‘The Hungarian Dressmaker’ Focuses on a Dark Slovak Past Many Try to Forget

Slovak director Iveta Grofova says she became fascinated with one of the darkest periods in her country’s recent past when she read Peter Kristufek’s book “Emma and the Death’s Head,” which tells the story of Marika, a Hungarian widow who shelters a young Jewish boy in her home.

Set near the Hungarian border during WWII in the Nazi puppet Slovak state, the novel embraces the imagery of the Death’s Head Moth, whose pattern reflects the same skull adopted by the Nazi SS, to force readers to confront a period Grofova says most Slovaks would prefer to forget.

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This was part of the appeal of adapting it for the screen, she says – but what really interested her was the perspective of Marika and impossible decisions she would be faced with. Thus, “The Hungarian Dressmaker,” as she called her film, screening in the Karlovy Vary fest’s main Crystal Globe competition, moves its point of view from that of the boy in hiding to his protector.

“I was attracted by the topic of the emergence of the wartime Slovak state,” Grofova says. “It is such a dark childhood of my country, which the Slovaks have not yet come to terms with.”

As Marika, who works for a Jewish tailor, finds herself jobless in a time when everything’s in short supply and state police thugs are hauling off valuables – and suspect residents – from every house they want to enter, Marika is facing existential threats from the first moments of Grofova’s film.

Producer Zuzana Mistríkova, director Iveta Grofova and producer Ondrej Trojan.
Producer Zuzana Mistríkova, director Iveta Grofova and producer Ondrej Trojan.

Already grieving her missing husband and needing to manage the family farm on her own, she’s hardly prepared when she learns a Jewish boy is hiding in her house – a sin for which both will likely lose their lives. As a Hungarian woman, Marika sees firsthand how that ethnicity is being purged alongside the Jewish residents, each played off against the other, making her existence still more perilous – and it hardly helps that a top local officer has taken an interest in her.

“When I read the book for the first time I was pregnant,” Grofova says. “Maybe that’s why I connected very deeply to the character of the Hungarian widow Marika. “What would I be able to do in her place at the expense of my own safety for someone else’s child? What contradictions and dilemmas did she have?”

Grofova achieves a brooding style and minimalist tone in “The Hungarian Dressmaker” – especially its montage sequences involving macro lens shifts that lend an other-worldly aspect to Marika’s dilemmas, making masterful use of cinematographer Martin Strba.

“The camera is the co-narrator of feelings and emotions in this film,” she says. “At the same time, the stylized imaginative image helps me to suggest the metaphor of the constant presence of life and death – good and darkness – Emma and the Death’s Head in us.”

Grofova relies heavily on actor Alexandra Borbely to carry it along, with many scenes centering on her pain, fear and determination, often unspoken. The director says she felt willing to bet on the ethnically Hungarian Slovak theater performer for the role, which is just her third onscreen.

“Alexandra is a great actress,” says the director. “I had no doubt that she would handle this demanding task. During the entire collaboration, I felt that she understood my specific way of directing. I think she went to the end of her physical and mental strength in the final scene and I am very grateful to her for that.”

Borbely’s ability to shift between the pastiche of languages, cultures and traditions of the time were essential, Grofova, she says, in helping audiences grasp tensions facing ethnic Hungarians in Slovak lands during the war.

“This was really very important to me. I wanted to portray as authentically as possible the multicultural character of the capital of Slovakia and its periphery on the Slovak-Hungarian border. Slovaks do not like to realize that their roots are ethnically very varied and that excessive nationalism is contrary to our real history.”

The film’s setting also helps transcend time, evoking the smallness of its hardscrabble world, filled with the details of the period.

“Fortunately, we found the main location of Marika’s house in the authentic environment of a Slovak village, which until now was mainly inhabited by Hungarians.”

Grofova’s main challenge, she says, was “to show the actions of the characters from the point of view they might have had then. Not from the point of view we have today, when we can afford to moralize and judge the past. Only through history given in this way can we discover parallels with our behavior in the present. If I succeeded at least a little, I will be satisfied.”

Watch trailer here.

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