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Review: The Fifth Seal – A Spiky Cabaret of Political Fear and Cruelty

Broodingly obsessed … The Fifth Seal. Photograph: Courtesy: Klassiki
Broodingly obsessed … The Fifth Seal. Photograph: Courtesy: Klassiki

The Seventh Seal, a movie by Ingmar Bergman, hints at the apocalyptic revelation of angelic trumpeters and divine wrath. In contrast, Hungarian director Zoltán Fábri’s 1976 film, “The Fifth Seal,” delves into a slightly subtler theme—the opening of the fifth seal reveals the prayers of martyrs seeking divine vengeance. Adapted from a novel by Ferenc Sánta, this film portrays a dark, tragicomic view of martyrdom. It encapsulates the cruel and fearful political climate of its time, reminiscent of European cinema classics like Pasolini’s “Salò” or Marco Ferreri’s “La Grande Bouffe.”

The narrative revolves around Karoly (István Dégi), a morose military veteran wounded in wartime Hungary under quasi-Nazi leader Ferenc Szálasi. One evening, he limps into a bar, where four men, evidently avoiding military service, invite him to join their table. These men are Béla (Ferenc Bencze), the bar owner; Miklós (Lajos Öze), a watchmaker; János (Sándor Horváth), a carpenter; and László (László Márkus), a door-to-door salesman. Miklós hides Jewish children in his apartment, Béla bribes police Blackshirts to protect his bar, and László trades hidden-market meat cuts for the favor of his mistress.

Bizarre snippets of their private lives, intertwined with flashes of Hieronymus Bosch imagery, depict their desperate grabs for pleasure amidst the doom they fear—whether arrest by their own police or execution by incoming Soviet soldiers.

The plot thickens when Miklós poses a ponderous question, recounting a fable about a cruel slave owner and his oppressed slave. The question challenges the men: if forced to choose, would they be the slave master or the slave, the latter supposedly finding solace in moral righteousness? Karoly asserts he would choose slavery and feels deeply affronted when the others mock him. This question unsettles all of them, not because it is a futile hypothetical, but because, deep down, they have already chosen—or had the choice made for them. Could they be both slaves and complicit slave masters, much like their Nazi-collaborating leaders?

The hypothetical becomes stark reality when the police arrive to arrest them on a tipped-off charge. The existential question looms: is the fifth seal of martyrdom destined to break, and does it even pertain to them? What follows is a somber tale of disillusionment and resignation, culminating in an extraordinary moment. One of the men, temporarily released from prison, wanders a street crumbling under bombardment, symbolizing an apocalyptic shame.

The Fifth Seal is available on Klassiki from July 11.

Source: The Guardian