Hungarian documentarian Dénes Nagy turns to fiction for his latest feature, set in the bleak Soviet countryside of the Second World War. Taking its cues from Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, and comparable in both tone and content to Václav Marhoul’s 2019 The Painted Bird in its study of war’s corrosive effects on the human soul, Natural Light illuminates the fading glow of humanity amidst horror.
Where as Marhoul’s The Painted Bird was a profoundly cynical depiction of human evil – its shocking violence matched only by the crushing relentlessness of it – Nagy allows us glimpses of humanity beneath the various masks of monstrosity. Unlike The Painted Bird, Nagy’s main character is not an innocent child surviving amidst endless darkness, but a Hungarian soldier, Semetka (Ferenc Szabó), fighting on the side of the Nazis, whose company are currently occupying a tiny village in the occupied Eastern Front under the perpetual half light of an anemic sun.
Corporal Semetka is almost an anti-protagonist: blank, virtually expressionless and almost entirely passive in his own story. Things don’t even so much happen to him as happen around him. Indeed, it’s vital that the entirety of his story takes place away from the war as it is popularly understood. Gunfire is confined to a single scene, there are no visible enemy soldiers to fight, and the traditional horrors of warfare are present everywhere but take place largely off screen. Semetka’s story takes place inside a gnawing void of inertia.
As if to make the darkness seem even blacker, Semetka repeatedly betrays the light of his own humanity. When a villager is caught taking food and humiliated in front of the company, Semetka’s passive glances give away his recognition of the evil in which he finds himself. After his fellow soldiers are ambushed by partisans in a disorienting, almost hallucinatory sequence, he finds a women buried among earth and tree roots, her face looking out at him in silence. It’s unclear if she is dead or hiding, but presumably she is among the villagers who are working with the Soviet Partisan soldiers. Semetka leaves her in her hiding place, his silence an echo of something of the humanity still buried inside.
Semetka is the company’s de facto photographer, designated to bear witness to the action. Yet Natural Light’s great irony is that he does not see the film’s final horror after his commanding officer rounds up the villagers. In the end, Semetka’s humanity is defined neither by his resistance to or compliance in evil, but by his absence from it. His figurative turning away is his ultimate collaboration, but one in which he has not even the agency of witness. He is burdened with a chimeric, monstrous knowledge – knowing of the terrible things that have happened without even the cathartic figure that bearing witness might have brought them.