Unimaginable losses during the Holocaust help foster an unlikely bond between protagonists in the Hungarian feature film “Those Who Remained,” which makes its theatrical debut at the New Plaza Cinema in New York City on April 28.
Directed by filmmaker Barnabás Tóth, the film is adapted from a novel by Zsuzsa F. Várkonyi. In 2014, the director met Várkonyi through an improv troupe that both participated in, and that’s how he learned about her novel.
Originally released in Hungary in 2019, the film has gone on to appear in over 100 North American Jewish film festivals, including Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. It also earned acclaim at Telluride in 2019. The personal drama between the doctor Aldó and teenage orphan Klára unfolds amid two cataclysmic events in Hungarian history — the Holocaust and the postwar communist takeover.
Tóth called the Holocaust “something undigested, unprocessed, surrounding us here in Budapest through the memory of local places. In every Hungarian family, there were people affected by it.” Then, a few years after the war, there was “a Russian dictatorship and communist terror… for a big period of time, society had deportations, people put in prison, executions.”
“Both were tragedies,” he said. “You had to survive. You had to continue your life. You had to heal yourself from such traumas.”
The film is set in 1948 in Budapest, where Klára is down on her luck. Suffering physically and emotionally, she is failing school; after being released from a Jewish orphanage, she feels misunderstood by her great-aunt Olgi, her new caretaker. Klára is portrayed by actress Abigél Szõke, who is “very in-demand” said Tóth, and whose credits also include projects onstage in “Let the Right One In,” and on the small screen in the HBO Max series “The Informant.”
At the time of the shooting of “Those Who Remained,” Szõke was 18, not much older than the fictional Klára. At a time when everything was going wrong for Klára, she made a fortuitous connection with the middle-aged Aldó. An ob-gyn, Aldó treated Klára and empathized with her. Both had suffered from the famine in Hungary during World War II, and although Klára did not realize it at the time, Aldó was personally suffering extensively from the trauma of the Holocaust, like herself. For Aldó, Tóth turned to Károly Hajduk, an art-school classmate of his who has become a veteran stage presence.
“He’s brilliant, very relaxed on the set, very quiet,” Tóth said. “Sometimes, I’m not even sure he’s not a robot. He’s so perfect, so trustworthy.”
The unlikely duo form a bond, with Aldó offering a positive presence amid Klára’s turmoil, and vice versa.
“The relationship evolves throughout the story,” Tóth said.
Although their relationship is platonic, it contains some ambiguity. Klára wishes to stay with Aldó in his apartment. Having lost her parents, she becomes so close to him as a surrogate that she insists on sleeping in his bed.
“Aldó thinks of Klára only as a daughter, a sister, a close friend,” Tóth explained, whereas Klára “never had a brother and did not really have a father to talk about things… She did not have anybody else left in life besides her [great-aunt], who is not really a partner emotionally or intellectually. [Aldó] shows up, and suddenly, really fast, he becomes everything to her.”
A further connection happens in Aldó’s home, when Klára looks at his old photo albums after he leaves. In a powerful scene, she sees photos of the life he has never told her about — his wedding day and his once-growing family including his wife and their two boys. The scene reflects Aldó’s inability to share his grief over losing them.
“He’s not able to talk about it at all,” Tóth said, with the doctor instead compartmentalizing his memories in his mind’s “deepest drawer.”
Although Tóth is not Jewish and identifies as non-religious, he added that “all human beings think about [the Holocaust],” and that it is “something easy to remember, to never forget.”
In the film, Klára connects with her own lost family through flashbacks, including her father and younger sister. Tóth’s real-life daughter plays Klára’s sister.
“I wanted to use all these flashbacks as good memories,” Tóth said. “I did not want to show the trauma afterward, but the idealistic memories she likes to remember.”
He noted, “It’s not in the movie, but in the book, her advice to Aldó is that, when the sadness comes or the depression comes, just look out the window into the sun, let sunlight light your face, think only positive things about your family. After seeing [Aldó’s] photos, she applies this, turns her head to the window, closes her eyes and thinks of better things.”
Aldó tries to create some stability in Klára’s life. He meets with her teachers, befriends her great-aunt Olgi and introduces her to a doctor friend who has adopted two child survivors with his wife. However, some difficulties emerge. One of Klára’s teachers encounters the pair in a park, where she misinterprets their affection for each other. Meanwhile, Hungary is becoming ever more communist, with Aldó’s doctor friend admitting he was recruited to spy on his colleague. And Klára is developing feelings for Aldó that make it hard for her when he begins to date someone his own age and when a high school classmate wants to date her. All of these difficulties intersect one night when the secret police make a visit to Aldó’s apartment building.
“Aldó thinks he has to leave forever, a prisoner to the gulag,” Tóth said. “She won’t let him go.”
The communist backdrop of the film was an all-too-real storyline for Hungary, especially between the pro-Soviet election victory of 1948 and the anti-Moscow uprising of 1956.
“Those eight years were very hard for the whole population,” Tóth said. “There was a postwar dictatorship… there were a lot of spies,” including “agents forced to do things because their families were in prison or their job or house was taken.”
There are hints of a hopeful outcome to “Those Who Remained” — if not for Hungary, then at least on an individual level for both Klára and Aldó.
“People need this moving story,” Tóth said. “I hope they can find out about it and see it on the big screen, where it’s meant to be shown.”
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