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Part of our coverage of the 27th Denver International Film Festival

In The Hungarian Servant, an Italian holocaust drama set at a Nazi death camp, Major Dailermann and his wife’s exposure to art threatens to undermine the order imposed by the Third Reich. So if an intellectual discussion of art and the meaning of life is the conversation you’d join at a party, read on. Otherwise, you’re unlikely to find enough suspense or romance to cheer you.

The Art of Self-Deception

Mrs. D. is too young and too different from her husband to be convincing
Mrs. D. is too young and too different from her husband to be convincing

Major Dailermann (Tomas Arana) has swallowed Hitler’s vision and runs the camp with a leather-clad fist that begins to soften after he has one of the Jewish prisoners, a Hungarian man, do his housework. Major D.’s henchman, Lieutenant Tross, has to date been culling attractive young women for his boss’s household labor — and ugly pleasures — from the masses of Jews being corralled into the oven.

His wife, Franziska (Chiara Conti), is not afraid to say to her husband that she knows the Nazi men are abusing these women whose only crime is being attractive, but the beautiful young wife would much prefer to think about music and fun instead of dreary things like that. She has convinced herself her husband is running a smoke-belching factory “outside an industrial area” while at a sort of company store she buys gems and art, paying for the privilege of adorning herself with the Jews’ heirlooms.

When Miklos (Edoardo Sala), the Hungarian servant of the film’s title, enters their lives, he opens Major D.’s eyes to the dimensions beyond the Third Reich’s damning of contemporary art as decadent and useless. With the help of the treasured books and paintings of the doomed Jews, he gives the Dailermanns a basic education in the liberal and fine arts. When Tross brings around some paintings he thinks Mrs. D. would like, Miklos describes why they are important. At first all Major D. notices is that the paintings are valuable, but when he sees how his wife responds to them he encourages her interest.

When Miklos starts reading ancient Greek poems, Mrs. D. starts to awaken to the self she has pushed away for many years. She sees her past vitality and present brittleness and wants to reclaim her courage. She decides to have her portrait painted; seven Jews are brought in from the camp, each to make a portrait that could save his or her life.

Sliding Toward Anarchy

The husband and wife spar over her philosophical questions; he is more reluctant than she to challenge the world order, but he sees that he stands to lose far more as his beliefs shift. Their partnership has become brittle over the years as they have turned away from any moral ambivalence. Dailermann gets an ensemble to perform operatic arias for him, and as their spirits become aroused by the passion of it they let down some of their defenses and reach for each other. Yet their coupling is as composed, as static as the paintings they are learning to interpret.

The Malkovich-like Arana conveys all of Dailermann’s moral and spiritual wavering. As his wife, Conti shows Fransiska’s hard work at maintaining her self-control as she slides toward what her husband sees as utter anarchy. She calls their servant by his name, for instance, something that Was Not Done by Nazis to Jews then. (Tross calls him “it,” as in “Can I let it in?” when he is bringing the servant to the couple’s home for the first time.)

Their partnership strained my credulity; not only are their ages too disparate but so are their world views. They were supposed to have been together for 10 years, but Franziska’s self-control and ever-lacquered locks don’t quite give her the maturity this alliance would surely have required.

Too Little, Too Late

All the while, Miklos has received none of the letters from his wife back in Hungary, which she writes to hang onto a thread of belief that they may reunite. He struggles to do the household chores despite Major Dailermann’s periodic beatings, which don’t stop Miklos from trying to educate him and his wife. His poetry and art history lectures never reveal much about him personally, however; he is mostly a device for the Dailermanns’ transformation. He and his wife do see each other at the end of the film, but it is too little, too late.

And this is how all the stories end in The Hungarian Servant; there’s not one happy ending, no Schindler’s List to save them, no redemption. All the profound ideas about the power of art to transcend boundaries of beauty, politics, and culture cannot ease any of the pain of the senseless and systematic destruction of a cultured people. With all the insights that hindsight can yield, the film leaves us with a strong intellectual argument that the preservation of culture could be the key that prevents society from allowing another Holocaust to happen again.