Buried Secrets and Warped Identities
A supposedly reformed right-wing neo-Nazi leader is unable to stop trolling an elderly camp survivor on the train to Auschwitz by asking him, “What makes the Holocaust so special?” “Keep Quiet” is a dark documentary about buried secrets and warped identities. Since he was a teen, Csanad Szegedi wanted to be part of the leadership in the Jobbik, Hungary’s far-right anti-Semitic party. But then a disturbed colleague outs him as being as Jewish, and this it provokes a reckoning with his deep-in-denial family and an alliance with a rabbi who wants to guide him to reconciliation with his heritage. Szegedi then begins to apologize to the Jews that he had once slandered and harassed. Yet, he yearns to be in the spotlight at the same time that he shows his face to the world. Lacking in self-awareness, the impassive, closed-off Szegedi’s motives are unreadable as well as those of the filmmakers’ as they avoid drawing conclusions about a subject that can make many viewers uneasy.
This film provokes stunned reflection on generations of Eastern European who were hated because they were Jews and we see the depths that some will undertake to attempt to forget the past. Hungarian politician Csanad Szegedi had been a committed fascist, nationalist and anti-Semite since he was in high school. He was a founding member of Jobbik and ran the Hungarian Guard, a paramilitary organization that has now been banned. He was elected to the European Parliament in 2009. And then in 2012, at the height of his career, an unexpected revelation exposed by opponents within the far right ended it all.
Szegedi is Jewish and he lied about it and he comes across as a conflicted political figure. His mother and grandmother decided it would be safer to live as Christians. Even though his grandmother survived Auschwitz, she hid her story and her tattoo from her grandchildren. Directors Joseph Martin and Sam Blair do not look at the logic or ethics of her decision. Rather, they focus their energy and their film on Szegedi’s reaction to the news. The fallout came very quickly and his whole life had been built around his anti-Semitic community. That fell away in almost an instant. Szegedi went to the synagogue, looking for a new community to replace the one he lost. Rabbi Boruch Oberlander, an American-born Orthodox rabbi who moved to Budapest after the Cold War, agreed to meet with him and that is the main focus of the film. We are with Szegedi’s on his spiritual journey and relationship with the rabbi. This documentary is a story of repentance but
Szegedi does not seem to understand this. Within a year of his self-discovery, religious conversion and political rebirth, he begins traveling to speak at the events of major Jewish organizations and we see that he still searched for applause. The directors understand this and their cinematic insistence on serious repentance extends beyond the backdrop in front of which they shot all of their interview footage.
We see Rabbi Oberlander arguing with those who challenge his pupil’s right to inclusion after a life of such strong anti-Semitism. When Szegedi himself speaks at a Jewish conference in Germany, he is met with a lot of opposition. One woman, who left Hungary to escape the hateful rhetoric spewed by Jobbik and its supporters, refuses to accept him just on his word. After all, it has happened so quickly and the film refuses to really allow Szegedi to have a clean transition from racist to Jewish public figure.
After his grandmother’s death, Szegedi finally makes a pilgrimage to Auschwitz. He is accompanied by Eva ‘Bobby’ Neumann, a survivor of the camp herself who returns to the site in order to educate others. She challenges Szegedi’s still-entrenched Holocaust denial. He argues with all of the noncommittal equivocation of a politician.
Szegedi never attains the enlightenment of a man who has emerged greater than before. His desired transformation is not possible. Over time, he does relent to the power of historical reality, and the need to repent for a life of propagating hatred but the truth does not set him free—it only brings him back to the tragic knowledge that the Jewish people already knew.
“Keep Quiet” explores whether a person can ever truly change and what the motive for that supposed change is. The most powerful scene comes when Szegedi visits Auschwitz and this is a revealing and raw scene as we watch his mind split open. Szegedi has the nerve, as a young Hungarian raised in a stable middle-class setting, to sit opposite of a Holocaust survivor, Eva Bobby Neumann, on a train to Auschwitz, and lecture her about how the Holocaust was trumped up as Jewish propaganda. He can look this woman in the eyes and tell her that he’s tired of hearing about the Jews’ suffering because he is tired of being made to feel guilty and we see how a culture can eat another alive and somehow live with itself. We see something here about nationalist attitudes; those that espouse them hate carrying the guilt that is associated when acts committed by their forbearers especially when the crimes committed were against Jews who are thought to be cosmopolitan which really says that extremists feel socially inferior to their prey. The resentment they feel is an incarnation of anti-intellectualism, of disenfranchised white men misidentifying their true enemy.
Szegedi’s outing as a Jew ruins his political career but what is so interesting is that he embraces Judaism with the same fervor that he once demonized Jews. We see his transition as a sudden act— Szegedi seems to regard his shocking ideological realignment as a career move, and his self-absorption is prodigious. He does see Jews as human until they belong to his family, and he experiences Auschwitz purely through the way that his family, an extension of himself, suffered. When Neumann sheds tears on the Auschwitz grounds, sharing a personal memory with Szegedi, we are not happy and we resent his experiencing this moment since he hasn’t earned the vulnerability that Neumann offers him.
Martin and Blair don’t obviously editorialize Szegedi, prompting us to make any definitive conclusion about his about-face and whether it is legitimate or not. The filmmakers show how a culture can eat another alive and somehow live with itself, how Nazis and neo-Nazis, and, by extension, other far-right parties, can see themselves as something other than monsters. I see Szegedi as a smug, disingenuous, disgusting human being who is fascinatingly shameless and a weapon of political instigation, who continually seeks a context for self-glorification of which any will do.