Hungary 1990, 101 mins
Director: György Fehér

+ intro by Jason Wood, BFI Executive Director of Public Programmes and Audiences, and Second Run’s Mehelli Modi.

An occasional colleague of both Miklós Jancsó (as an actor) and Béla Tarr (as a producer), György Fehér (1939-2002) served an apprenticeship in Hungarian theatre and television before making just two cinema features, Twilight and Passion (Szenvedély, 1998) – the latter premiered less than five years before his death at the age of just 63. Produced at a time when international interest in Eastern European cinema across the board was at a very low ebb, Fehér’s films were barely seen outside festivals and swiftly forgotten, only to be very slowly revived as the 21st century progressed, for much of that time courtesy of VHS-quality off-air recordings from Hungarian television, with picture so murky as to be borderline unwatchable.

Not that this new 4K restoration, shown at Berlin in February (after a 2021 preview in London) banishes the murk. On the contrary, the murk is an integral part of Fehér’s approach, atmospherically faithful to Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s source novel (‘Outside, the fog hovered in front of the window, a dull, faceless twilight that crept into the little room full of books and stacks of files. The air was chilly and stale…’) while also part of a powerful visual conception that’s more than a little reminiscent of Tarr’s later films. That said, when Twilight premiered, Tarr had only made Damnation (1988) in his mature style, his previous films having adopted a more social-realist approach.

Like Tarr, Fehér favours exceptionally long takes (there are just 50 or so shots across the film’s 100 minutes), often with little outwardly happening. Similarly, two-way conversations are usually an excuse for lengthy scrutiny of the listener’s face rather than that of the speaker. One particularly remarkable shot lasts nearly six minutes, bookended by prolonged extreme close-ups of a man’s unshaven, heavily moustached face, initially as he’s being berated by his wife, and then in the aftermath of a frenzied table-top incident that might be either marital rape or consensually cathartic rough sex, all set to a soundtrack that suggests that their home’s weather-proofing is paper-thin. There’s no privacy in this environment, and seemingly no end to the surrounding landscape.

The cinematography isn’t so much black and white as a set of endless variations on a general theme of grey, especially emphasised by the many prolonged shots of the camera drifting unmoored through landscapes defined more by gentle undulations than clearly marked features. Almost every exterior is suffused with moisture of some kind, usually drifting fog or torrential rain, and the interiors feel similarly oppressive. Echoes of Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) abound on the soundtrack – both films repeatedly use music by the band Popol Vuh and a choral arrangement of the Georgian folk song ‘Tsintskaro’ (which was sampled by Kate Bush in her 1985 track ‘Hello Earth’). Sometimes this sort of thing is needlessly distracting, but not here, with the music underscoring the pervasive suggestion that a potential vampire, or at least recidivist child-murderer, might be lurking just off camera throughout.

For, despite outward appearances, Twilight is a crime thriller (as was Passion, which was the fifth screen version of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice). It is adapted from The Pledge (1958), itself adapted from a screenplay that Dürrenmatt wrote the previous year. The best known out of quite a few film and TV adaptations of The Pledge is Sean Penn’s 2001 feature, which starred Jack Nicholson as the troubled detective who comes to believe that the prime suspect in the vicious murder of a young girl was innocent, notwithstanding his confession and subsequent suicide.

In Fehér’s film, the detective (unnamed here, Matthaï in the novel) is played by the grim-faced Peter Haumann: initially a frequently mute witness to frustratingly slow investigative proceedings, who gradually comes to play an increasingly proactive but potentially unethical leading role, since the only truly fruitful source of information is a very young girl who may be in line to become the next victim. Dürrenmatt had already stripped the classic detective story down to its barest essentials (he even subtitled the book ‘Requiem for the Detective Novel’); Fehér goes even further, reducing the narrative elements to occasional anchor points in what is otherwise a relentless but mesmerising study of tone and texture – not least aurally: the sound of fingers painstakingly sifting through broken glass in search of crucial evidence is as compelling as any music.

Tarr fans are very unlikely to be disappointed, but so should anyone else curious to sample the work of a clearly major talent who has been neglected for far too long.
Michael Brooke, Sight and Sound, June 2023

Director: György Fehér
Production Company: Budapest Filmstúdió
Production Manager: Tibor Dimény
Screenplay: György Fehér
Based on writing by: Friedrich Dürrenmatt
Cinematography: Miklós Gurbán
Editor: Mária Czeilik
Production Design: Tamás Vayer
Costume Designer: Gyula Pauer
Sound Design: Lásló Vidovsky
Sound: János Réti, Péter Kardos
Consultant: Béla Tarr

Péter Haumann (chief detective)
János Derzsi (K)
Judit Pogány (woman)
Kati Lázár (mother)
István Lénárt (psychiatrist)
Gyula Pauer (hawker)
Mónika Varga (young girl 1)
Erzsébet Nagy (young girl 2)

Hungary 1990
101 mins
Digital 4K (restoration)

The 4K digital restoration using the original image negative and magnetic tape sound was carried out by the National Film Institute Hungary – Film Archive and Film Lab in 2022. Digital grading supervised by Miklós Gurbán, Director of Photography

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