As its name suggests, “Keep Quiet” is a somber, careful documentary, but despite its measured tone its subject matter is wall to wall disturbing.
That’s because the film’s subject, Csanad Szegedi, though only 34, has already had a life story as unlikely as it is unsettling.
After rising to public notice in his native Hungary as one of the founders of Jobbik, a far right political party whose stock in trade was virulent anti-Semitism, Szegedi was flabbergasted to learn that he himself was Jewish.
Szegedi’s reaction, after months of personal confusion and upheaval (“this Jewish bomb took everything in its path” is how he pungently described what happened), was just as shocking to everyone else.
Working with Rabbi Baruch Oberlander, a leader of Budapest’s religious community, Szegedi went from far right extremist to observant Orthodox Jew, a transformative embrace of his religion that seemed to upset other Jews suspicious of his sincerity as much as his previous hostility.
Co-directors Joseph Martin and Sam Blair, working under the aegis of veteran documentary executive producer John Battsek, are fortunate to have had Szegedi’s on-camera cooperation, for actually seeing and hearing him at length is critical to the film’s impact.
Articulate, analytical and a persuasive speaker, Szegedi not only tells his story in a series of interviews, he allows the filmmakers to go with him on a series of troubling encounters, including a trip to Auschwitz with a Hungarian survivor named Eva Neumann.
As he himself tells it, Szegedi had been an anti-Semitic nationalist since high school and was one of the core of people who founded the Jobbik party in 2003. An organizer as well as an ideologue, he became national vice chairman at age 26 and still counts the election when the party got an unexpected 14% of the national vote “one of the best days of my life.”
Though Szegedi was seemingly going from strength to strength, founding the paramilitary Hungarian Guard and getting elected to the European Parliament, disaster was lurking. A disaffected party member named Zoltan Ambrus (also interviewed on camera) knew something even Szegedi didn’t: His maternal grandmother was Jewish and, more than that, was an Auschwitz survivor.
Szegedi is completely candid about how devastating the 2012 public revelation of this information was. “It was like a dagger through my heart,” he says. “There was no place for me to go from here, I had nowhere to turn.”
Deciding that “I must face up to being a Jew, what I never ever wanted to be,” Szegedi makes contact with the rabbi, who says he felt he had no choice but to accept Szegedi at his word and guide him on his increasing commitment to traditional Judaism.
Others, however, have been less trusting and “Keep Quiet” includes the mixed response Szegedi got at a Jewish Youth Congress in Berlin as well as the hostility an abortive attempt to visit Montreal’s Jewish community caused.
Because the footage of Szegedi was filmed over a number of years, the documentary reveals different stages of its subject’s thinking. Though the experience of actually being at Auschwitz seems to have affected him, on the train going to the camp he is shown asking Eva Neumann if Jews aren’t partially responsible for anti-Semitism for “refusing to assimilate.”
The most moving parts of “Keep Quiet,” both for Szegedi and the audience, are interviews he taped for his own use with his mother and his grandmother, who rigorously hid her Auschwitz tattoo for decades under long-sleeved clothing.
To witness how hopeless both women felt in the face of an endemically anti-Semitic culture is quite sad. Asked by her grandson what a Jew should do in today’s Hungary, her reply (“Keep quiet”) not only gives this film its title, it gives us something to ponder as well.
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
Playing Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills, Town Center, Encino, Playhouse, Pasadena.