“Fever at Dawn” (“Hajnali láz”)
A Different View of the Holocaust
“Fever at Dawn” is a true story set in 1945, after having been freed from a concentration camp, a 25-year-old Hungarian man, Miklós is being treated at a Swedish hospital. The doctors diagnose him with a severe lung disease and tell him that he has no more than six months to live. He refuses to give up and wants to find a wife with whom he can start a new life. He sends letters to 117 Hungarian girls who are also being treated in Sweden. One of the girls is 19-year-old Lili, who likes Miklós’s letter, and they start corresponding.
First and foremost this is a love story in which love is balanced by darker aftershocks of the Holocaust, yet young love prospers against all odds. Basically, the plot is that of a traditional love story with all the dreaming, yearning and heartfelt declarations that are usually associated with a traditionally prim and proper depiction of romance. The young lovers need to overcome obstacles big and small ranging from jealous friends to physical distance. The relative ease which the protagonists Lili (Emöke Piti) and Miklós (Milán Schruff) exhibit throughout the film is completely refreshing when considering their past ordeals. Pure love is the force that propels the story forward.
Yet there are stark dark undertones that appear now and then when the characters reveal grim snippets of their pasts. These create a harsh historical backdrop to the lovers. Even though they disrupt the general tone of the film, they feel organic and offer a well-needed dose of harsh reality. The matter-of-fact delivery of facts from their former lives creates a framework and adds to the plot but never takes over. The past is past and the present is not necessarily a continuation of what has gone before. These people are trying to live their new lives without delving too deep in the past. For a film about the Holocaust, which is usually defined through the past momentous event, this is a fresh approach.
When Hungarian filmmaker Péter Gárdos’ father died in 1998, his mother gave him a collection of letters written when the two Jewish Holocaust survivors were courting while recovering in Sweden. Gárdos made this film about their remarkable love story and also used the script as the basis for his first novel.
Lili responded to Miklos’ letter because of her feelings of both boredom and encouragement from some friends. The narrative follows the happenings in each characters’ lives tied together through their correspondences, which include both mundane reports on the state of the hospitals where they are living and increasingly fervent declarations of their growing feelings for each other.
Miklos is forced to recognize his own mortality and this makes Lili to be seen as pale character in comparison. Her own illness, which led her to replying to Miklos in the first place, is never really explained. Lili’s most interesting side plot is her decision to convert to Catholicism, but the culmination of that driven by Miklos rather than her own struggles with how to reconcile her faith and her suffering.
Lili and Miklos push their harrowing experiences to the background to get on with the business of living. One particular scene really hit me hard. Miklos struggles with how to tell a friend celebrating his wife’s survival that the woman actually died in a concentration camp. It is Gárdos’ intimate connection to the story that has been tempered by time makes this such a fine film.