by Kayla McCulloch on Nov 13, 2019

Throughout the 28th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic treasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Five years after the end of World War II, Hungary is both exactly the same and much different than it was before the largest conflict in history ravaged Europe. With an estimated 55 million dead and countless others missing, those lucky enough to have survived are expected to carry on as they would prior to WWII. “Lucky” isn’t the right word, though — people like Aladár (Károly Hajduk) and Klára (Abigél Szõke) would never claim to be fortunate. Truthfully, they’d rather join their deceased family members than keep going through the motions of daily life without them. This is the essence of Those Who Remained, director Barnabás Tóth’s second feature (and his first in a decade): You might know that someone is grieving, but you can never really know their grief, even if you’re grieving too.

The sole survivor of a family of four, Klára was rescued from an orphanage by her great-aunt Olgi (Mari Nagy) at the age of 11. Now that Klára is a rambunctious and defiant 16-year-old, Olgi finds herself at something of a loss when it comes to raising her nephew’s daughter. Looking for answers, she takes Klára to the office of hospital physician Dr. Aladár Körner. Well aware that there’s no medical treatment for a grief-stricken girl, Aladár isn’t sure what to tell her. Klára is acting out because she’s anguished, more in need of a loving family than any sort of medication or procedure. Having experienced losses of his own, he allows her to confide in him during a walk through the ruins of Budapest.

Bit by bit, Klára tears down Aladár’s walls. She’s missing her father, he’s missing his children. On paper, they’re exactly what the other person needs. Grief is an incredibly personal thing, but only a grieving person knows how comforting it is to be in the company of someone who can truly empathize instead of just sympathize. However, an adolescent girl and a forty-something man who appear — at least from the outside looking in — to be playing house is alarming to the prying eyes of co-workers and schoolmasters. As their relationship is misunderstood and word begins to spread around town, Klára and Aladár realize they need to be more careful… which only creates a sense of sneakiness and shame that accelerates the public perception even further out of proportion.

With much of Those Who Remained focusing on the relationship between Klára and Aladár, it’s worthwhile to examine their dynamic and the ways in which it diverges from the traditional. Their closeness despite their age gap is controversial to the people around them, but it never really seems to bother either one of them unless there’s a third wheel in the mix. To the two of them, there’s nothing wrong with curbing their crushing loneliness and despair by spending time in an empathetic environment. As soon as that safe haven is compromised, though, self-consciousness creeps in. To be fair, there isn’t anything inappropriate going on between them, either by today’s standards or the 1950s. However, it’s becoming increasingly obvious they can’t carry on as a pseudo-father-daughter pairing for long. The love they have for one another is just too contentious. The touchiness of their (completely companionable) intimacy is ultimately making healing harder.

War is hell and the grief cycle is relentless, and it seems as though these two souls know that better than anyone else. Since they can’t hide away forever, the best they can hope for is uplifting reciprocity — each one helping the other out of the rubble of their sorrow, raising them above the ruins of their past lives. Anyone who’s lost someone close to them would likely say that healing isn't about moving on, but moving forward. Those who’ve departed aren’t ever coming back, and those who remain spend every day trying to come to terms with this stark truth. The cycle of grief restarts with each new milestone in Aladár or Klára’s life. Their love for each other will never be replicated in the affection that they hope to find with others — they are different intimacies with different purposes. There’s a warm glow to be found in this realization. It’s getting there that proves to be the most grueling part of their survival.

Those Who Remained screens Friday Nov. 15 at 7:20 p.m. and Sunday Nov. 17 at 5:35 p.m. at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema.