The Fifth Seal

The Fifth Seal ★★★★

"In five minutes you are going to die, but immediately you'll be reborn again..." is the suggested mantra and ethical breakdown, among some buds in a Budapest bar. To specify it: Would you rather live a new life as a rich tyrant who's unphased by actions of heinous sin, or a beaten slave who blindly accepts the abuse and refuses to retaliate? From the moment The Fifth Seal speculates this, it turns into an intensely brewing debate of conscience and pride, all examined on the smoothest three-act structure.

At a table, is watchmaker Mr. Auricular, bookseller Kiraly, barman Béla and carpenter Kovacs, who are hoarded inside to evade the Hungarian Arrow Cross militia. In comes photographer Keszei to join them, wounded from battle, no longer in the shivery cold. Minutes later and Mr. Auricular decides to posit his theoretical question—the majority cannot answer, and even retort with scorn ("It's a tasteless game!"), leading them to ponder it across the night. Despite Kovacs eventually picking the submissive side, he's berated for not telling the truth.

Even the presence of their wives and children is unable to deter a restless mind. I also liked how writer-director Zoltán Fábri expanded his formal chops—the first-act managed to use creatively spatial shot-reverse-shot/zoom-ins among the men, and the second-act ventures into hauntingly surrealist images of Buñuelian phantasmagoria. It's that extra oomph I needed, for there's portions in the earlier bits: a jauntily carnivalesque score, reiterated chatter on veal recipes, frenetic edits on plaques, etc, that don't gel with its moral discussion on self-respect.

Of the superb cast, Őze's Mr. Auricular left the largest impression to me. As he switches between sternly grammatical jabs ("Much better than some book peddler intellectual. I mean intellectuwal"), to a type of charismatic aloofness, and then forlorn disconnect. (Belated role from Latinovits is almost equal in his stone-cold evil—and brings a new thematic signifier that startled me, about victims hating themselves for not standing up to abuse.) Ultimately, the segue between morals and honor is so cogent, that even those who choose their livelihood are just as crippled. A complex drama worth seeking out.