Hungarian politician Csanad Szegedi had been a committed fascist, nationalist and antisemite since high school. He was a founding member of Jobbik, now his country’s largest extreme-right party. He ran the Hungarian Guard, a paramilitary organization which 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. Never mind the big lies that underscore the entirety of Jobbik ideology, here was an essential lie beneath his own career. And this, of course, is the hook of Joseph Martin and Sam Blair’s documentary portrait of this uniquely conflicted political figure. Keep Quiet’s title is a specific reference to the decision of Szegedi’s own mother and grandmother when they decided it would be safer to live as Christians. His grandmother survived Auschwitz, but hid her story and her tattoo from her grandchildren.
However, Martin and Blair aren’t all that interested in interrogating the logic or ethics of her decision. Instead, they focus their energy on Szegedi’s reaction to the news. The fallout was swift. His whole life, professional and social, had been built around his anti-Semitic community. That fell away nearly instantly. And so he 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. Szegedi’s spiritual journey, anchored in this relationship, is the real subject of Keep Quiet.
This is not a tale of redemption, but rather of repentance. Szegedi himself seems not 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. He remains in search of applause. Martin and Blair, however, understand this perfectly. And their cinematic insistence on serious repentance extends well beyond the dour, dark backdrop in front of which they shot all of their interview footage.
The inclusion of multiple Jewish perspectives is extremely important. Rabbi Oberlander is shown arguing with those who challenge his pupil’s right to inclusion after a life of such ardent antisemitism. 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. Martin and Blair highlight these discussions, refusing to allow their subject a clean transition from racist to Jewish public figure.
These frequent confrontations are the lifeblood of Keep Quiet, the element that keeps it from falling into the regular beats of the biographical documentary. The coup de grace is a narrative thread set apart, introduced at the beginning of the film but not allowed full resolution until its last act. 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 equivocating of a politician, a particular talent of those politicians whose entire political standing is based on grand historical fictions.
Szegedi never attains the enlightened, redemptive glow of a man who has emerged greater than before. Such a desired transformation is not possible. But, over time, he does relent to the power of historical reality, and the need to repent for a life of propagating hatred. The truth does not set him free. It simply restores him to the tragic knowledge already known by the rest of the Jewish people, that the liberation granted by denial and lies is built on the oppression of others.