Upon completing duties as a debut screenwriter, Friedrich Dürrenmatt celebrated a job well done by promptly rewriting the whole thing. The Swiss playwright and novelist had bent to studio demands and relinquished control of his script, It Happened in Broad Daylight, to Hans Jacoby, a veteran Hollywood writer who knew what studios wanted and gave it to them. Dürrenmatt collaborated with Jacoby and turned in a by-the-numbers detective story where clues lead to the perp and justice was served. But he didn’t believe in it. He had come from the traditions of Brecht’s epic theater and German philosophy, neither of which promise happy endings. So he rewrote his screenplay into a short novel, The Pledge, the new opening of which introduces a crime writer who’s instantly berated for his predictable, unrealistic garbage. Now the characters reenact It Happened in Broad Daylight‘s story only to discover even the most obsessive detectives can’t control absurdities of the world. He subtitled this book “Requiem for the Detective Novel” and considered it the death knell of a genre he loved to hate.
Since then The Pledge has been adapted to the screen several times, each with a flimsy loyalty to the source material. Because The Pledge was borne of genre commentary, any further change acts as exegesis: each director can fine-tune their take on the crime form. Sean Penn directed the most popular adaptation in 2001, keeping the title and casting Jack Nicholson as the lead detective. The haunted Swiss hamlets of Dürrenmatt’s novel are transplanted to small-town Americana; Penn mostly uses his film to comment on American cop culture and dress Nicholson in a few leis at a Tiki bar.
But as file-sharing and Internet forums made international cinema more and more accessible, another adaptation steadily grew in reputation. This, György Fehér’s Twilight, was passed around as a sub-gigabyte file that must have been cursed: viewers were frequently driven to an evangelical mania on the film’s behalf. I was inducted into this cult a mere two hours before the 4K restoration (by National Film Institute––Hungarian Film Archive and FilmLab) was announced––a coincidence my recently converted brain chose to label as “fate.” Now, like many others, I must proselytize.
Here’s the story as Fehér tells it: an old detective, presumably a veteran of his force, stumbles into a local investigation of a small-town child murderer. This murderer is likely to strike again, but the town has already pegged their perpetual ne’er-do-well hawker as the culprit; acting in true mob style, they demand his death as something more like a scapegoat than justice. Though the perp does die, our detective still doubts his role in the murders and begins his own obsessive investigation, mostly by interviewing children who may be the killer’s next victims. This obsession soon leads him to dangerous methods to trap “the giant” or “the wizard”––the only descriptions our detective received from local children––much to the chagrin of his combative department. Fehér and Dürrenmatt’s story gives us the usual rogue cop playing by his own rules, but in their worlds neither bureaucracy nor the well-meaning maverick can alter a chaotic, grim fate.
But while it contains all the trappings of noir, Fehér’s adaptation trims dialogue to bare-minimum exposition, especially compared with a source novel hosting narration, inter-departmental politics, and backstories aplenty. Faces often tell us all we need to know about a character, and DP Miklós Gurbán’s camera might hold a silent close-up for two minutes before that visage erupts into a blind anger that replaces four paragraphs of a Dürrenmatt speech. There’s no hint our lead detective is off the force, a factor that plays heavily in Penn’s version, but László Vidovszky’s musical refrains ominously accompany his off-the-books sleuthing around elementary schools and homes as if to tell us he’s not exactly trustworthy, either. Fehér cares more for tone and texture than the twists and turns of a detective story––especially as a sequence, shot in stylized black-and-white, nearly always begins with a master shot capturing the forested Hungarian hills and moves ever so slowly until a character suddenly comes into frame in close-up, creating the chilling impression they’ve been there, beside us, the whole time (and giving quite a workout to the focus-puller). Fehér’s gloom begins with his opening shot, but the night scenes, with their layers of penumbrae in the forested hamlet, present chiaroscuro portraits of characters in blacks and darker blacks. Twilight is, if perhaps only literally, the darkest noir ever made.
This makes the simplest explanation for its cult status superficial and obvious, but important and true: Twilight looks and sounds just like a Béla Tarr film. This is a widely shared description that composed the core of its word-of-mouth-marketing––easy to believe, even easier to want to believe, given the Hungarian master director’s relatively short oeuvre. It’s also easy to overcorrect the hype: to note where Fehér places and moves the camera contra Tarr, to insist on a Fehér mode of acting, or to dissect the worlds and worldviews their films project. This pedantry turns up a comically short list, so it’s best to frame it another way: “Why does this feel just like a Tarr film?”
Tarr’s name appears in Twilight’s credits as “consultant”––a credit that could mean someone who picked out one of the tablecloths for the set or someone who ghost-directed the entire production. It’s also an apt (if cheekily so) title for his presence on set, as he gave practical advice, resources, and connections for many parts of the production. Fehér was by no means an amateur seeking advice; he had directed for Hungarian television studios for more than a decade. But Tarr had done the impossible just a year previously by flouting unofficial censures from the Hungarian government to make Damnation with a small, independent studio. Any comeback story could be inspiring, but Damnation deeply affected the disillusioned would-be auteurs working within the Hungarian system. When Tarr speaks of Hungarian master director Miklós Jancsó in interviews, he describes his ’60s and ’70s films as a rallying point for a country that had lost its identity and a cinema culture that defaulted to safe Soviet-realism productions. Tarr himself had now become that rallying point for the Berlin Wall generation, and suddenly every talented Hungarian director was shooting in black-and-white with long mobile shots. These directors (including Fehér) were not stealing from Tarr, just as Tarr was not stealing from Jancsó. Instead, by using this style, directors could continue the conversation––about feeling lost, hopeless, always walking to no destination––in a cinematic language they intuitively understood.
Thus why the Tarr connection, though obvious, remains important: it points to a sort of Hungarian (or perhaps pan-Eastern-European) mode of collective filmmaking that nevertheless never becomes a “national cinema” to place demands on its artists. Indeed, à la Tarr’s films, Twilight speaks of Hungary in less-than-allegorical ways. The only hint this film even takes place in Hungary (outside the language) is a series of shots highlighting the statue of the turul as a second possible dumping ground for the potential victim. (The first being a cross––not exactly some meaningless symbol.) This turul is a mythological falcon that, per certain legends, impregnates the legendary Emese and protects the resulting son, Álmos, who became the first leader of the Hungarian people. In recent years far-right nationalists have adopted the mythical symbol in the same way all nationalists identify their movements with mythical origin stories. But Fehér, like Tarr, does not push any sort of direct commentary with this; the threat of a dead child underneath such a political symbol is quite the provocation. Tarr was banned from entering university in Hungary after his own Dziga Vertov Group (literally stealing the name from Godard’s collective) won multiple amateur festivals, and though Damnation’s success eliminated his persona non grata status, the government never quite accepted him. So unlike the bureaucracy-shaming comedies that became obvious bait for censors during the Soviet era, ’90s Hungarian cinema could adapt this slow style and mythical storytelling to capture a deeper mood of political despair. One shot in Fehér’s film (as well as his later Passion) slowly reveals the cold, dead stares of a mob, their faces obscured by an omnipresent fog as they haunt the police station waiting for their scapegoat’s death––not as solution, but absolution. By the end, who could confidently say which is better?
Dürrenmatt’s detective story––one where a determined person in power searches for something they’re fated not to find––became an excellent vessel for this community’s style. This beautiful restoration ensures those gorgeous bookending aerial shots of the haunted forest are freed from their 480p prison. László Vidovszky’s combination of folk vocals and deep strings rumble throughout each sequence while Gurbán’s subtle lighting can finally be seen alongside his sweeping location shots of potential graveyards. Those initial cultish whispers about a Hungarian hidden relic can finally become shouts of Hosanna as Fehér’s masterpiece rises from the dead.
The 4K restoration of Twilight opens at Film at Lincoln Center on April 21 and will expand.