“Keep Quiet” is a new documentary that begins with an old woman approaching the cashier’s booth of a Polish train station and politely asking to buy a ticket to Auschwitz. It’s a jarring moment, even (or perhaps especially) for those of us whose families were once forced to that concentration camp and reduced to their smallest fractions. It’s not just that Auschwitz is a real place — of course it is — but that you can go there as casually as you might take the Metro-North from Grand Central to Greenwich. It’s an incidental moment, but few movies have so accurately located the most traumatic episode of our not-too-distant past. The Holocaust is like the shadow of a giant on a cloudy day: it would stretch into infinity if only some light were shined its way.
In that sense, 33-year-old Csanád Szegedi is the ideal vessel to carry on the legacy of the Holocaust. Within his round body, the Holocaust is both real and imagined, active and forgotten, present and past past. It’s his story that fascinated filmmakers Sam Blair and Joseph Martin, his story they’re following to the 20th Century’s most storied burial ground.
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As he rides there, Szegedi sits across from the old woman, and reflects on some of the questions that he used to ask himself: How was the Holocaust any worse than other national disasters? Why do we have to talk about it all the time? Didn’t the Jews trigger the aggression that was ultimately directed towards them? Isn’t it true that Jews are too cosmopolitan to coexist with the pureblooded people of a unified state?
If Szegedi seems at all familiar, it’s because he’s the recently retired face of Hungary’s ultranationalistic Jobbik party. A “principled, conservative, and radically patriotic Christian party,” this blight on the face of modern Europe is so openly anti-semitic that they make Ted Cruz’s comments about “New York values” seem subtle by comparison (one of the group’s 2009 newsletters declared that “Anti-semitism is the duty of every Hungarian homeland lover, and must prepare for armed battle against the Jews.” Fun!).
These are bad people, and Szegedi was one of their worst. A preternaturally talented Nazi raised on a steady diet of anti-semitic magazines and frustrated by supposed implications of guilt for his family’s role in the genocide, Szegedi founded the Hungarian Guard when he was barely out of his teens, and became national vice chairman of Jobbik when he was just 26 (making the rest of us feel like slackers). He was, by his own admission, a “person who was looking for a way up and a way to be somebody in a part of the world where history has been manipulated.” Alexander Hamilton had the Revolutionary War for social leverage, and Csanád Szegedi had fascism.
And then he found out that he’s Jewish. Oops!
You see, Szegedi’s grandmother was adopted as a youth, and chose to keep quiet about her heritage because she felt that Hungary was forever doomed to be an inhospitable place for Jews. She kept her origins so secretive that not even her immediate family had seen the tattooed number scratched into her arm.
Szegedi didn’t even find out for himself — he was blackmailed by a former skinhead. His former members of Jobbik were very understanding of their comrade’s predicament, believing in their hearts that it was the thought that counts. No, just kidding, they immediately vilified Szegedi with the full force of their hatred, exposing the virulence of their anti-semitism in the process. Szegedi, who may otherwise have been faced with the choice between falling on his sword or embracing his new identity, was therefore forced to do the latter. And how. Not content just to apologize for his actions and previous beliefs, Szegedi committed to Judaism as rabidly as he once had to its extinction. He began wearing a yarmulke, he visited Israel, he even got circumcised. For help, he turned to the skeptical but empathetic Rabbi Slomó Köves and asked, “How can I live with the thought that everything I did until today was wrong?”
And yet, even after voluntarily having his foreskin sliced off, his fellow Jews were slow to accept his apology, slow to accept that anyone could raze and reconfigure their worldview so completely overnight. In fact, the most interesting stretches of “Keep Quiet” find Szegedi grappling with the idea that his new people may never accept him into the tribe; he might be doomed to an eternity stuck in the limbo between the blood in his body and the belief system that tainted it.
The most rewarding choice that Blair and Martin make is to let Szegedi narrate his own story — despite his tremendous charisma, the inherent unreliability of his account makes it hard not to appreciate why some people refuse to accept his change of heart. One minute, your empathy takes hold and you can’t imagine why anyone would deny Szegedi his atonement (during a particularly painful scene, a woman publicly accuses him of being a fake). The next, his sudden reversal seems too good to be true.
But this isn’t exactly “Capturing the Friedmans.” It’s not a “did he or didn’t he?” story. And while Blair and Martin seem to appreciate that, it’s nevertheless extremely frustrating that they fail to explore any of the more interesting questions raised by Szegedi’s transformation: What makes someone Jewish? Are we capable of accepting that hatred can be cured? Do we believe that the peace we pray for is actually possible, or is our moral position — our history — defined by those who seek to destroy us?
“Keep Quiet” tangentially raises all of these questions and more, but it engages with a precious few of them, too awed by Szegedi’s story to really work through the muck of what it could mean. It’s hard to fault the filmmakers for watching slack-jawed as their subject immerses himself in Orthodox culture, singing Shema Yisrael with his eyes closed only a few months after leaving the vanguard of the Fourth Reich. But awe isn’t enough, not when there’s this much percolating below the surface. “Keep Quiet” is far more compelling as a portrait of a man in transition than it is as a man reborn, but Blair and Martin never solve the problem that they only have access to the latter.
Still, the film disturbs the water in a way that is hard to ignore. Whatever you choose to believe about him, Szegedi is a modern man, and Nazi Germany — he explicitly reminds us — was a modern country. The past is never more dangerous than when people think it’s no longer present. In other words: Make Hungary Great Again.
“Keep Quiet” premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently awaiting U.S. distribution.
Check out another Tribeca documentary, with the trailer for “LoveTrue,” embedded below: