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Natural Light review – bleak but brilliantly immersive World War II drama

This fiction debut from documentarian Denes Nagy expertly captures the desperate hunger and cold of a war with no winners

Despite the title, there is little sunshine to be found in Denes Nagy’s Natural Light, a misty and mud-soaked look at Hungary’s bleak role in the Second World War as vanguards for the Nazis in occupied Ukraine. Browns and greys dominate the colour palette, throwing us into the horrifically discomforting world of a war in winter, where hunger and cold supersede any kind of human emotion, creating a void into which endless horrors can be thrown.

Guiding us through is Corporal Semetka (Ferenc Szabo), the unit photographer for a detachment of Hungarian troops dispatched to the Ukraine forests to hunt for Soviet partisans. Though Nagy makes sure to present us with no heroes – our leads are all fascist collaborators who spend their time stealing food from civilians – Semetka proves one of the more soft-hearted of the soldiers when they pitch up in a remote village. It’s this softness, though, that eventually leads to Semetka’s isolation.

After someone in the village gives up the platoon’s movement plans to the partisans, they’re ambushed in a night attack that leaves their commanders dead and Semetka, briefly, in charge. He returns to the village looking for answers, but doesn’t have the stomach to order the inevitable “reprisals,” so he’s relieved of command when reinforcements arrive and sent on a pointless mission to search the nearby swamps while the village is massacred.

As with most of Natural Light’s most violent horrors, these murders happen off screen, but that isn’t to say that this is a sanitised account of the war by any means. Nagy has a background in documentary, and his commitment to realism here can make for a brutal watch. There’s no heroism or honour to this frontier of the war – even the firefight with the partisans is little more than a confusing burst of violence that’s over before anyone has time to process it – and the plight of the civilians is a gut-wrenching one. Whether they collaborate with the partisans or the Hungarians, the other side will execute them in response, and this fatalist knowledge brings an air of suffocating tragedy to every scene in the village.

Semetka’s outlook is similarly bleak, and both Nagy’s script and Szabo’s performance capture his moral quandaries with a remarkable economy of expression. His slow realisation that he barely has the strength to even have a moral dilemma about his army’s actions, let alone act on it, is conveyed almost entirely wordlessly, but never lacks for depth or texture as the guilt starts weighing heavier.

Amongst the overbearing grimness, Nagy also finds tiny glimmers of humanity and even beauty. At the height of the violence, one soldier can’t help but let a murmured prayer past his lips, and the very occasional moments of true stillness offer much-needed respite, as the camera pans to the sunset and the otherwise almost non-existent score kicks in.

This is European arthouse at its most thunderously grim, asking a lot of its audience whilst granting little in the way of catharsis in return. Meet it at its level, though, and Natural Light is a brilliantly immersive journey into the dark heart of a war with no winners, one where there is nothing to gain but always everything to lose.

Natural Light is now showing in UK cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema.

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