Ever heard one of those 'X walks into a bar' jokes? Hungarian filmmaker Zoltán Fábri's "The Fifth Seal" (1976) certainly reminded of one, for it begins with such a premise. However, the film and the subject it tackles are hardly a laughing matter, despite an occasional garnishing of some wry humour, sometimes extending to full blown hilarity. Fábri's film exposes an inherently disturbing truth about all of us by throwing a variant of a "What would you do?" type of question, one that will have you struggling for an answer, much like the baffled characters in this powerful film.
It is a war-torn environment in 1940s Hungary and an unnamed fascist regime is gradually taking control of the country. Five men of different occupations sit across a table in a local bar, drinking and conversing about several things. Despite the violent atmosphere outside, the men try to make merry and have a good time but a lot of their conversation, not surprisingly, revolves around the tense state of affairs and the shape of things to come. Amid fears of air-raid warnings, the men engage in interesting discussions that focus on the very foundations of war and dictatorship, stemming from differing ideologies and from an individual point of view.
In such a scenario, one of the men, Gyuricza Miklós (Lajos Öze), (curiously referred to as Mr. Auricular in the English translated subtitles) asks a hypothetical question, strictly from an individual perspective, that shatters everyone's composure, rattles their ethical beliefs, and puts them in a tough spot. The answer is seemingly simple, but they slowly realize, that like life itself, there are no easy answers to everything.
"The Fifth Seal" plays out like a claustrophobic chamber piece, with the action mostly confined to the dimly lit bar, barring a couple of very important sequences during which it shifts elsewhere. With the way the men assertively engage in argumentative dialog, one is instantly reminded of Sidney Lumet's 1957 masterpiece, "12 Angry Men". The prevailing atmosphere of violence and dread is never shown on screen and merely suggested most effectively by way of sounds of carnage outside, leaving the visuals to our imagination, a device often used by Hitchcock.
The exchange between the characters is extremely thought-provoking, compelling the viewer to look at life from diverse lenses, making their reactions wholly relatable. The conversations and subsequent situations may seem slightly contrived to push the narrative arc forward or make specific points, but they accurately reflect the helplessness and the real struggles faced by the common man in the face of an oppressive regime with their very humanity put to the test.
Pertinent questions regarding morality and conscience are raised and weighed against pragmatism and the need to survive, maybe not for the self, but for some others who they may be responsible for. The discussion points put forth are essentially from the perspective of both, the ruler and the ruled, the oppressor and the oppressed, their respective roles as members of a society, contrasted against their roles as altruistic human beings looking for salvation.
Fábri's film is a complex one, however, and doesn't keep things limited to this debate. It covers other ground related to the thematic core, and explores down to the specifics, given these characters' family backgrounds and individualities. With unanticipated twists and turns in the narrative, viewer expectation and the ability to judge is constantly toyed with, and the distinction between right and wrong is further blurred, almost obliterating the absolute nature of it, and providing a very convincing angle of subjective morality.
We are given a brief look at the individual lives of these characters, thereby making us think again and at times take back our initial opinions about some of them. Most noteworthy are the stories of Mr. Kovacs (Sándor Horváth) and Gyuricza himself. The part in which Kovacs loses sleep over the seed planted by Gyuricza's query and keeps harping about it, plays out to hilarious effect, reminding of Ruben Östlund's excellent "Force Majeure" (2014). However, his final decision, while it seems to belie expectations on the surface, doesn't seem all that far-fetched. The most intriguing story is that of Gyuricza, however. A close look at his life makes us exonerate him, despite his most cynical attitude, and seemingly unsavoury decisions in some trying moments further in the film.
Simple examples are provided to explain in a very cogent manner, as to how wars really start, and at some point the ability to reason is lost and proving oneself right becomes the sole purpose of any conflict. One of the highlights in "The Fifth Seal" is the shocking but very enlightening conversation between one of the Fascist officers and a mysterious individual (Zoltán Latinovits), dressed in civilian attire, who appears to be his leader and mentor. His chilling words dwell on the very backbone of autocracy, and a key to mass psychological manipulation that helps a fascist regime thrive and flourish. Crushing a man's spirit and taking away his self respect is enough to crush a whole society.
"The Fifth Seal" is a well-acted, expertly directed masterpiece of Hungarian cinema, a fascinating film that hits hard and leaves us with plenty to think about.