“Those Who Remained”, which was the Hungarian entry for Best International Feature Film Oscar and then made the December shortlist in 2019, is a dry and melancholic character drama unfolded between two different survivors of the World War II. Calmly focusing on the gradual development of their strained relationship, the movie slowly and tentatively empathizes with their respective damages from the war, and it also manages to sidestep some uncomfortable aspects of their emotional bond.
At first, we get to know the daily life of Dr. Körner Aladár (Károly Hajduk), a fortysomething Jewish gynecologist who has worked in a local hospital after he survived the Holocaust. Although the movie does not specify what happened to him and his lost family several years ago, it is apparent that Aladár is still haunted by that irreversible loss of his, and he simply prefers to be alone when he returns to his small shabby apartment where he has lived by himself.
On one day, a 16-year-old girl named Wiener Klára (Abigél Szõke) comes to his hospital office along with her grandaunt for medical examination and treatment. It seems she has some adolescent development problem, but that problem is soon solved thanks to Aladár, and Klára approaches to him several days later. Although she is not so pleased with the result of his treatment, she is interested in spending some time with him, and Aladár subsequently lets her into his residence even though he has no particular interest in her at all.
Aladár and Klára simply talk for a while, and then, as her new friend to talk with, he kindly takes her to where she lives with her grandaunt, but then the situation becomes a little more complicated than expected. On the very next day, Klára comes to Aladár’s apartment again, and she notifies to him that she was kicked out of her home by her grandaunt because her grandaunt happened to see them hugging each other for a while before Klára left for her home. After talking a bit with Klára’s grandaunt on the phone, Aladár manages to convince her that there was nothing serious about his physical interaction with Klára, but then, because her grandaunt decides to give her up to some degree, he agrees to have Klára in his apartment as long as she wants to stay there.
After that point, Aladár finds himself getting involved with Klára much more than expected. As becoming her de facto guardian instead of her grandaunt, he meets a number of her schoolteachers who all have been quite frustrated with her wild and willful behaviors in addition to her poor test scores, and he willingly tries to help her a bit on her school study.
Meanwhile, it becomes clearer to us that, as an adolescent girl who becomes more aware of her growing sexuality, Klára wants more than simple comfort from Aladár. During their first night in Aladár’s apartment, she blatantly attempts to get closer to Aladár, but he does not allow that at all with sensible tactfulness, and then we come to sense more of the emotional tension between them as they spend more time with each other in his apartment.
Now the situation could be quite creepy considering the wide age difference between these two main characters in the film, but the screenplay by director Barnabás Tóth and Klára Muhi thoughtfully and sensitively builds up its two main characters and their complex relationship. Regardless of what exactly he feels behind his quiet and taciturn façade, Aladár lets Klára learn more of his traumatic past, and there is a poignant scene when Klára comes to have a moment of empathy on Aladár as a girl who has also struggled a lot with the loss of her dear family members including a younger sibling of hers.
However, the emotional situation between Aladár and Klára remains as tricky as before. While Aladár remains tactful as before despite being a little tenderer to Klára, Klára seems to be quite willing to cross the line as showing more affection and attention to him day by day, and he becomes more nervous even though he cannot help but feel happy to have her right next to him.
And there is a good reason for his growing nervousness. As the country is swept by the Russian communism just like most of Eastern European countries during that period, everyone becomes more cautious and discreet than before, and it goes without saying that there are some people regarding Aladár and Klára with understandable suspicion. At one point later in the story, Aladár is surreptitiously warned by one of his old colleagues, and we subsequently get a tense nocturnal scene where Aladár and Klára come to get an indirect experience of what will possibly happen to them if they are not so careful about their complicated relationship.
Compared to what has been carefully built up along the story, the finale feels rather anti-climactic, but it comes to us as the eventual arrival point for our two main characters, who are deftly embodied by the two lead performers of the film. While Károly Hajduk dutifully holds the ground, Abigél Szõke is relatively more expressive as required by her feisty character, and it is always interesting to watch how they subtly convey to us their contrasting characters’ complex thoughts and feelings churning below the surface.
Overall, “Those Who Remained” may require some patience from you, but it is worthwhile to watch for its mood, details and performance. Yes, it is actually a very familiar tale of human connection, but you may come to appreciate its plain but succinct storytelling while touched by its several quiet but achingly human moments, and it will probably linger on your mind for a while after it is over.