“Eternal Winter” was directed by Attila Szasz, and stars Marina Gera, Sandor Csanvi, and Laura Dobros. It begins in 1944 Hungary, when Iren and other women of her village are rounded up by Soviet soldiers and deported to Siberia as forced labour. They have been taken because they are Swabians, a German-speaking minority in Hungary, so the Russians act as if they are complicit in Nazism. In a labour camp in Siberia, they are forced work in a coal mine and endure brutal conditions. Iren meets Rajmund, a fellow prisoner, and they become close.
This is Attila Szasz’s first feature film for cinematic release, though he has directed two TV movies previously, as well as a short film and TV commercials. Eternal Winter was released in Hungary on 25 February 2018.
This story is based in historical fact. As the Soviet army advanced, they began to harass and deport the German-speaking minorities in Hungary and other nearby countries, tarring them all with the same brush as the Nazi party. This was not entirely unfounded, as a National Socialist German party was formed in Hungary in 1938, and many ethnic Germans ended up in military units raised or controlled by the Third Reich, including the Waffen SS. The Communists made a scapegoat of the Swabian community in Hungary and deported thousands to Siberian labour camps, including civilians, citing security concerns. After the war, there was a concerted effort to rid the country of the ethnic German population, and thousands were deported to Germany.
If you’ve ever read the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, you will have a good idea about life in a Gulag. In Eternal Winter these details come to horrifying life. The labour is heavy, food is scarce (and will be withheld if the inmates don’t meet their quotas), retaliation for any wrongdoing is harsh, hygiene is minimal, medicine non-existent (as illustrated by the nightmarish ‘transit room’), and it is always cold. There is no joy to be found here. The atmosphere of the film reflects this – colours are muted and stark, and the constant chill almost seeps through the screen. The characters have little to say to one another, as their energy is sapped by the constant struggle to survive. It’s a bleak and barren environment with no escape, and the hungry wolves outside the camp reflect the predation of the strong on the weak within the camp.
About halfway through the film, Iren (Marina Gera) and Rajmund (Sandor Csanvi) have a conversation in which he advises her not to dream. Rajmund states that dreaming will kill you. Iren disagrees, stating that faith and hope are vital. Yet shortly after this she discovers that the end of the war will not mean their release, and it seems that they will never be allowed to go home. This is a gut-wrenching moment for her. Her parents, her daughter, and her husband, appear in her dreams, and she starts to understand what Rajmund is trying to tell her. That sort of hope will end in madness. Rajmund has carved out a place for himself, trading for what he needs to survive on the local black market, living day to day. Iren tries to stop dreaming about her lost family and follow Rajmund’s example, to survive. Tearing out the pages of the Bible to roll cigarettes is a symbolic moment, signalling Iren’s turning away from her dreams of returning home.
Incidental music is only sparingly used in this film, and what is used is mostly atonal, wind-like calls that underpin quieter moments, evocative of the ever-present winter. Much of the film is without music and this makes other sounds, words of desperation and cries of despair, the crunch of footsteps on snow, the clatter of shovels against coal, seem even louder. Every sound evokes struggle and desperation.
While Iren does become harder, she never loses dignity. She learns to be less generous, but not to the point of cruelty. She learns to live in the moment without losing herself in the process.
Eternal Winter shines a light on a little-known tragic story of Soviet Europe in the war and post-war years. It is also a poignant story of human endurance under appalling circumstances. It is beautifully directed, scripted, and acted. I strongly recommend this.