The Unforgiven (2017). 75 min. Finland/Denmark. Directed by Lars Feldballe-Petersen.
Keep Quiet (2016). 93 min. United Kingdom/Hungary. Directed by Joseph Martin and Sam Blair.
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Nothing really is owed to the ruthless. But if history’s most despicable actors make a genuine attempt to seek help, should they be ignored? Supported? Condemned forever?
These questions are dealt with in two riveting new documentaries that screened at this year’s Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX). Each profiles a notorious European right-wing militant trying to come to terms with his past. Each man was once a key actor in an ethnocentric and para-militaristic organization and each, struggling to overcome deep, irrational hatreds, expresses regret for past behavior. Whether tackled or avoided, thorny ethical questions must be dealt with by all parties, both in front of and behind the camera. After watching, many viewers will feel compelled to wrestle with what they just witnessed. These are the kinds of films that you find yourself thinking about for days.
Esad Landzo, the central figure in Lars Feldballe-Petersen’s The Unforgiven, which had its world premiere at CPH:DOX, was a teenage guard at a prison camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s. He explains that he set out to please his deputy commander by trying to be the perfect soldier, willing to go above and beyond what was asked of him — which he understood to mean engaging with the innocent men on his watch as brutally and mindlessly as possible. During his brief career at the prison, he killed and tortured and beat and sexually abused civilian fathers, sons and brothers. After the end of the Bosnian War, along with 160 others, he was convicted at the International Criminal Court in The Hague and was sentenced to 15 years for war crimes, including murder and torture. We watch as he is released after 10 years and attempts to restart his life in Finland, the only country that will have him. In voiceover and clipped conversations with his new Bosnian wife (we unfortunately have no idea how they met or what their relationship is), his psychiatrist and his heartbroken parents, he explains a desperate need to return to Bosnia and apologize directly to his victims. Despite serving his time, Landzo states that he feels much worse now than he did at The Hague — at least there he was being punished, but now he’s a free man, which is apparently much more difficult. He’s aching to forgive himself for his actions two decades earlier. His father repeats to him more than once that the Quran says, if you kill one innocent person you kill all humanity, and Landzo appears to carry this guilt deep within him. He craves purification and rebirth, and so — some might say selfishly, others courageously — he seeks out his victims and their kin. Why exactly he chooses this path is unclear.
If The Unforgiven weren’t grounded in the voices and experiences of the victims, including their suffering at the hands of Landzo as a young man, the film might risk looking like the glorification of a reformed war criminal. Landzo is not an unsympathetic person, but the survivors of his crimes are the strength and backbone of this film, and the poignant footage of their brief meetings with the fragile Landzo at the prison camp is full of contradiction and complexity. While these climactic exchanges are rich with information and emotion and offer some degree of resolution, there are so many questions raised and left unanswered about what it means to be human that we are simultaneously left enlightened and stupefied. What is best for the victims as a perpetrator goes about making a movie that showcases him coming to terms with his monstrous past? Can asking forgiveness from victims cause further psychological harm? Can it help everybody? Is Landzo also a victim to some degree? What should ideally happen in these circumstances?
There are best practices for forgiveness seeking, diverse psychological and religious research literatures, and other related documentary films on the subject that have been released in recent years (see, for example, here and here). Yet, unlike the 2011 Sierra Leonean film Fambul Tok, which shows traditional bonfire ceremonies with victims and perpetrators discussing truth and forgiveness, The Unforgiven seems to dive into forgiveness with a relative degree of ignorance, and maybe even somewhat recklessly. We never learn how or why the victims’ meetings were set up as they were. Little is explained or revealed about the process or how it was chosen. The support of a mental health professional for victims at the meetings with Landzo is made clear, but as far as we know, that’s the full extent of the psychological care offered to those who have chosen to meet with him. The brief, tense discussions with Landzo have no real social or historical context, no ritual and no apparent frame except to take place in an empty lot at the scene of the crimes. Nor is there any clear goal, except apparently for Landzo to apologize and move on with his life. (And maybe to make a film? In the credits we see that Landzo himself is one of the filmmakers and he apparently shot many of the scenes.)
Even with the victims’ active participation, the spectacle feels a bit invasive and, depending on the extent of the off-camera discussions around consent, maybe even exploitative. Everyone involved clearly is just trying their best to come to terms with their lives, including Landzo. But it seems like these terribly broken men who share such intimate and painful connections are thrown together somewhat irresponsibly. We don’t know what safeguards were taken for the reunions at the prison camp, and we are left wondering who was helped, if anyone, and who may have been injured by the experience. Were there any lasting positive or negative effects from the meetings? We never find out. The final image is of Landzo under the shower, seemingly attempting to wash it all away.
There’s a certain class of documentary that if pitched to Hollywood studios as a drama would probably never get a green light because the content sounds way too unrealistic to be believed. Take Joseph Martin and Sam Blair’s Keep Quiet, which tells the story of a raving anti-Semitic politician and paramilitary leader in modern-day Hungary who is accused of being Jewish, finds out from his grandmother it’s true (she’s managed to hide the numbers tattooed on her arm with long sleeves since 1945), converts to Orthodox Judaism under the mentorship of a thoughtful and loving rabbi, takes a solemn journey to Auschwitz, and gets circumcised.
Like Landzo, Csanád Szegedi appears to have no qualms whatsoever about processing his identity transformation and regret on camera, and invites the world to watch him change. The camera — the regard of others — is likely a crucial part of this process for both. But in the case of Szegedi, the existence of remorse is less obvious than it is for Landzo, and his process is more conflicted. He seems deeply ambivalent about his past as a hardcore member of the neo-Nazi Jobbik party, and he still cherishes memories of their first major electoral victory, even as he devotes himself to studying the Torah. The internalized anti-Semitism he’s nurtured since adolescence apparently doesn’t dissipate so easily.
The New Yorker profiled Szegedi in an explosive 2013 article by journalist Anne Applebaum, and the makers of Keep Quiet use her insights to frame a jaw-dropping cinematic update. The images and words, including the priceless footage of his grandmother explaining her need to hide the family’s identity for their own safety, is all very real, but the entire story feels absurd. Did the man who was just circumcised and who is now on a train to Auschwitz just wonder aloud to the survivor traveling with him that the Jews may themselves be to blame for their genocide? The absurdity of the story makes more sense if the film is seen as a sort of epilogue to the ultimate absurdity in an unhealed society; we’re not usually confronted with detailed, personal, contemporary ramifications of the Holocaust in this way, and this film serves as a reminder that history is not just preserved in books and museums but is very much alive.
Ultimately, this is a complex psychological portrait of a descendent of Holocaust survivors in a modern Eastern European society where about one-third of the country, and one-half of Budapest residents, still hold onto negative, stereotyped attitudes toward Jews. Csanád Szegedi, who while growing up was forbidden to consciously understand his roots, has developed into a kind of sphinx — whether a benevolent or treacherous sphinx is not clear — and Keep Quiet offers us his riddle in elaborated form. It’s also a film about the people and groups who have interacted with this strange character, including his family and Hungarian neo-Nazis. Rabbi Oberlander, infinitely patient with his student while also appropriately reality-based, is a standout. Overall, the Hungarian, German and Canadian Jews in the film who offer their thoughts about Szegedi as he makes his public speeches are split about his extreme transformation; some, especially the Orthodox, forgive him and open their arms, while others let on they do not trust him, they don’t believe his change of heart is authentic and they will never be able to forgive. And you can understand them all.