Many films deal with the suffering of the Holocaust years, but far fewer focus on those who managed to return from the camps. The achingly tender Hungarian drama “Those Who Remained” fills that gap. Perceptively directed by Barnabás Tóth, it taps into a deep well of honestly earned emotion as it tells the story of two traumatized survivors whose relationship helps them to heal and provides them with someone to live for. Set in the period between 1948 and ’53, the period drama also takes on the purges of Hungarian politician Mátyás Rákosi’s Communist regime. Following its world premiere in Telluride, this exquisite, poignantly performed tale will be released in North American by Menemsha Films.
After the war, the gentle but haunted Dr. Aládar “Aldó” Kőrner (Károly Hajduk), 42, returns to his ob-gyn hospital practice. His wife and two small boys perished in the camps, and he lives alone, with only his medical journals for company, until Klára (Abigél Szőke), a 16-year-old force of nature, storms her way into his life.
We first meet Klára, nicknamed Sunny, in Aldó’s clinic and she’s definitely not radiating good humor. She’s dismissive of her school classes and classmates, unhappy in the frugal home she shares with her always-worried great-aunt Ogi (Mari Nagy) and above all, in denial about the fate of her parents, to whom she continues to write long letters. Sensing a kindred spirit in Aldó, she bombards the compassionate doctor with personal information and countless questions, and with the boldness of youth, doesn’t hesitate to question his lifestyle and even his clothing choices. But Klára is also an intelligent old soul, and her statement that “It’s harder for us than those who left,” resonates with Aldó. Soon, he is acting as a foster father and sharing her custody with Ogi.
Klára thrives under the new arrangement. She finds she can talk to Aldó about anything: religion, the past, her parents and the little sister that she feels guilty about being unable to save. Aldó, discernibly happier, but unable to be as verbally expressive, shares his pre-war photo albums with Klára in a beautifully directed, wordless scene.
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Tóth also demonstrates remarkable delicacy in his depiction of Aldó and Klára’s physical proximity. Klára, especially, yearns for his touch, something that is easily misinterpreted by strangers. A spinsterish school teacher comes upon Klára and Aldó on a park bench, Klára’s head in his lap and his hand stroking her hair, and is duly scandalized. At night, when Klára tiptoes into Aldó’s lonely single bed, it is because she cannot bear to be separated from him. Theirs is a chaste, father-daughter love, scrupulously monitored by Aldó, until one terror-filled night, when there is a possibility of it becoming something more.
In his sophomore feature, the France-born, Budapest-based helmer (perhaps best known for his prize-winning 2018 short “Chuchotage”) sensitively establishes and sustains an affecting but understated dramatic tone, aided by his superb leads. He also leaves room for some ambiguity and individual audience interpretation. Certainly, when seeing the age-appropriate partners (Katalin Simkó, Barnabás Horkay) that Aldó and Klára have in 1953, some viewers may have a sense of a second tragedy; that two soulmates who so enrich each other are not together in a conventional sense.
Creating a very cinematic adaptation of 2004 novel by Zsuzsa F. Várkonyi, Tóth and co-screenwriter Klára Muhi include well-integrated flashbacks to Klára’s past that indicate how she is healing. Meanwhile, they smoothly incorporate the menace of the Stalinist era with references to those who have been disappeared at night, the chilling stress on the word “Comrade” and the shamefaced confession of Aldó’s colleague Pista (Andor Lukáts), himself the foster father to two survivor daughters, who reveals that he has joined the Party and been asked to inform on him.
In her first leading film role, Abigél Szőke (who played the vampire girl in a György Pálfi-directed stage production of “Let the Right One In”) is a revelation. She makes Klára’s energy, pain and smarts palpable, all the while being touchingly tuned to the emotional shadings of Aldó. A prize-winning theater thesp as well as a film veteran, Hajduk is equally fine, giving heart-breaking nuance to what is a more interior-directed role.
Shot mostly in interiors or empty, dark streets, the production package does a lot with very little. Gábor Marosi’s intimate widescreen lensing is attuned to the minutest detail of the performers’ expressions and the dusty hues suggest the period as do the costumes. László Pirisi’s delicate score is just right.