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Jane Enkin Reviews Fever at Dawn at 2016 Winnipeg International Jewish Film Festival

by Jane Enkin (Music and Story at June 9, 2016

Fever at Dawn opens in Jerusalem, as an aging woman, played by radiant Israeli actor Gila Almagor, shops in busy markets, relaxes in outdoor cafes, and walks through streets buzzing with people of every culture and religion. She places on a cafe table two stacks of old letters, tied in ribbon, and says to her unseen companion “They’ve been locked away for years…you have a right to read them.”


The letters are real, exchanged between filmmaker Peter Gardos’ parents in the months after the end of the Second World War. They are the source of both his novel (available now in English translation) and his deliciously romantic film.


As the woman in Jerusalem begins to tell the story of the letters, the film switches from colour to beautifully shot black and white. This is a wonderfully crafted film.  The contemporary scenes are filled with the light of Jerusalem.  The scenes in Sweden have the clarity combined with softness of the best black and white films of the forties.  Although I’ve been unable to confirm this, it appears to me that the filmmaker seamlessly incorporates vintage footage of survivors, Swedish train stations, villages, towns and cities.


We meet Miklos as a young man in Sweden, just a few weeks after the war.  His physician, a tender man who loves his broken patients, tells Miklos he has only a few months to live. But Miklos is defiant in the face of this prognosis. Confined to a sanatorium, he manages to acquire a list of young Hungarian women, all Holocaust survivors like him, all born in his town, now receiving medical care like him in Sweden.  He writes 117 identical letters, disarmingly claiming that surely he and the woman had met before. “I’ll choose one and fall in love with her,” he explains.


From the Guardian:

In the short months since his liberation, this young man had made an extraordinary and life-changing decision. “What my father decided was that there was only one way to combat the evils of the Holocaust,” says Péter [Gardos.] “To leave all the pain and suffering behind and live a life that was as happy and fulfilled and interesting and rewarding as possible. He believed that he had to look forward, not back; and he knew that to live this life he needed a companion, a wife, whom he could love and whose love he could depend on, and with whom he could raise a family.”


Miklós knew, when he read the reply from Ágnes, [renamed Lili in the fictionalized movie] that she was the woman he was searching for. “I’m unlikely to be the person you were thinking of because, though I was born in Debrecen, I lived in Budapest from the age of one,” she wrote. “Nonetheless, I’ve thought a lot about you. Your friendly letter was so comforting that I would be happy for you to write again.”


Though they live miles apart, their love, deeply caring, quickly blossoms through their letters. They are kept apart by poor health, the rules of unseen bureaucrats and concerned physicians, and their own self-doubts, although they never doubt one another.


One character tries to thwart them.  Young Lili is unaware, it seems to me, of the possessive love her close friend Judit feels for her. I don’t know if this lesbian character appears in the novel, and whether she reflects a person in the true story or is a creation of the filmmaker. In some ways, she acts as any unrequited, undeclared lover might behave when she sees the object of her affection charmed by someone else, a man she has no reason to trust. But Judit is also shaped by the invisibility of lesbians in the 1940s, and most of all by the shocking trauma she experienced in the concentration camp. On the one hand, she is an individual character, beautifully and passionately played by Andrea Petrik. To my concern, however, her appearance and her story arc echo familiar stereotypes of “Forbidden Love.”


Miklos, dreamy, quiet but fiercely determined and Lili, filled with nervous energy and intense joy, are the focus of the story.  But in the film we see them mostly in their separate worlds, and each character surrounding them is a carefully crafted gem.  Lili dwells mostly in a somewhat claustrophobic world within the women’s hospital, seen mostly with her wartime friends, the sweet Sara and the more cynical Judit.  This film passes the Bechdel test!  The three women have real conversations about their trauma, their families and their hopes for the future.


Miklos has one best friend, the jocular and tender-hearted Harry, but they are closely involved with the other men in care, all playing sports, joking, teasing and supporting one another.  When they are transferred from the resort-like sanatorium to a displaced persons’ barracks, one man clutches the fence and says bitterly, “At least it’s not electric.”


At every moment in this film we are reminded that we are watching survivors, and that trauma does not end with rescue. Characters who appear strong gradually reveal their damaged psyches, and characters who did not experience the Holocaust are shown to be sensitively and humbly aware that they can never truly understand the lives of those they are helping. There are many harsh events and much despair – and yet the audience here in Winnipeg left the movie happy and filled with hope.


The novel and the film were years in the making, but Gardos finds it particularly relevant today.

From an interview by Balazs Koranyi:

Sweden, Switzerland and Britain accepted thousands of Holocaust survivors in 1945, caring for them until they were healthy enough to leave. Such a show of humanity is desperately needed in Europe now as millions of refugees seek a safe haven, Gardos said.

"The love, the caring, the effort to help these people, who couldn’t even walk and had to be carried, is touching," he said.

"Then you see countries in Europe today building barbed-wire fences to keep out refugees in need. Fortunately there are countries again, like Sweden and Germany, who showed that humanity overrules political games," Gardos said…


"I don’t think this is a Holocaust novel, it’s a story of love," Gardos said. "I needed to tell the story of their defiant desire to live, that there’s life after death and how important love was."

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