‘Twilight,’ Now Restored, Is the Lost Hungarian Murder Mystery Masterpiece You Need to See

Finally, an all-but-lost masterpiece lives again.

Hungarian filmmaker György Fehér, a protégé of his fellow countryman and master director Béla Tarr, died in 2002, but more than two decades later, his strange and stirring anti-mystery “Twilight” has been restored for the world to see.

You might recognize the story of a retiring detective pulled back in for One Last Job as he’s pushed to obsessive ends over a dead girl found missing in an ominous forest. “Twilight” is based on a 1955 novella by Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt that itself was adapted by Sean Penn into the 2001 film “The Pledge,” starring Jack Nicholson as the wizened alcoholic private eye chasing a serial killer who may or may not exist.

In Feher’s “Twilight,” the detective is played by Péter Haumann, and he’s looking for a murderer known only as The Giant and who only seems to exist in scratch drawings made by the local schoolchildren who may be his — or its — next victim. There is an eerie Nabokovian ring to this tale of existential futility as the detective starts inserting himself into the mystery, eventually using a child as bait to catch the killer. And an introducing overhead shot of the forest in which the detective will get very much lost seems to presage the malevolent whoosh-ing of the trees in David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.” We are in a world of darkness and unknowability, an evil so pervasive it’s sickened even the land’s own flora.

Tarr’s trusted cinematographer Miklós Gurbán (“Werckmeister Harmonies,” also on deck for a re-release courtesy of Janus Films this year) shot “Twilight” in underlit crevices and shadows, which made the restoration by the National Institute — Hungarian Film Archive a tricky one, even as Gurbán helped oversee it himself. Arbelos Films is meanwhile handling the nationwide theatrical rollout of the new 4K print.

IndieWire spoke to György Ráduly, the director of Hungary’s National Film Institute, about the restoration process and why “Twilight” deserves a place in the film canon. The new 4K print premiered at the Berlinale earlier this year but was otherwise not widely seen outside of Hungary, where it was released in 1990. “The film is a legend. It’s a cult film but it also became a cult film because it was not available for a long time,” Ráduly said.

“Twilight”

“The film has a very strong power to put you in the chair in a screening room,” Ráduly said, “and the best word for that is the French for assist to the cinema, that when you see these kinds of films, you are not just watching a film. You have to make some effort to get it in yourself, to try to discover the story because it is not explained on a clear narrative level, you have to make your own effort to follow the story, and you’re always surprised. This is a specific European way of making films, not only telling a story to the audience but requesting effort from the audience to get deep inside the movie, and I think this is what happens during the film. As Orson Welles said one time, you don’t have to only watch a film, but using this wonderful French word, you have to assist the screening.”

“Twilight” literalizes its opaque storytelling — who is this detective? who is The Giant? where are they in time and space? — through its murky black-and-white images which, watched at home on your television or in the theater, often obscure what they’re trying to convey.

“The restoration of this film is typically a challenge in terms of the special grading. It’s a film that was shot voluntarily in very under-lighted conditions. You can see it in the interiors, with almost dark places with little sources of light, like candlelight,” Ráduly said. “All these conditions made the digital restoration quite a challenge because when you’re scanning the films in 4K quality, the problem is always when you have not enough light. When you see the 35mm reference copy of the film, on 35, you have still visible details even in really dark areas. But when you take the [scanned print] and you are going through the color-grading process with the DP, the problem is the black is going down, so we had to work really hard to save the original shades of the grays and the blacks. Miklós wanted to bring back the original characteristics of the film, which means he was always requested more grays, which as you know on digital technology is quite a challenge, so it took a lot of time to make the compromised version that satisfied Miklos and what was feasible with the digital restoration technology.”

“Twilight”

The Hungarian Film Archive long housed a 35mm copy of the film, as it was the tradition of state-funded projects from the ’40s and into the early 1990s for productions to deposit an original negative to the archive. But a tricky aspect was getting back the rights to the original Dürrenmatt, which weren’t claimed in perpetuity when the film was released in 1990. “We made an agreement with everyone and then we could start the restoration, and we knew that it is going to be something very important for the audience, for the Hungarian audience and internationally as well because the film has not been seen for almost 25 to 30 years,” Ráduly said.

As for Sean Penn’s later noir spin on the novella, “The Pledge,” co-written by Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, Ráduly said that while that 2001 film played in Hungary, audiences hardly made the connection that it was an adaptation of the same book as “Twilight.”

“The story is even more interesting now because we can say that this book inspired two great filmmakers, one in Europe and one in America, in different times, and they did a completely different view of how to put it onscreen,” Ráduly said. “It’s always interesting to see both versions, to find out what is the difference between the cinematographic visual universe of a European artist and an American artist.”

“Twilight” plays at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles on June 1, with additional dates to follow from distributor Arbelos Films.

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