Joseph Martin and Sam Blair’s Keep Quiet wrestles with the irresolvable dimensions of its subject matter. The filmmakers follow Csanad Szegedi, a member of Hungary’s far-right, vehemently fascist Jobbik political party, as he discovers that he’s Jewish, which throws a kink into the machinery of a professional life that’s based largely on dehumanizing Jews for strategic capital. Early in the film, we see Jobbik in action, producing the sort of propaganda that should be familiar to followers of the Republican Party’s quest to seek an American presidential candidate. Jobbik promotes racism through code, so as to maintain (implausible) deniability. It also mercilessly accuses the liberal party of what it itself is doing: demonizing citizens to scare up votes in a time of economic crisis. Martin and Blair casually reveal the great irony of extremist parties of all sizes and nationalities: that they’re relentless oppressors who feel relentlessly oppressed.
Szegedi has the nerve, as a young Hungarian raised in a stable middle-class setting, to sit opposite of a Holocaust survivor, Eva Bobby Neumann, on a train to Auschwitz, and lecture her about how the Holocaust was trumped up as Jewish propaganda. He can look this woman in the eyes and tell her that he’s tired of hearing about the Jews’ suffering because “this comes across like they are constantly reminding me that I’m guilty, but I have nothing to do with this whole story.” On its deranged terms, this confession astutely encapsulates a portion of contemporary far-right hatred: White supremacists are tired of paying the price of poor political reputation for their heritage, and feel this emotion more strongly than any sense of empathy with victims.
The filmmakers astutely reveal how a culture can eat another alive and somehow live with itself.
This context explains nationalist attitudes across the globe. Those who espouse them resent being tasked with guilt associated with acts committed by their ancestors, particularly when the victims, such as the Jews, are thought of as, to use Szegedi’s word, “cosmopolitan,” which is a self-deceiving way of saying that extremists feel socially inferior to their prey. This resentment is yet another incarnation of anti-intellectualism, of disenfranchised white men misidentifying their true enemy.
Szegedi’s outing as a Jew inevitably ruins his political career, and he embraces Judaism with the fervor that he once reserved for its demonization. Keep Quiet presents this transition as a sudden act, akin to the flipping of a switch. Szegedi seems to regard his shocking ideological realignment as a career move, and his self-absorption is prodigious. Jews aren’t human to Szegedi until they belong to his family, and he experiences Auschwitz purely through the scrim of how his family—an extension of him—suffered. When Neumann sheds tears on the Auschwitz grounds, sharing a personal memory with Szegedi, we resent his experiencing this moment, as he hasn’t earned the glimpse of vulnerability that Neumann offers him.
Martin and Blair don’t obviously editorialize Szegedi, prompting us to make any definitive conclusion about the legitimacy of his about-face, recognizing that evolution as ultimately beside the point. Instead, the filmmakers reveal how a culture can eat another alive and somehow live with itself, how Nazis and neo-Nazis, and, by extension, other far-right parties, can see themselves as something other than monsters. Szegedi struck this critic as a smug, disingenuous, altogether repulsive human being, but he’s fascinatingly shameless—an amazing weapon of political instigation, who continually seeks a context for self-glorification. Any will do.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 13—24.