Paul Weidlinger was an architect, a taciturn man who lived an extraordinary 20th-century life of historic importance. The sort of man who took his toast dry and his coffee black, whose architectural career started with buildings before moving on to silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles. Weidlinger was a father of four children from two marriages. He lived across three continents, starting with a childhood in pre-war Europe of which he rarely spoke. Peers respected him, subordinates sometimes feared him and his children found him impossible, even before he abandoned his first set of two to their ailing mother, Madeleine. He would visit them at their summer home in a remote area of Cape Cod, a home he built that became a hell for his children as their mother descended into madness but now stands restored as an architectural landmark, dedicated to its famous designer. His public legacy is undeniable. But to his children, he was an enigma.

The Restless Hungarian is a captivating new documentary by Tom Weidlinger, filmmaker and son of Paul and Madeleine, based on his book of the same name. Through interviews, family artifacts and re-enactments, Tom explores his parents’ lives, his perception of them and their impact on his own. It’s a profound, graceful film, unsparing in its honesty and thoughtfulness. I was blown away.

In My Imagination, I Try to Comfort My Younger Self

There’s a meticulousness to Weidlinger’s film (for the sake of clarity, the review will refer to his father as Paul). It’s a deconstruction of Paul’s life from birth, relayed through reconnections made with the surviving distant family in Hungary. These family members also assisted Weidlinger with re-enactments interspersed throughout the film, set on dream-like minimalist sets. The first third covers his father and mother meeting, their emigration from Europe to Bolivia and the birth of his elder sister, Michelle. Growing up, and even through adulthood, Weidlinger knew little of his parents’ past. He wasn’t even aware of their Jewish heritage, something that directly affected his father’s family before and after he left for the West in 1939.

In this segment, it becomes clear Paul’s story is a quintessential story of the mid-20th century: A brilliant immigrant, fleeing Europe on the eve of war, finds a niche in the West where he can express innate talents to profound financial and social success. Paul’s design work can be seen in cities around the globe.

Like most idyllic stories of the American Dream, there’s darkness beneath. Madeleine’s mental health issues manifested themselves as schizophrenia. She was haunted by visions. Paul left his children, particularly young Tom, with her, oftentimes for extended periods of time. She could be as cruel and abusive as she could be loving. For a time, she had prolonged stays in mental health hospitals, with Paul’s income going solely to support her treatment.  It was a difficult, challenging childhood, one The Reckless Hungarian seeks to reconcile with the story of who Paul and Madeleine were as people.

It’s a narrative tightrope, miraculously navigated — never short-changing Paul and Madeleine as humans, despite the honest perspective of their lives through the eyes of a son who loved them and was, in some ways, hurt by them. In its most powerful moments, Weidlinger appears opposite the child playing him in the re-enactments, looking at his younger self experiencing all the pain and trauma he still carries into his 60s. He wishes he could reach through time. He wishes he could tell himself it will all be OK — and mean it.

Mutually Assured Destruction

After exploring his parents’ origins, Weidlinger moves on to their adulthood, juxtaposing it with the 1950s Cold War arms race that defined his father’s position in history. Paul worked for the RAND Corporation, designing missile silos to protect America’s nuclear warheads from potential Russian first strikes. His work served the concept of mutually assured destruction: The only thing stopping nuclear war was the promise that the person who fired first would also be annihilated in mere hours.

The concept also described his parents’ relationship at the time and long after; despite the best possible treatment, Madeleine succumbed to demons she alone perceived. Neighbors avoided their home. The gas and electricity were shut off. The interior began to rot, even as they lived there. All the while, Paul had left them, focusing his energies on a new family and projects with Herman Kahn, the inspiration for Peter Sellers’ madman in Dr. Strangelove.

What culpability did Paul have in the arms race that threatened the world? Weidlinger elegantly weaves together the history of cold warfare and his own parents’ conflict that defined his upbringing and later life.

Reaching through the Veil of Time and Space

Weidlinger’s life continued to buffet him with tragedy, including the fate of Michelle and her 3-year-old son. In preparation for his book and documentary, he interviewed Paul. It was only a few years before the elder man’s death, and Weidlinger makes clear one of his aims was closure. Not just whether his father would speak openly about his failures as a father. Would he apologize? He’s not granted the catharsis and has to find his own.

The Restless Hungarian clearly represents a form of therapy for Weidlinger. In learning about the lives of his family, he develops a greater, more empathetic understanding for their faults and shortcomings. He finally arrives at a place of love, even though his scars remain.

In doing so, he has crafted a documentary that speaks not only to his personal experience but the process of learning about the people from whence we came. The relationship between a parent and child is innately complicated, even without the Holocaust, World War II, schizophrenia and unyielding tragedy as captured here. Knowing a parent for who they are — particularly who they were before you — and understanding them is a daunting, difficult task. Through his painstaking research and true openness, Weidlinger succeeds in crafting a truly beautiful story.