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Men on the Mountain (Istvan Szots, 1942)

      With no small amount of tearjerking, Istvan Szots’ Men on the Mountain depicts the devastating impact of industrialization on a small rural family. In recounting their descent, this bleak Hungarian melodrama manages to capture both the systematic destruction of their tight-knit woodland culture and the simple beauty of what was lost. By exhibiting a great deal of sympathy and a considerable amount of cinematic skill, Szots relays the mores and customs of the people he observes. Possessing a belief system that is torn between Christianity and paganism, they are both superstitious and devout. In the film’s first episode, we see the couple at the center of the story desperate to give their newborn son a Christian baptism before he dies, terrified that a howling wolf predicts his death. That following spring, after he’s pulled through, however, they have a small ritual where they tie their baby’s fate to a tree. Later, they go to extremes to pray to the Virgin Mary, hoping that the wife will get well, but give her herbs that are rumored to cure her nonetheless. This tension between their simple, folkloric understanding of things and that of the purportedly civilized world will remain throughout the rest of the movie.


     It seems clear to Szots that the young couple’s way of life, alone with nature in the mountains, is something sacred. Where the two have trouble reading the scripture that will tell them how to baptize their child, they seem to commune effortlessly with nature, walking through the idyllic woods, introducing their offspring to the natural world. “This is our church”, the father says out loud.  These scenes are magical, as they talk to the animals and stroll to the homes of their physically distant but emotionally generous neighbors. Before long, though, their Eden is violated, as a timber company purchases the land on which they live.


     Almost immediately, they find themselves leading industrialized lives, working for an hourly wage, but not spending any time together. The ironic goal of their existence is now to buy their own home, even though they had their own house back on the mountain. Through close association with others, their lives are transformed into a parade of melodramatic miseries. There’s an attempted rape, a house fire, and a violent bout of paralysis in quick succession. As the husband and wife move further from the mountain in a search for help, their situation becomes increasingly dire, and the goodness in humanity seems to slip further away. It is only during their sad return trip from the city that they experience the first real compassion from the harsh outside world.


     Men on the Mountain is simply but confidently realized for the screen. Thanks to fine performances and a vividly stylized visual approach, it delivers its story effectively, emerging as an indictment of progress, law, and urbanity. Although it is sentimental and nostalgic, it finds little to like about the state of the changing world. Indeed, all that Szots has to offer in the face of hopelessness is a desperate attempt to cling to faith.



Jeremy Heilman