Director: Péter Bergendy
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Do the words “homeland security” make you feel protected? Do they make your skin crawl? Do you look around you in a bustling airport for unattended packages, or are you most interested in finding the food court? We may still say “It’s a free country,” but what citizens of the United States, and other countries as well, are more or less resigned to is the “new normal” of walking around in their stockinged feet as their shoes are x-rayed and their bags are randomly searched at the airport, going to museums that require they pass through metal detectors, or looking idly at Google Earth to see what their homes look like through the surveillance satellites and cameras that never sleep. We are all suspects now in an international game of terrorism, something the characters of Hungarian director Péter Bergendy’s second feature film must understand or face the consequences.
Hungarian screenwriting phenom Norbert Köbli has written a crackling thriller in which the main character is suspicion. Channeling the murderous paranoia of Stalinist rule in the year after the failed 1956 Hungarian counterrevolution, The Exam shows how oppressive regimes tend to eat their own tails by focusing on loyalty tests that were mandated for even the most zealously pro-Communist operatives in government.
The subject who is being tested on Christmas Eve—importantly, without his knowledge—is András Jung (Zsolt Nagy), a handsome young handler for the secret police. The opening credits cleverly show the double life Jung leads, toggling between close-ups of homey Christmas items like tree ornaments and candles and such tools of the spy trade as headphones and a gun being laid out for use. Jung poses as a German instructor who gives private lessons at an apartment maintained by the government as a less conspicuous way for Jung to contact his informants. We see him arrive home and carefully remove a matchstick he placed between the doors to inform him whether someone entered the apartment in his absence. He prepares to receive some of the informants he has been running by getting his hidden tape recorder and microphone set up and checking his list of agents. Before anyone arrives, his mentor Pál Márko (János Kulka) pays him a visit, inviting him for dinner and giving Jung a gift from his wife Janka (Mária Varga)—a ceramic angel to hang on his Christmas tree.
Thus begins Jung’s test. Márko goes across the street to an apartment where a surveillance team is set up to watch Jung, record his phone conversations from the tap placed in his telephone handset, and listen to his conversations with the informants he receives through the microphone hidden in the ceramic angel. The test proceeds uneventfully, and Márko is ready to call an end to it. The official test-runner, Emil Kulcsár (Péter Scherer), a nerdy, by-the-book member of the team who seems to idolize Márko, argues that they are required to watch the subject for 12 consecutive hours. Márko is dismissive of Kulcsár, consistently failing to remember his name, and wants to flaunt regulations so that he can get on with having a nice Christmas at home. That delightful possibility is definitively quashed when an unknown woman (Gabriella Hámori) arrives at Jung’s home and makes passionate love with him as the microphones and embarrassed spies catch every sigh.
Brutal and action-oriented, as befits his status as a war hero and early Soviet supporter, Márko follows up every lead, identifying the woman as Éva Gát, a music student with a questionable past whom Jung met at a concert. He becomes convinced that Jung is in love with her, and wonders how he can warn his surrogate son about the danger she poses to Jung’s position with the secret police. However, Jung is not the only agent in trouble; every main character, including the hapless Emil, has a personal, emotional tie that could jeopardize their position. Like many other films, books, and other works of art that deal with state oppression (e.g., Nineteen Eighty-Four), The Exam posits the personal and individual as major threats to the ruling order. As Jung tells a priest he has recruited to spy on another priest, guns are not the only weapons that can be used against the state.
In addition to the period detail, what I enjoyed so much about this exciting, cat-and-mouse film is that it was hard to decide who was the cat and who were the mice. In fact, from the landladies and enforcers who follow the orders of Márko and Emil to the humorless, intimidating Jung, we are never really sure whom to trust, what anyone is feeling, and what actions are real or staged. The actors play more than one role within their basic character, aware of living their cover stories, how they must behave to accord with the rules of the test, and holding their personal identities like precious water in a leaky bucket. Nagy particularly impresses as a cold operative with an equally passionate flipside and the capacity for sudden violence when his survival is threatened.
Like Jung, we, too, are being tested, asked to examine our loyalties by which character we identify with and root for. In the final scene, Márko and his wife finally sit down to Christmas dinner. The place setting for Jung remains empty until Janka at last removes it. The state has swallowed the personal, and we are left to consider the true cost of the “new normal” to our own lives.
The Exam won the Gold Hugo in the 2012 CIFF New Directors Competition.