A not insignificant act of oral history, Gabor Kalman’s There Was Once… makes for considerably less compelling cinema whenever it turns its focus away from the talking-head testimony of the Holocaust survivors of Kalosca, Hungary, their former gentile neighbors, and their family members, and focuses on the quest for historical recovery initiated by local schoolteacher Gyöngi Magó. Inspired by the knowledge that her hometown was once not only heavily populated by, but its history largely shaped by, its Jewish residents, and that today not a single Semitic resident remains, Magó sets about digging through the archives and tracking down former residents of Kalosca in order to bring their stories to light.
Through the testimony of the film’s subjects, the film presents a portrait of a small Hungarian city that once thrived, only to be thrust into turmoil first by the Holocaust and then through a succession of Soviet-approved leaders. According to the frequently fascinating recounting of the survivors, Kalosca was, for much of its history, a relative oasis of Jewish/gentile harmony, but the undercurrents of anti-Semitism started to emerge during the late pre-war period and by the time of the war, much of the non-Jewish population turned on their neighbors with an unexpected viciousness. Magó, as she appears on screen, isn’t the most incisive of interviewers, but she manages to tap a productive fount of living history and bring to light not only the story of one town in a time of crisis, but such devastating individual anecdotes as one woman’s recollection that she knew things were serious when she broke her parents’ expensive china and they said that, under the present circumstances, it didn’t matter.
But while Magó is to be lauded for her efforts at historical recovery, the film too often makes her, rather than her subjects, the center of the story. Whether she’s shown teaching her high school students about the Holocaust or organizing a 65th anniversary memorial (which needlessly takes up most of the film’s final 25 minutes), it’s all about Magó. Too bad her story feels like so much filler, a distraction from the fruits of her labor and one that doesn’t even delve very deeply into her research methods. Not all the film’s asides are so frustratingly empty, however. Kalman and Magó would certainly be remiss if they didn’t extend their narrative into the present by noting the resurgence of Hungarian fascism in the form of the increasingly popular and extreme right-wing party Jobbik. The filmmakers draw the parallel between anti-Semitism past and present a tad crudely, but, in doing so, they show an understanding of historical continuity necessary for undertaking what amounts to an inconsistent, but still important project.