Mysticism, folklore and the real tradition of post-mortem photography: analysis of the film “Post Mortem” (2020): plot of the film, meaning of the ending, description, similar movies
Year of production: 2020
Director: Peter Bergendy
Actors: Victor Klem, Fruzhina Khais, Judith Schell
Slogan: “Look into the eyes of death”
Peter Bergendy’s film is touted as the first Hungarian horror film, although in fact it is more of a strong anti-war statement.
Being a psychologist by profession, here the director thoroughly approaches the study of issues of post-traumatic syndrome and feelings of loss. The message of the film “Post Mortem” is that war always leaves unhealed wounds. Moreover, not only on the bodies of survivors at the front, but also in the souls of those people who remained in the rear.
The tradition of post-mortem photography in reality
The plot is based on real photographic practice. “Post Mortem” is translated as “posthumous”. This unique genre became widespread in the second half of the 19th century, shortly after the invention of the daguerreotype. At first they filmed only the dead, and then took pictures with them. The point of all this was that the resulting photograph was a souvenir – the last imprint of a deceased loved one.
Gradually, the idea of “Post Mortem” captured almost the entire world and already in the 40s of the 19th century the “trend” was transformed into an art direction.
According to many researchers, there was a deep, hidden meaning in this direction. In particular, one of the artists who worked in this eerie genre said that Post Mortem photographs are not only a memory of people who left our world, but also a whole philosophy. Its essence is that such images should always remind people of the thin line that exists between life and death.
What is the movie about
Brief description of the contents of the picture. Hungary, 1918. The main character of the film, an Austrian soldier named Thomas, is seriously injured. He is considered dead and is preparing to be buried in a mass grave, but he is discovered in time by an elderly soldier who helps him escape.
One disaster always follows another. The war has died down, but after it comes a serious illness – the Spanish flu. Entire families and even (as people say) entire communities are dying from the epidemic.
Meanwhile, Thomas, having left military service, works as a photographer. His specialty is Post Mortem photography. He is accompanied by the same old man who saved him on the battlefield. Trying to make some money, at fairs he tells “the amazing story of a man who visited the next world and came back.” He took his friend’s story as a basis and greatly embellished it – according to him, only in this interpretation it is successfully “sold.”
One day a girl appears at this fair. Interested in photographs of the dead, she enters Thomas’s tent and casually tells him that they also have dead people and even ghosts in their village.
“Are you coming?” – asks the girl. “If they pay,” Thomas smiles, not believing her words one bit. Soon the girl says goodbye and leaves. On the threshold, she turns around and Thomas freezes in place in surprise – she is like two peas in a pod like the girl from the vision that came to him at the front, when he was neither alive nor dead and they were preparing to lower him into a mass grave. The stunned man decides to accept her peculiar invitation.
The girl’s name is Anna. She is 10 years old, and she lives with her aunt – she has no mother, and her father has gone missing… Having settled in a new place, Thomas begins filming: people in the village die from the Spanish flu very often and there is plenty of work.
Very soon, Thomas witnesses the terrible death of one of the village residents. He manages to capture the disfigured corpse of a woman, which, however, frightens everyone else so much that they run away. Later, while looking through the photographs, the photographer sees some strange shadows on them. Anna comes up and is sure: “they” are to blame for the old woman’s death. Thomas is perplexed, but very soon an otherworldly force manifests itself before his eyes – things in his studio begin to move freely.
The frightened girl, who also saw this, says that “they” are now everywhere, and the answer to the rampage of otherworldly power is that Thomas, taking photographs, constantly interferes with the world of the dead. The adults are also sure that the visiting “German” is to blame for everything: in their opinion, it was he who disturbed the dead. Thomas decides to leave, but he is tormented by the fact that he left Anna in danger. The photographer eventually returns and, together with the girl, takes up the investigation of the terrible events.
One day one of the residents tells them a creepy story. Before the war, she worked in a neighboring city, in the family of a judge. His wife believed very much in spirits and loved to summon them. One day the judge fell ill, and his wife arranged a seance and asked the spirits not to take him away. Everyone was sure that the judge was about to give up the ghost, but nevertheless he survived.
The spirits (ghosts) did not leave after that. Deciding to stay in the house, they began to go on a rampage – breaking dishes and causing harm in every possible way. The invited priest could not do anything and the spirits left only after the unfortunate judge died. “They really don’t like it when people talk about them,” the woman assures.
The spirits themselves, however, are very talkative. All the witnesses interviewed by the heroes claim that when they manifest themselves, they simply do not stop talking – and Thomas understands that it makes sense to try to record their voices. For this purpose, he and Anna come to church in the evening and plan to return for the recording at dawn.
One day the girl starts talking about Thomas’s past. “It was you, and not that old man who first died and then came to life?” she asks. The man agrees. Anna also remembers: it turns out that she, too, was once between life and death. Her aunt saved her…
Meanwhile, the village is becoming increasingly scary. Angry spirits continue to torment and kill residents. Tired of the ongoing nightmare, Anna, sobbing, asks them: “What do you want? Tell us, we will do everything – we want to help you.” However, the spirits are silent…
A little later, Thomas and Anna listen to the recording made in the church, and the girl clearly hears something. However, the man, confident that this is just interference, goes to develop the photographs. Anna listens to the recording again and again and suddenly clearly hears an eerie voice. The ghost speaks very unintelligibly, but both are sure that he is trying to convey to them some kind of message.
Their activity is interrupted by local residents who come to find out how the investigation is progressing. However, all that Anna can tell is that the dead are not local. The villagers nod: they always knew that strangers were rowdy, because “their” dead would never harm them…
Post Mortem Ending explained
Explanation of the ending of the picture. Towards the end, the ghosts literally go into a frontal attack. The reason for their aggression soon becomes clear. It turns out that by the time Thomas arrived in the village, there were many unburied bodies there. According to locals, they were not buried because the ground was frozen and it was simply impossible. People continued to die from the Spanish flu and the dead were simply piled in a barn… The spirits demanded that the dead be given peace by burying them according to custom.
Trying to help people, Thomas falls into a deadly trap, but one of the local residents saves him. It seems to the assembled people that the photographer is more dead than alive, but Anna comes into play again, and begins to bother him and call him. Finding himself between life and death, the man, as then at the front, again sees the girl’s face bending over him.
This helps: Thomas comes back to life. The ghosts leave, peace comes to the village. Thomas decides to leave and takes Anna with him. On the way they see a small village. “Have you ever been there?” – asks the man. The girl shakes her head and resolutely touches the reins. Probably the meaning of the ending of the film “Post Mortem” is that the heroes set off to meet new adventures. This is confirmed by the director, Peter Bergendy. After the success of his brainchild, he said that he would definitely film a new story about Hungarian ghosts – it would take place in the twenties.
The meaning of the film Post Mortem
In one of his interviews, Peter Bergendy said that since his youth he was in love with the horror genre. However, in the eighties, not only filming, but also watching “enemy” films was prohibited in socialist Hungary. However, American and European “horror” films were still watched underground.
Bergendy was interested not only in horror films, but also in psychoanalysis, which was prohibited by the authorities. In his youth, he managed to bring together both objects of his love in a dissertation, but after that he did not stop wanting to create his own. This is how “Post Mortem” was born – a film that viewers in their analyzes call “a national psychoanalytic horror film with elements of village folklore.” The film is based on the real movement of post-mortem photographs. This in itself is creepy, but here this strange “art” looks truly scary.
100-120 years ago, when someone in the family died, Europeans arranged a kind of “photo shoot” for the dead person and considered this completely normal. The deceased was given a resemblance to the living, or even depicted sitting on a chair, next to the rest of the household and friends.
Many photographers made good money from this. Thomas, who visited the other world and managed to return back, did not stand aside either. This is probably why he doesn’t have much reverence for death – for him it’s just work. His comrade in arms “works” in exactly the same way, telling fables (by the way, this mise-en-scène clearly demonstrates how fables are born – after all, this story will probably be passed on from mouth to mouth and will acquire new, even more fantastic details).
However, in the villages they always treated death differently – seriously and strictly: dead means dead, there is no need to disturb him and carry out all sorts of strange manipulations. How will he “start walking”? Such a plot is not new in Eastern European folklore.
Knowing how the popular consciousness “works,” it is impossible not to be confused by the understanding with which the villagers treat Thomas and his work. However, a little later everything is explained. The war and the Spanish Flu left too many dead people and took away people’s faith in God (one of the women who also faced the aggression of spirits speaks about this) – and therefore in eternal life after death. There is no priest in the village, and even though they themselves have icons in their houses, they are of no use. Nevertheless, they still had the ancient fear of the otherworldly.
And so, day and night they are tormented by restless souls. In the muffled cries of frightened people one can hear the echo of the recently ended First World War, which became a through-and-through wound for Hungary. After everything that happened, people do not live, but survive: the past is dark and scary, the future is foggy – what else can they hope for?
To understand the essence of the film, you need to know that Peter Bergendy is first and foremost a psychologist, and only then a director. It is for this reason that in his optics the relationship between the living and the dead is completely devoid of artistic detachment and distance. Death in his painting is very tangible and textured. It has sound, color and even a specific smell. Death does not exist in words – it is present everywhere – including in the reflection of creepy dead eyes in photographs. Why is this all, for what?..
The director skillfully mixes tragedy with mechanical attraction, combines the poetry of life and the horror and disgust of death, and therefore many call his film not so much scary as unpleasant. However, one of the main motives of his work is spiritual rebirth. An entire village (people) cannot bury its dead. It takes a powerful shock for people to let go of the dark and painful past and finally begin to live.
Here are several films that are somewhat similar to “Post Mortem” in plot and meaning:
- “Others” (Spain, USA, France, Italy, 2001). A young woman named Grace lives with her two children in a gloomy house. She soon realizes that there is someone else in the mansion besides them.
- “The Witch” (USA, Canada, UK, 2015). 1630, New England. There is grief in the family of William and Katherine – their youngest son disappears. Some are sure that the baby was dragged away by a witch living in the forest…
- “The Conjuring” (USA, 2013). The Perron family lives in horror – an otherworldly entity lives in their house. It soon becomes clear that a terrible spell lies over the entire area.
- “The House on the Other Side” (USA, UK, 2020). A woman recently buried her husband. While sorting through his things, she suddenly realizes that he had secrets from her.