprisonment of opponents of the state. Peter Gothar’s utterly chilling “The Outpost” (also known as “The Section”) offers a fresh approach to the subject via a Kafkaesque nightmare in which the victim, an attractive middle-aged woman, appears to be a willing participant in her own punishment. Certain to rep Hungary at one of the major summer fests, pic will be tricky to market theatrically because of its ultra-downbeat subject and lack of conventional resolution.
The grim tale is set in an unnamed East European country during the 1980s (filming took place in Romania). Gizi Weiss (Mari Nagy), an office worker, first discovers she’s to be “promoted” when a fellow worker exchanges her new desk lamp for his old one, telling her she won’t need her lamp from now on. Sure enough, her boss tells her she’s to head up a “section,” an outpost of the company (whose purpose is, like many other pieces of essential information, never revealed).
It’s hinted that Gizi’s ex-husband, whom she frequently tries to call without success, may be the reason for her new posting. She’s picked up outside her apartment by a man assigned to escort her on the long train journey to her first stop where she has to stay a night before moving on. Here, too, is a man to watch over her, and to inspect her belongings (in a chilling touch, this scruffy official insists on removing the brand name tags from her underwear, including those she’s wearing).
Next day, her journey continues by hand-operated rail car and, as she goes up a snow-covered mountain, she gets a brief glimpse of the broken man she’s apparently to replace. Ultimately, she has to trudge on foot to her final destination, a ferret-infested one-room mountain outpost which she’s expected to share with a wild-eyed, taciturn man who rejects her attempts to communicate.
Director Gothar, who has made well-regarded films in the past (“A Priceless Day,””Time Stands Still”) never fills in all the missing details. When asked by someone why she’s come to this remote place, Gizi replies:”I won a competition.” Later she’s told, “You were sent here to think about why you were sent here.” But Gizi’s easy-going acceptance of every new indignity is what gives the film its extra resonance; she seems to have been so indoctrinated that she almost believes she’s being well treated.
Filmed in bleak wintry locations, pic is visually handsome, thanks to Vivi Dragan Vasile’s lensing, and the spare music score by Gyorgy Selmeczy and Gyorgy Orban adds to the creepy mood.
“The Outpost” may frustrate those who seek a logical explanation, which is never forthcoming, but critical response to this off-center chiller should be positive.