THE FORGOTTEN FACES (Peter Watkins, 1961)

Peter Watkins’s short film The Forgotten Faces is a quasi-documentary reconstruction of street scenes from the failed 1956 uprising against Hungary’s Soviet-propped government. Streets of Canterbury in Kent doubled for The Kàlmàn Jozsef Street, which “lies in an industrial suburb [of Budapest] called Ujpest.”
     Students started the revolt. Opening shot: the corpse of a 17-year-old boy. Our guide is calm journalistic voiceover. We see faces of Hungarians, their cheekbones less prominent to accommodate British casting, and scenes of turbulence and violence. The revolt began on October 23; on November 4, by which time Soviet tanks had arrived, it was crushed.
     A narrative thread involving a schoolteacher and his companion, a revolutionary journalist, is lame, as are some unconvincing generalizations about Hungarians. However, some of what we hear suggests unusually judicious thinking by the 25-year-old Watkins: “The dividing line between murder and justifiable execution is difficult to find and, in the fury of the moment, no one looks for it. . . . if the freedom fighters had won the revolution, would any of them have donned similar uniforms [as the oppressors wear] to hold these men in check?”
     The broken street: rubble, glass, fell bodies, crushed bodies, survivors grimly standing about. Jerky movements simulate on-the-spot newsreel photography; overhead shots, both high and low, likewise contribute to the documentary realism, at least, neorealism.
     Voiceover identification of faces in closeup—two examples: “This is Elisabeth Sulyok, age 44. Her only son was killed yesterday.” (Her freckled brow is deeply furrowed.) “István Berek, age 19. Parents deported five years ago and not heard of since.”
     Eight years earlier than Z, a closing montage of fates: “Refugee. Executed. Deported. Missing. Killed.”
     Except for the voiceover and sounds of confrontation, the film is silent. Will the voices of the oppressed be heard?

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