To cast his gruelling war drama, Dénes Nagy combed Hungary’s farms for people ‘with exhaustion in their face’ – then shot it in the Latvian winter. The result? Awards, praise … and fierce criticism

The publicist from the film company won’t be able to make it to the hotel in Leicester Square to introduce me to the Hungarian film-maker Dénes Nagy, whose gruelling slow-burn war drama Natural Light recent won him the best director prize at Berlin. But he emails to say that spotting Nagy shouldn’t be too difficult: “In the nicest way, he looks like the director of Natural Light.” And it’s true. There is a man in the foyer with an unmistakably auteur-like air: small wire spectacles, intellectual high forehead and a haircut he could have snipped himself in front of a mirror.

Natural Light is an unapologetically serious and beautiful piece of hardcore arthouse cinema. It’s set in the Nazi-occupied Soviet Union in 1943 and follows a unit of Hungarian soldiers, allies of the German forces. Bleakly inscrutable and with very little dialogue, it’s an intense watch. As one review put it, this is a film that “makes demands on its audience”.

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