Tomás (Viktor Klem) has died. Caught in an explosive blast on a battlefield in the final year of the Great War, he had a vision of a young girl (Fruzsina Hais) leaning over him, calling his name – and then, lying in a wet pit full of fellow soldiers’ cadavers, he miraculously revived, and was pulled out by an Old Man (Gábor Reviczky). Now, six months later, the Old Man tells paying audiences an amazing, embellished story of returning from the dead as if it were his own experience, while the less showman-like Tomás works in the adjoining booth as a ‘post mortem photographer’, dressing and posing the corpses of the recently dead to make them look alive for one last family portrait. Business is booming, as those who survived the war are now being decimated by the Spanish flu. Tomás accepts the invitation of two men to come and photograph the dead at a village in the Hungarian backwoods, his curiosity piqued by the fact that little Anna, who has journeyed into town with these men, is the very likeness of the girl whose face Tomás saw as he earlier died.
Though moist, the ground around this wintry, depopulated village is too frozen to be dug up, and so the corpses of those who have succumbed to disease have had to be stored in a barn, to be buried later. As Tomás sets up a temporary studio and starts taking photographic images of the dead for (and often with) their loved ones, he also quickly notices that something suspicious, even supernatural, has gripped this place, leaving evidence of itself in Tomás’ pictures, and also making itself felt in other, more alarming ways. Tomás forms an alliance with fearless ten-year-old Anna – herself a survivor at birth of a near-death experience – in an attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery, and to prevent further unnatural deaths in the village.
Aside from Michael Curtiz and Edmund Fritz’s lost Alraune (1918), Balázs Hatvani’s Gingerclown 3D (2013) and the odd international co-production, the horror genre has been notable largely by its absence from the history of Hungarian cinema. It is this lack of a local reference point which may go some way to explaining the inventive stylisation and uncanny originality to be found in Post Mortem, Péter Bergendy’s tale of the unrestful dead and an unlikely (but amiable) ghost-busting team. Both appropriating and (through its period setting) anticipating J-horror at its turn-of-the-century peak, Bergendy creates an intersection between timeless folkloric spirits and new technology – except that here the cutting edge is represented by now thoroughly outmoded photo- and phonographic equipment that Tomás hauls around with him, seeing what may develop.
Tomás’ apparatus serves as a medium in more than one sense, enabling him to record, and even in part to contact (across space and time), the departed who haunt this village – but it is also, in preserving both sight and sound, a reflex for cinema itself, and more particularly for a film which helps us, as well as the people from a century earlier, to come to terms with the devastation of pandemic. In capturing ghosts on dry plates and cylinder records, Tomás and Anna expose moviemaking as a ritualised, spiritualist enterprise through which the dead can be brought back to life and still speak to us from the other side. If, in this village, life and death are close neighbours, if the living have one foot in the grave while the recent dead still linger in the shadows of the community’s conscience, and if the end always seems near at hand, Bergendy finds hope in the prospect of renewal and resurrection – and of the spring that inevitably follows winter – and with his peculiar apparitions and ‘in camera’ effects, with his likeable characters and eerily conjured atmospheres, revivifies a moribund genre. That all its innovations are relegated to a now distant (yet recurring) past serves only to make Post Mortem also feel postmodern, unfolding where history does not so much advance as repeat. After all, a ghost story, no matter when it is set, can remain a comforting, cathartic memento (mori) to the living, and as such never dies.
strap: Péter Bergendy’s post-war, mid-pandemic, post-modern ghost story is mediated through precursors to the tools of filmmaking
© Anton Bitel