‘Evolution’ Review: It’s Two Steps Forward, One Step Back in Stunning Portrait of Holocaust Survivors

A child rescued from hell-on-earth conditions passes her trauma on to subsequent generations in this ambitious parable about the path forward.

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Building on what has come before, the opening act of Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber’s “Evolution” recalls a monologue from the Hungarian duo’s previous film, “Pieces of a Woman,” when a Holocaust-hardened Jewish matriarch played by Ellen Burstyn repeats the mythology of her own survival — the idea that she somehow chose to live when so many around her were murdered. She tells the story of being hidden under the floorboards as an infant, and how even the doctor considered her a lost cause: “He picked me up by my feet and held me up like a chicken and said, ‘If she tries to lift her head, then there’s hope.’”

In “Evolution” — which Mundruczó adapted for the screen from his longtime collaborator’s logistically audacious Proton Theatre stage production — three generations of Jewish survivors choose to lift their heads, one after the other, across a trio of bravura single-take vignettes. By the time we reach the present, the characters barely realize how narrowly they escaped a genocide, whereas audiences can scarcely forget: It’s right there in the film’s shocking first scene.

Darker than any nightmare Kafka ever recorded (but downright optimistic compared with Hungarian director György Pálfi’s 2006 hand-me-down horror triptych, “Taxidermia”), the 18-minute opener focuses on a squad of men who’ve come to scrub the room where innumerable Jews must have died. Labeled “Eva” and choreographed like some kind of macabre dance number, it’s a jarring, deeply unsettling thing to witness — are these Red Cross workers or Nazis preparing it for another round of extermination? — which transforms quite unexpectedly with the sound of a crying baby. Like the seedling that forces its way through concrete, a child has miraculously survived this horror, and the men rush to rescue it, as the camera pulls back to reveal the countless barracks whose interns were not so fortunate.

No wonder this survivor never learned to trust her fellow humans. In the next act, the movie rejoins Eva decades later in the family’s well-appointed German flat (now played by veteran actor Lili Monori, unconvincing). Her daughter Lena (Annamária Láng, better) has stopped by to collect her mother’s birth certificate, hoping to use the documents to get her son into a coveted kindergarten, but Eva refuses. “They will make a list and round them up to be massacred!” she hisses. And what use are such papers anyway, since everything had to be forged after the war?

Like the first chapter, this one’s contained in a single virtuoso shot (or orchestrated to look that way by superstar DP Yorick Le Saux), though the tone is completely different. The situation feels more realistic, as Eva — who suffers from dementia — soils herself mid-scene, leaving the next generation to clean up the mess. But no matter how eager Lena is to move on, to trust the world, the burden of the past remains overwhelming, a fact Mundruczó makes literal in the most surreal possible way. How the director pulled off the ensuing cataclysm within the confines of an elaborate “oner” (orchestrating it all amid the coronavirus, no less) is anybody’s guess, but it leaves audiences reeling. When such things can happen, what could the third act possibly hold in store? How will Mundruczó and Wéber pull it all together?

They can’t, obviously, which is probably why this ambitious multi-generational portrait landed in the newly created Cannes Premiere category, rather than in official competition at the Cannes Film Festival. But that doesn’t mean the film is a failure simply because the relatively tame tertiary segment can’t resolve the monumental issues raised in the wildly expressionistic first hour. Here, “Evolution” introduces Jonas (Goya Rego), a gangly teen who feels excluded by his non-Jewish classmates. Someone started a fire at his school, and the students are being evacuated. In time, it become clear that this was a hate crime directed at Jonas by what the too-tolerant administration euphemistically refers to as “a certain kind of students.”

Lena demands that the school do something about it, but Jonas just wants to be left alone. Well, not entirely alone: Walking home, he shyly flirts with an Arab girl from his class, Yasmin (Padmé Hamdemir), whom he sees again the following day for a school parade. This episode, like the others, appears to unspool in a single shot, though it’s harder to ignore the splices when the events depicted don’t occur in real time. Anti-Semitic attitudes may not have disappeared from Germany, but Mundruczó and Wéber want audiences to consider how much this family has adapted across three generations. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” promised Martin Luther King Jr., but it bends in the right direction. So heavy until now, the movie ends on a soaring note of optimism, but it’s hard not to crave a fourth installment, wherein we meet whoever Jonas and Yasmin might bring into the world. Until then, it’s enough to see them advancing with heads held high.

‘Evolution’ Review: It’s Two Steps Forward, One Step Back in Stunning Portrait of Holocaust Survivors

Reviewed at Rodeo Screening Room, June 2021. (In Cannes Film Festival — Premiere.) Running time: 97 MIN.

  • Production: (Germany-Hungary) A Match Factory presentation of a Match Factory Prods., Proton Cinema production, in co-production with ZDF/ARTE, Proton Theatre, with the support of National Film Institute Hungary Mitteldeutsche Medienförderung Film-und Medienstiftung NRW German Federal Filmfund in cooperation with the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archive. (World sales: The Match Factory, Cologne.) Producers: Viola Fügen, Michael Weber, Viktória Petrányi. Co-producers: Júlia Berkes, Michel Merkt, Tobias Pausinger.
  • Crew: Director: Kornél Mundruczó. Screenplay: Kata Wéber. Camera: Yorick Le Saux. Editor: Dávid Jancsó. Music: Dascha Dauenhauer.
  • With: Lili Monori, Annamária Láng, Goya Rego, Padmé Hamdemir, Jule Böwe.