Crime Scene #7: ‘Twilight’ and the Hungarian Hills

Twilight Essay - 1990 György Fehér Movie Film

Crime Scene is a monthly Vague Visages column about the relationship between crime cinema and movie locations. This Twilight essay contains spoilers. György Fehér’s 1990 film features Péter Haumann, János Derzsiand and Judit Pogány. Check out VV movie reviews, along with cast/character articles, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings, at the home page.


Many of the films in this series play on the violence of modernity and the city; the shock of growth that built the major filmic metropolises of the 20th century and underpinned their cinematic spaces and film industries. Now, I turn my attention to the rural world, heading to the hills in northern Hungary with György Fehér’s 1990 film Twilight (Szürkület), an adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1958 book The Pledge: Requiem for the Detective Novel — which itself emerged as a response to the author’s disappointment at how the final version of It Happened in Broad Daylight (1958) turned out, written by him.

Both versions of the story are about a detective nearing retirement who is called to investigate a series of child murders in rural locales, but where It Happened in Broad Daylight has the procedural whodunit finish as a success, The Pledge has the detective fail, incapable of finding the answers, instead finding only more questions and gradually losing his grasp of reality.

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Twilight Essay - 1990 György Fehér Movie Film

At least in English-language reporting and criticism, Twilight remains something of a mystery: it is one of only two theatrically-released features Fehér completed before his death in 2002, his work largely in theatre and TV. It played a handful of festivals at the time, and since then has been largely ignored, except by a small handful of enthusiasts. This has not been helped by legal issues making the film difficult to see; although it’s not clear exactly what the problems are, most suggest they’re exacerbated by Sean Penn’s 2001 Hollywood adaptation, The Pledge, starring Jack Nicholson, and the subsequent legal untangling over book adaptation rights.

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Twilight’s slow return back to visibility rests partly on Fehér’s relationship to Béla Tarr, Hungarian cinema’s most recognizable name amongst Western cinephiles. Tarr is credited as a consultant and co-writer on Fehér’s other theatrical feature, Passion (1998); Fehér for his part is a contributor to Sátántangó (1994) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), as the two frequently shared cast and crew. The similarities to Tarr’s seemingly unique style are immediately apparent: black-and-white cinematography, long flowing takes, desolate locations and a deep sense of foreboding and malice. It goes to show that what Tarr does is not necessarily wholly unique to him, but redolent of a small community of filmmakers and technicians, all of whom fully understood the vision that Tarr and Fehér arrived at, producing a small but continuous body of work.

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Twilight Essay - 1990 György Fehér Movie Film

In the case of Twilight, these stylistic choices are placed in the service of a narrative which, when written down, reads as rote and procedural, a standard detective film. From there, Fehér shuns expectations, withholding resolution and building towards a narrative that’s constantly hanging by a thread, the answers forever out of reach, like being locked in an endless chase in a dream.

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Fehér’s setting and use of cinematic space is key to Twilight’s mood. The film was shot on location in the Nógrád mountains, a few hours drive from Budapest, near the border with Slovakia — and one of the few mountainous regions in which Hungarian is spoken. Within European geography and cultural spheres, Hungary occupies a curious place. It has a language with no relation to any of its neighbors. Hungary is not Slavic like Slovakian to the north or Serbo-Croatian to the south, nor is it Latin like Romanian or Germanic like Austria; its nearest neighbor linguistically is Finnish and Estonian (and even then, with barely any mutual intelligibility), a result of the proto-Hungaric peoples emerging from the Asian steppes after the fall of the Roman empire and settling in the almost entirely flat Pannonian plain, which covers present-day Hungary, and parts of Slovakia, Austria, Romania, Croatia and Serbia.

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Twilight Essay - 1990 György Fehér Movie Film

This vast agricultural heartland, cut by rivers and dotted with wetlands, is primarily without obvious natural borders like canyons and mountain ranges. This is also a landscape in which many ethnicities and peoples have come and gone, drawn by the agricultural richness, but equally defenseless against invaders, with the landscape offering little natural fortification. It is a porous, ever-changing area demographically. Given that porousness, it is somewhat impressive that Hungarian has continued to exist as a distinct language and culture despite its geographic isolation.

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The endless plain informs the psychogeographic space of Tarr’s work, a land of desolate wind and an endless horizon. But Fehér’s decision to set Twilight in the mountains gives the film even more of a hermetic, isolated feel. The opening shots trawl over the mountains and the forest, an endless expanse of nature (those with sharp ears may recognize the score from Werner Herzog’s 1979 version of Nosferatu). It’s clear from the start that human presence is limited in this space. At ground level, Fehér shows only the forest from the endless blur of rain on a windshield, a car thuddering through the mud. The vehicle is an enclosed space within an enclosed space, like a submarine venturing into a cave. 

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Twilight Essay - 1990 György Fehér Movie Film

As the detective comes to terms with the crime he’s been asked to solve — the brutal murder of a child in broad daylight — the geographic space of the village morphs. It never seems to cohere into a concrete location, but rather a few places in utter isolation from each other. The house of the child’s parents. The field where the girl was killed. The school building. A police station. Fehér never shows more than one building at one time. Even in the long takes which move from indoor to outdoor, from room to room, the space never expands. It behaves as if each element of the village exists completely alienated from itself, as if the detective never actively travels from within spaces in the community itself — only to the setting, and out of it.

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In city-detective-comes-to-the-sticks stories, the focal character typically arrives as the figure of authority, a civilizing influence on what societal forces often deem the barbaric margins. True, there isn’t much in the way of state structure in Hungary, but was anybody ever supposed to deliver it? It is simply a place where a few people live and get by; when Communism took over Eastern Europe after WWII, one of its purported missions was to empower the peasant communities that live out in the margins, away from the centers of power. But in Soviet Bloc Communism’s top-down infrastructure, power was nearly always centralized towards the cities. Although by Twilight’s creation in 1988, Hungary was well on the way to democratic transition; however, neoliberalism has not massively improved matters. Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s ultraconservative Fidesz party may purport to be the voice of the peasant, and the margins may be where he gets the majority of his votes from, but its policies in the margins are just sticking plasters and vanity projects. The centrifugal force of Budapest, holding almost 20 percent of the country’s population, has a twofold effect, drawing in the artists and technicians whilst draining the regions of their biggest minds. The effect is that of a country that always seems at odds with its center, incapable or unwilling to communicate together.

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Twilight Essay - 1990 György Fehér Movie Film

The village where Twilight was shot remains. According to Stanley Schtinter, it’s largely unchanged since the film was made. Its very marginality is what charges it with such desolation, a descent into hell from which return is impossible.

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One might argue this vision of rural Hungary is charged with an Othering force, redolent of a language often used about post-Communist Eastern Europe, and a fascination with crumbling infrastructure and places that time forgot. But the presence of the detective muddies matters: his existence in the village is not shunned nor is it necessarily welcomed. It simply is. The detective’s inability to find answers is not through his fault, nor is it any particular fault of local police, though he does chastise them for some poor procedure. Rather, his inability to find answers is simply because. Sometimes, we’re faced with questions we don’t understand, and don’t have the tools, technique, nor the language to handle them. 

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Twilight Essay - 1990 György Fehér Movie Film

Twilight reflects the experience of being lost in the woods with this implacability. We gawp at the vast indifference of the universe, too powerful for civilizing forces. Our desires to produce meaning in our lives — whether motivated by careers, money, romance, vocation, or skill — are often at a loss when we’re divorced from those meanings. In Twilight, Fehér suggests, the force of authority truly loses its voice.

Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specializing in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that, he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.

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