Hungarian film club online: The Fifth Seal (Az ötödik pecsét, Zoltán Fábri, 1976)

Available on the National Film Institute's website (click)

After the February screening of the classic Two Halves in Hell (Két félidő a pokolban, 1962) the May edition of Balassi institute's film club will once again turn it's gaze towards one of the greatest names of Hungarian cinema, Zoltán Fábri. Fábri started off as a painter and continued his career as a theatre and film director. Influenced by Italian neorealism and French poetical realism, Fábri rose to fame with his early films in the fifties and continued working in the film field until the early eighties. His works which were regularly based on novels often turned into philosophical contemplations about humanism and dealt with the dilemmas of the Second World War. The Fifth Seal (Az ötödik pecsét, 1976) which combines all of these elements won the Golden Award at 10th Moscow International Film Festival and is nowadays regarded as his masterpiece and one of the best Hungarian films of all time.

It's 1944, Budapest is under Nazi occupation and five men of varying professions are drinking in a bar and discussing a variety of subjects. The drinks and conversations are flowing from a trade of a Hieronymus Bosch painting for a beef brisket to philosophical debates about ethics and moral. The conversation takes a turn when the enigmatic watchmaker poses a topical question: upon death, would you want to be reborn as a tyrannical dictator unaware of any guiltiness, or a slave experiencing extreme torture yet with moral decency? What follows is a sleepless night for all and we get glimpses into the intimacy, acts, secrets and sincere thoughts of each of the protagonists. The next night they all gather in the bar again and then something unexpected happens which will force them to find and practice the answer themselves.

The Fifth Seal is an adaptation of Ferenc Sánta's novel of the same name and clearly consists of three separate acts. Fábri's directing is once again perfectionistic and thought out in detail on the formal and on the content level. He carefully reveals bits of information and evolves thought patterns on different levels to expose deeply humanistic questions which haunt us long after the viewing of the film.