louferrigno’s review published on Letterboxd:
Zoltán Fábri certainly has a reputation for being a "thinking man's" director, sharing a deep interest in philosophical subjects and the plight of humanity in the same way fellow Hungarian Béla Tarr showcases such a topic through film (the main difference being Fábri doing so in a much more, shall we say, economical way). With his main influences being the Italian Neorealism and French Poetic Realism, the man always wanted to ensure his message remained as "classical" and straightforward as possible, with his experimentations in chronological storytelling, as well as fanciful surrealism here, being brief and supplementary more than anything. The Fifth Seal is his most well-known, as well as most acclaimed, feature film as it intelligently presents a philosophical debate to its most extreme conclusion and forces the viewer to understand how they judge our characters' choices and perceptions as it varies and shifts until the very end.
In the midst of WWII, five people of varying occupations are gathered in a bar drink and discuss a variety of subjects as terror and fear rages on outside. The conversation takes a turn when the enigmatic watchmaker poses a topical question: upon death, would you want to be reborn as a tyrannical dictator unaware of any guiltiness, or a slave experiencing extreme torture yet with moral decency? Through such an inquisitive question it paints two undesirable positions, that of constant suffering and that of willing fascism, and examines the impossible theorizing that comes with it, suggesting that finding a universal truth and perception of the world to simplify matters isn't as easy as it sounds, as without knowledge of guilt there is no knowledge of any moral wrongdoing, and choosing to be a victim punished for minute reasons means submitting to masters in spite of how unjustly they rule. Mirroring the conflict outside, the search for an absolute truth in the scenario is founded not on coming together, but rather in feuds over seemingly trivial matters in proving dominance towards the truth we've chosen being the correct one all others should abide by.
Such theorizing naturally leads our characters restless, coming up with answers based on their moral code of conducts (like the bartender choosing to be the tyrant while trying to pay his way out of guilt and conflict), usually intercut with paintings depicting surreal suffering of Biblical and apocalyptic nature. Headily, it dives into the concept of self-respect and what defines the value of man, striking the divide into power and honor based on how self-important one could imagine themself in the world, though such importance or unimportance can easily be switched around. That line of thinking turns up in defining control of the masses and exhibiting power in the fascist regime, a decision that takes our characters to their final true test in being either a tyrant or a slave, in living in ignorable shame or futile martyrdom. Reflection in what one does and what they've become to reach that point can prove to be surprising, overwhelming, or pointless upon death dictated by oppressors.
The title of The Fifth Seal refers to Revelations, where, in short, eyeing past the fifth seal reveals the altar of souls where those that maintained the testimony of God were slain. Keeping enough faith in surviving a dictatorial leadership is enough to drive many men crazy, and understanding what one comes to in order to find that faith and how they either stick with it or change their resolve is a fascinating insight in the plight of man nonetheless. It is intense in just how existentially it probes into the small-scale effects of war and personal power, and in how human suffering can create a man's identity and force it to shift in dire circumstances. Unlike many dictator-critique stories it positions itself in a very real point of time in the past and doesn't have the revolutionary hero fully aware of the flawed system they're in, but moreorless nameless people under the terror with a humanistic, changing perception of the world as it falls apart beside them. My ramblings of praise simply don't do the film justice, please watch it on your own accord to see what true realistic horror can be like.