Two feature-worthy stories compete for space in “1989,” a compelling account of Hungary’s quiet but crucial role in the fall of the Iron Curtain that builds a reasonable case for either narrative or documentary treatment — and makes no firm decision between the two. Oscar-nominated Danish director Anders Ostergaard (“Burma VJ”) smoothly blends archive footage and distressed re-enactments to dramatize both the border-busting efforts of the country’s last communist prime minister, Miklos Nemeth, and the more intimate odyssey of a young East German family making a run for freedom. If the pic arguably takes on more content than it can substantially serve, with a stylistic seamlessness that is itself somewhat distracting, this year’s CPH: DOX opener remains a robust modern history lesson, with a broad appeal cannily demonstrated by a simultaneous multi-region broadcast at its fest premiere.
If the scene-setting title cards that open “1989” strike some viewers as a tad obvious and hand-holding — “Eastern Europe was in turmoil,” “The Iron Curtain was still in place” and so on — that’s not to say Ostergaard’s film won’t seem revelatory to any viewers whose primary association with the eponymous year is Taylor Swift’s chart-topping album of the same name. (With the film having already played on television in certain European countries following its premiere, accessibility is a top priority here.) Still, auds of any age may agree that Nemeth has been an under-portrayed figure in popular studies of the era, his name and his radical contribution to the Cold War’s ultimate resolution routinely overshadowed by those of Mikhail Gorbachev, Vaclav Havel or Lech Walesa.
As presented here, however, Nemeth was an instigator for reform who persistently turned underestimation to his advantage. Appointed prime minister at the relatively tender age of 40, the former economist projected a mild-mannered persona that belied the independence and decisiveness of his actions. Among those was the removal, in May 1989, of a 150-mile electric fence separating Hungary from Austria — a political and symbolic precursor to the more monumental destruction of the Berlin Wall only months later. With the physical barrier gone, Hungary’s less tangible stretch of the Curtain could be illegally traversed by the country’s considerable influx of East German refugees.
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A little more than a half-hour into the film, this is where the parallel narrative of Gundula Schafitel and Kurt-Werner Schulz kicks as an urgent human-interest counterpoint to the drier (though hardly dull) political machinations on Nemeth’s end of proceedings. A married couple from Weimar with a 6-year-old son in tow, Schafitel and Schulz resolve to cross the Austro-Hungarian border after Nemeth — in yet another of his brazen, ally-testing strategies — turned a calculatedly blind eye to the flight of several hundred refugees on the occasion of the Pan-European Picnic peace demonstration. But it was only a temporary relaxation of the guard, making the family’s subsequent journey a tensely hazardous one. With only Schafitel present among the film’s talking heads, its unhappy outcome is evident from the outset; as Ostergaard cuts between their struggle and the Hungarian government’s provisional preparations for communism’s collapse, the story becomes one of poignantly poor timing, pitting diplomacy versus personal desperation.
Taken on its own, the couple’s escape attempt would make for a thoroughly engrossing biographical thriller. Nonetheless, as scripted by Ostergaard and co-director Erzsebet Racz, it emerges as the sketchier of the film’s lines of investigation, with neither principal as generously characterized as the prime minister himself. While he provides extensive firsthand narration, Nemeth is also played in multiple dramatized scenes by actor Jozsef Gyabronka, whose strong physical likeness to the subject — in scenes shot and treated to resemble washed-out period footage — further blurs the documentary-drama divide, thanks also to fluid cutting by Pernille Bech-Christensen, Szilvia Ruszer and Thomas Papapetros.
Though Ostergaard openly explains his approach in an introductory statement (also admitting to “creative use” of archive material), it won’t necessarily sit well with purists of the form. Putting re-created dialogue, however carefully researched, into the virtual mouths of such major figures as Gorbachev and Erich Honecker is a particularly risky tactic, though it does enliven the material for uninformed auds. It also makes an unlikely hero of a low-key head of state, one who would earn the silent respect of Gorbachev and the vocal scorn of other Eastern European leaders for initiating formative change that would inevitably curtail his own political career.
Flash-free efficiency, appropriately enough, is also the best description of the filmmaking on show here, with d.p. Simon Plum and the design team carefully evoking an era, filtered through grainy broadcast-news memories, that seems at once a lot more and a lot less than a quarter-century ago.