In the rain, a young woman walks along the center stripe of Budapest’s Elizabeth Bridge. She pays no heed to the traffic rushing past her in both directions but continues to stride toward the camera. Across the frame, in large letters, appears the word MAGYAR (Hungarian).
This image, from the logo of the 1987 Hungarian Feature Film Festival, gives visual form to a popular self-impression. Smack in the middle of a continent forever riven by opposing forces, the Hungarian walks his or her own course. History has repeatedly demonstrated the perils of Hungary’s geopolitical position, but Hungarian culture has not been swept away by the powerful momentum of others, nor has it been crushed in the collision of mightier forces.
There is a Hungarian joke that approaches the self-image from another angle. Two men board an otherwise empty streetcar, one through the front door and one through the rear. If the two are Italians, they both head for the same seat and fight over it. If they are Germans, they wait for the conductor to come on and tell them where to sit. If they are Hungarians, one sees the other and quickly gets off, preferring to wait for the next tram.
National self-images should of course be taken with a grain of salt, these included. Hungarians are perhaps less individualistic than they fancy themselves—that, indeed, may be the point of the joke—and their culture has hardly been immune to outside influences. Still, the Magyar on the bridge and the men on the streetcar can serve to introduce the Hungarian cinema, which frequently mirrors the qualities Hungarians like to see in themselves. That sense of individualism produces a range of formal diversity remarkable for such a small film culture, and that problem of geopolitics lends itself to some unique and daring scenarios.
Consider a second image. The setting is the outside of a prison on the puszta, that flat-as-a-table-top plain extending endlessly eastward from the Danube. Some peasant women have brought food for the prisoners. One prisoner, promised that he will be spared from execution if he informs on political outlaws, fingers a woman in the group. Panicking, all the women flee across the puszta. They grow smaller and smaller as they run toward the far horizon, and for a long moment no one bothers to pursue them. Suddenly horsemen sweep across the screen, and scant effort is required to round the women up. Throughout the scene there is little dialogue and no background music; the camera photographs the action as objectively as if it were recording a lion’s kill for a PBS nature program. The viewer sees that oppression is a natural and impersonal fact of authority, and wide open spaces can be a prison from which escape is as unlikely as from Alcatraz.
The scene is from The Round-up (Szegénylegények, 1965), written by Gyula Hernádi and directed by Miklós Jancsó.1 This film presents the earliest statement of Jancsó’s characteristic style, with numerous long takes within which a slow but complicated mise en scène develops at an emotional distance from the viewer. The Round-up’s subject matter, the plight of Hungarian rebels in the Habsburg empire, is typical of the early Jancsó stories, which are often historical pageants filled with political lessons that have relevance for Hungary’s present.
Now a third image. Onscreen a baby is born, its birth photographed unflinchingly in close-up. We are watching not a documentary but the final scene of a feature film, and yet the actress Lili Monori is in fact giving birth to her own child. The scene ends in a blackout, a sudden and startling conclusion to this story about a woman’s struggle for an independent identity in a society that wants to force her into a traditional, subservient role. Juli, unmarried, has been abandoned by her lover because he cannot bear the stigma of her earlier child, born out of wedlock; now she has two and must continue to face the hardships of single parenthood.
The film is Nine Months (Kilenc honap, 1976), written and directed by Márta Mészáros. Two years ahead of Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (USA, 1978) and several other American movies praised for their feminist sensibility, Nine Months was by no means the first of director Mészáros’s feminist stories. The uncompromising naturalism of the final scene is consistent with the film’s realism throughout—as it is characteristic of Mészáros’s feature work in general—and the subject matter, an intimate story about contemporary people, is also typical of Mészáros’s oeuvre. Márta Mészáros and Miklós Jancsó know and respect each other very well, but their films are as different as those of Frederick Wiseman and Federico Fellini.2 Nor do the styles of Jancsó and Mészáros represent the polar extremes of the Hungarian spectrum. Beyond Mészáros’s realism are fiction films starkly in the style of cinéma vérité, such as Pál Erdöss’s The Princess (Adj király katonát!, 1982),3 and nonfiction films whose dramatic structures obscure the boundary between documentary and feature work, a good example being Sándor Sára’s At the Crossroads (Keresztúton, 1986). Beyond Jancsó, at the other end of the spectrum, are films by directors working on the experimental edge, for example The Dog’s Night Song (A kutya éji data, 1983) by the late Gábor Bódy and Lenz (Lenz,1986) by András Szirtes.
And yet this wide range of film styles, encompassing many that fall between the realism of Mészáros and the expressionism of Jancsó, would appear to be linked by a spirit of Hungarian otherness, a unity of diversity which, within the film culture as in the larger society, invokes a specific national quality as a source of pride. This quality, like that clichéed phenomenon of “national character” about which historians and others have long debated, cannot be easily described, but it will be evident as we survey Hungarian films.
History, Politics, and Film
The history of East Central Europe is long and tragic, and that of modern Hungary is perhaps even more tragic than that of its neighbors. The Hungarian kingdom lost its independence in the sixteenth century, overpowered by the Turks and the Habsburgs. In 1849, Hungarian nationalists revolted against the Austrian monarch but were decisively reconquered. In 1867 the kingdom was revived—but in a way that diehard patriots found humiliating; the Habsburg monarch formally accepted the Hungarian crown within what was thereafter called the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On the losing side of World War I, Hungary surrendered more than half its territory by the terms of the Treaty of Trianon (1919). A republican government soon gave way to the Communist rule of Béla Kun, the Republic of Councils, which in turn was overthrown after a few months of violent civil strife by right-wing forces loyal to Admiral Miklós Horthy. The country, nominally a kingdom again, never got a king and was in fact governed by Horthy as regent. Hungary drifted further to the right during the thirties and, in the end, found itself participating in the horrors of fascism. There followed another war and another defeat, another fierce competition for political power, and the triumph of a minority party supported by an army of occupation. Long dominated by foreign powers to the west and south, Hungary now fell under the influence of its giant neighbor to the east.
In Zoltán Fábri’s film Hungarians (Magyarok, 1977), a group of peasants have left the abject poverty of their home village to work the fields of a German landowner far to the north; all the local men are off fighting Hitler’s war. When news of Germany’s defeat reaches the Hungarian farmhands, the eldest among them says, “If [the Germans] hadn’t joined up with the Hungarians, they wouldn’t have lost.”
The sense of forever being a defeated nation intensified over the first decade of Communist rule. Hungarians have long memories, and they had not forgotten that Russian forces helped the Austrian emperor crush their revolt in 1849. A hundred years later, Hungarian Communist Party chief Mátyás Rákosi styled himself after his master, Joseph Stalin, and his party’s policies bore a distinct “made in Moscow” stamp: forced collectivization of agriculture, nationalization of industry, the suppression of churches, the rewriting of history to denigrate many national heroes and celebrate less familiar and often foreign socialist figures, the sealing of the borders against imperialist penetration, and the ruthless application of police-state measures complete with blood purges, mass arrests, and ubiquitous informants. Stalinism in Hungary lasted only half a decade, but its legacy has persisted ever since in the ongoing intraparty conflict between those who hold to strict authoritarianism and those who believe society can be trusted with one or another degree of democratization.
The death of Stalin, in 1953, released a stream of changes in Hungary. Opposition to Rákosi’s extremism emerged, and the party went through a period of serious infighting. The goverment became unstable. Intellectuals, encouraged by a lessening of censorship, burst out of the constraints that had been imposed upon artistic and literary production by the norms of socialist realism. Imre Nagy, a popular Communist who had been imprisoned in the purges, became Prime Minister for some twenty months during which he and Rákosi, who continued to head the party, were locked in a policy conflict between the more liberal “New Course” of the former and the hard line of the latter. Ousted in the spring of 1955, Nagy made another comeback a year-and-a-half later in the heat of a mass revolt. That revolt of autumn 1956 marked the culmination of the liberalizing forces. Pressured by violence in the streets, Premier Nagy formed a multiparty government and announced the withdrawal of Hungary from the Soviet bloc.
Within days, Soviet tanks rolled across the countryside and Soviet guns fired on Hungarian soldiers, who had joined the populace in revolt. The Hungarian forces were no match for the superior firepower of their former and future ally, but much blood was shed before Soviet authority was reestablished. The major population centers, especially Budapest, added the scars of new property damage to those remaining from the previous war, and in the aftermath, 200,000 Hungarians fled across the border to Austria and points west. Under Soviet guidance a new government was formed, with János Kádár as the head of the party. Imre Nagy was executed. Hungary had suffered yet another defeat.
During the first decade after the Second World War, the Hungarian cinema had emerged from the disaster with difficulty. Owing to the scarcity of resources, only three movies were produced in each of the first several years after 1945.4 Even so, some were of high quality, most notably Géza Radványi’s Somewhere in Europe (Valahol Európában, 1947), a work which many outside critics believed signaled the beginning of a Hungarian neorealist wave. In 1948, however, the film industry was nationalized, and very soon it fell under the stultifying norms of Zhdanovism. Radványi emigrated, and other promising directors such as Frigyes Bán and István Szőts were obliged to apply the principles of socialist realism to their work. Not until 1954, with Fábri’s Fourteen Lives in Danger (Életjel), did Hungarian filmmakers begin again to explore their own themes through fresh styles. Between 1954 and 1956, a number of directors, including Szöts, Fábri, and Félix Máriássy, abandoned socialist realism as a style while cautiously expanding the cinema’s thematic repertoire.
In 1956, two films were made that dared to examine current political realities. Tamas Banovich directed The Sneezed-Away Empire (Az eltüsszentett birodalom), described by the Liehms as “a fairy-tale allegory about a tyrant whose entire kingdom had to bend to his will,”5 and Zoltán Várkonyi filmed Bitter Truth (Keserű igazság), a hard-hitting story about a construction works manager whose ambition and pigheaded devotion to the overfulfillment of production quotas cause the collapse of an uncompleted silo and the death of a workman. The Sneezed-Away Empire was shown in theaters for a short while before the Soviet intervention, but Bitter Truth was shelved upon completion and not released until thirty years later.
The Kádár era began not only with the repression of literature and film but also with a period of generalized political retrenchment. One-party rule was quickly reinstituted, the Soviet alliance was reaffirmed, the regime’s identifiable enemies were punished, collectivization—virtually abandoned after 1953—was resumed, and the full weight of censorship (though not the burden of Zhdanovism) descended once more upon culture.
The policies of repression affected the entire society, but they were by no means a return to Stalinism. Even so, many prominent intellectuals were temporarily silenced, and the film movement that had begun in 1954 came to a halt. In a sense, the years immediately following 1956 were an interlude between two generations of filmmakers, for it was during this time that the most important Hungarian directors of the current period began their careers. They included Jancsó, active in newsreel and documentary work for twelve years before settling into features with Cantata (Oldás és kötés, 1962),6 and Károly Makk, who had debuted with Liliomfi (1954) and directed several more movies before completing The Fanatics (Megszállottak, 1961), the release of which signaled a positive change in the political environment, as the film told a story of bureaucratic misjudgment and indifference. István Gaál made his debut with Current (Sodrásban) in 1963, and István Szabó with The Age of Daydreaming (Álmodozások kora) in 1964. Márta Mészáros, like Jancsó, made documentary films for more than a decade before directing her first feature, The Girl (Eltávozott nap, 1968).7
Surrounding this new cinematic wave were changes in the political and social climate. Within a few years after the post-1956 clampdown, the Kádár regime felt confident enough of its authority that it began slowly to release the pressures on society. By 1968 the party put into effect a New Economic Mechanism (NEM) which liberalized the economy by decentralizing much of the planning apparatus, releasing some commodity prices to float with the forces of supply and demand, introducing wage incentives, allowing the establishment of small private businesses in carefully delimited areas of trade and services, increasing the role of private agriculture (though not de-collectivizing the major part of farming), and encouraging the formation of cooperatives. Development of the NEM halted under conservatives’ pressure for a few years during the mid-seventies, but the momentum gathered speed upon the adoption of a new set of similarly minded reforms in the early eighties. By the middle of the decade, one could plainly see the impact in the proliferation of private shops, restaurants, taxicabs, and other services, as well as the encroachment of numerous Western firms in the form of joint companies and franchises; by 1985, among other examples, affluent visitors to Budapest could choose to stay in a Hilton, a Forum, an Intercontinental, or a Hyatt Hotel. It should be remembered that Hungary is a small and resource-poor country, and its economy continues to suffer from a number of serious structural problems, including the heavy trade obligations imposed by membership in the eastern bloc. However, as a result of the NEM and subsequent reforms, the Hungarian economy has outperformed those of most other Soviet-bloc countries, at least in providing creature comforts for its own citizens.
Along with the economic changes have come significant political changes as well. Multicandidate elections, albeit still under the watchful eye of the ruling party, have become standard for all levels of government. Restrictions on foreign travel have been substantially eased, and restrictions on foreigners visiting Hungary—including former citizens who emigrated without official permission—have been greatly reduced. Rare instances of public dissent exceeding the limits of official tolerance have resulted in harassment, punishment, or exile for the dissidents, whose numbers are very small, but on the other hand, the government has encouraged a modest degree of critical reporting by the press and an ever-expanding latitude for cultural intellectuals. In turn, intellectuals have by and large learned the limits of self-expression and, while sometimes courageously pushing against them, more commonly accept the boundaries and work within them. The result has been a lively activity within the cultural community, with literature and film profiting especially from the relaxed political environment.
The effects of this long and rocky national history can be seen in several qualities of the contemporary Hungarian cinema. In the first place, one notices a marked preference for tragedy and a weak cornedic tradition—true of Hungarian literature and drama as well. Humor is not absent in the films of Szabó and Gaál, for example, but it is a subtle humor that punctuates an overriding seriousness. Of today’s major directors, only Péter Bacsó works consistently in comedy; his films—such as The Witness (A tanú, 1969, 1978), Oh, Bloody Life! (Te rongyos élet!, 1983), and Banana Skin Waltz (Banánhejkeringő, 1986)—present broad, slapstick plots overlying serious messages about political and social ills. They are very popular among Hungarian audiences who are starved for laughs, but they hardly represent a high level of comedy. Besides Bacsó, Károly Makk sometimes directs comedies, but with a humor that is sly and sophisticated, as in A Very Moral Night (Egy erkölcsös éjszaka, 1977) and the American co-production Lily in Love (1984).
Hungarian cinema appears to be changing gradually in this respect. Younger directors have developed individual comedic styles, though their comedy nearly always overlies or cuts through stories of an essentially serious or even tragic nature. Examples are Péter Gothár’s Time (Idő van,1985), Péter Gárdos’s Whooping Cough (Szamárköhögés, 1986), and András Jeles’s The Workers’ Dream Brigade (Álombrigád, not released).
The fact that even comedy tends to deliver a message emphasizes another quality of the Hungarian cinema: among filmmakers and critics alike, it is taken for granted that the cinema has a serious social and moral role to play. And its function has been radically transformed since the fifties, when filmmakers were required to paint pictures confirming the regime’s view of reality. Today one finds propaganda films made, appropriately enough, by the State Propaganda Film Studio—but not by MAFILM, the feature film studio, or any of its four major production units. MAFILM’s artists understand their social function to be that of critics, not sycophants, and within the rules of the prevailing censorship policies, they endeavor to play this role.8
Also running through the Hungarian cinema is a preoccupation with history. Historical themes are especially strong in the oeuvres of the veteran directors Jancsó, Szabó, and Fábri, but they also show up in some younger filmmakers’ works. Examples are Mária’s Day (Mária nap, 1983), directed by Judit Elek and set in the eighteen seventies; Ferenc Grünwalsky’s To See the Light (Eszmélés, 1985), set in the eighteen nineties; and A Fond Farewell to the Prince (Érzékeny búcsú a fejedelemtől, 1986), a seventeenth-century period piece with contemporary implications, directed by László Vitézy. Hungarians, like other inhabitants of Central Europe, are very history-conscious, looking to the complicated past for clues about their complicated present-day identity—their sense of “Hungarity”—and in this question of past and present identity many filmmakers find a compelling source of subject matter.9
In Hungary, as elsewhere in Europe, it is assumed that a film is primarily the product of its director. This is not to deny the input of screenwriters, cinematographers, actors, editors, and other obviously vital members of production teams; but the director, who typically develops the scenario for a screenplay, participates in or at least oversees its writing, seeks permission from studio officials to proceed with production, decides upon casting, directs the shooting, and supervises the editing, inevitably stamps a film with his or her mark.
This was not always so. Historically, the Hungarian cinema was strongly influenced by classical literature and drama; correspondingly, motion pictures were considered to be either for entertainment only or for the interpretation of works whose main value derived from another art form. Though both modern and classical literary works are frequently plumbed for cinematic subjects today, the autonomy of the motion picture as an art form is not questioned; adaptations from other media are crafted to suit the aesthetics of the cinema, and original screenplays are presumed to be of equal artistic potential. The director’s preeminence as cinematic artist is well established.
Four names stand out among the seventy or so directors employed at any given time by MAFILM: Jancsó, Szabó, Makk, and Mészáros. In the sixties and seventies, the name of István Gaál (b. 1933) would have been on this list. Gaál’s earlier films were much acclaimed internationally; for example, The Falcons (Magasiskola, 1970) won awards in Cannes, Chicago, and Adelaide, and Dead Landscape (Holt vidék, 1971) captured prizes in Karlovy Vary and Milan. Since then, however, Gaál has received no major awards, and from 1972 to 1984 he completed only two theatrical features: Legato (1977), a complex story about a young man’s probe into the wartime record of his father—a theme reminiscent of István Szabó’s celebrated Father (Apa, 1966), and Potsherds, also known as Buffer Zone (Cserepek, 1980), a kind of Hungarian midlife crisis story. During this time Gaál also directed two documentaries and three television plays.
Gaál’s films have a characteristic look, visually strong and painterly. The rhythms of his narrative tend to be unconventional, sometimes purposely invoking musical forms; Gaál has said that Baptism (Keresztelő,1968), for example, is structured like a sonata.10 Like Jancsó, he skillfully captures the flavor of rural Hungarian landscapes, but, unlike Jancsó, Gaál has often sought to contrast the lifestyles indigenous to those settings, stark, brutal, and yet beautiful, with those of urban life.11
In 1985, Gaál completed a six-year project, marrying his powerful visual style to his longtime interest in music. The result was a competent film version of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Eurydice (Orféusz és Euridike) in which choreographed motion parallels the rhythms of the music throughout.
Another filmmaker whose name deserves to be mentioned here is Zoltán Fábri. The oldest director working in recent years (b. 1917), Fábri displays a special feeling for rural life, where he finds the core of his nation’s qualities, good and bad. Fábri’s directing career began during the Rákosi years, but his second and third features, Fourteen Lives in Danger (1954) and Merry-Go-Round (Körhinta, 1955), were landmarks in the Hungarian cinema’s break with Stalinist aesthetics.12 More than two decades later, Fábri’s Hungarians (1977) and Bálint Fábian Meets God (Fabian Bálint találkozása istennél, 1980) explored not only “Hungarity,” which the two films treated with marvelous insight, but broader humanistic questions of community, conflict, and morality as well.
It was the work of Miklós Jancsó (b. 1921), more than that of anyone else, that brought the Hungarian cinema to the world’s attention during the sixties. The Round-up (1965), Jancsó’s fourth feature, won the FIPRESCI award at the Locarno Festival in 1966 and was named best foreign-language film by the British Film Critics Association in 1967. More international honors followed: in Paris and Adelaide for The Red and the White (Csillagosok, katonák, 1967); in Avellino for Silence and Cry (Csend és kiáltás, 1968) and Adelaide for Confrontation (also 1968); in Atlanta for Winter Wind (Sirokkó, 1969); and in Milan, Santiago de Chile, Paris, and Cannes (best director) for Red Psalm (Még kér a nép, 1971).
These films, together with Agnus Dei (Égi bárány, 1970), firmly established Jancsó’s revolutionary style. Jancsó has named as his “masters” Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Andrzej Wajda.13 From Bergman and Wajda he drew ideas about symbolism and iconography, though Jancsó’s images are very much his own: a wandering violinist playing amid scenes of human brutality in Agnus Dei, a rose blossoming from the bleeding hand of a naked girl in Red Psalm. From Godard he learned much about narrative experimentation and the value of distancing audiences in the interest of dialecticism, but instead of Godardian narrative disjuncture Jancsó developed an approach based on the long take characteristic of Antonioni. In Jancsó’s hands, a take often lasts five or six minutes, and in the cases of Winter Wind and Elektreia (Szerelmem, Elektra, 1974), each entire film consists of only twelve takes. Within one Jancsó take, peasants and soldiers might dance together around a maypole until, heeding the trumpet’s call to battle, the soldiers regroup into a larger circle around the peasants and slaughter them (Red Psalm); or the face of a young woman, in closeup, might give way to a long shot of militant students blocking the passage of an army jeep on a river bank, after which the apparent conflict fades as students and soldiers playfully join in some high-spirited dunking (Confrontation).14 The camera may be still, though more commonly it tracks and pans; it may zoom several times from close-up to extreme long shot. Realistic episodes may alternate with stagy, ballet-like sequences. Motion is choreographed, acting stylized, dialogue ritualistic. The overall effect, clearly Brechtian, allows a scene to play itself out without drawing the viewer into it, thereby allowing him a space in which to reflect on what he sees.
In his early features Jancsó often drew from Hungarian history, whether recent or more distant: The Round-up from the time just after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, Red Psalm from the eighteen nineties, Silence and Cry and Agnus Dei from the violent years after World War I, My Way Home from the last days of World War II, Winter Wind from the thirties, Confrontation from the first days of the Communist revolution. In a sense, the time settings are interchangeable; The Round-up is a comment on Nazi concentration camps or Rákosi-era political persecutions as much as on those of the Habsburg Empire, and Red Psalm is as much an allegory about Hungary’s timeless geopolitical dilemma as a story of a peasant revolt in the last century.
During the seventies, Jancsó’s career changed. He directed four films in Italy—The Pacifist (La Pacifista, 1970), Technique and Rite (La tecnica ed il rito, 1971), Rome Wants Another Caesar (Roma rivuole Cesare, 1973), and Private Vices, Public Virtues (Vizi privati pubbliche virtu, 1976)—and, between 1971 and 1977, only one MAFILM production (Elektreia). His international prizes dwindled to only one, a Silver Plaque at the 1975 Chicago Festival for Elektreia. Moreover, Jancsó’s new work came under much criticism, both in Hungary and abroad. It was said that he had exhausted his artistic and intellectual originality, and that his films had become redundant; his depiction of nudity had led to increasing eroticism and even to pornography (this was said, in particular, of Private Vices . . . , a story about a prince who is enamored of revolutionary ideals but lost in a private world of kinky self-indulgence). On the other hand, those who defended Jancsó argued that, far from being caught in a muddle of stagnant ideas, Jancsó continued to build in more subtle ways upon his earlier aesthetics while expressing further his insistent concerns with questions of power, oppression, and the morality of revolution.15
In 1978, Jancsó finished Hungarian Rhapsody (Magyar rapszódia) and Allegro Barbaro, two controversial works originally intended to be part of a trilogy that he has never completed. Hungarian Rhapsody focuses on an idealistic young nobleman, István, caught in the political turmoil and moral confusion of the twenties; Allegro Barbaro continues the story about the same character during the Nazi occupation. They are beautiful films filled with mysterious, challenging images: a ceremonial cortege bearing the coffin of the nobleman’s young lover, a floating funeral pyre; a ritual undressing of István’s peasant bride, a marriage bed out in the open. As a new technique, Jancsó added the passing of time into his typical long takes so that a camera pan from one element in a scene to another signifies a time jump of indeterminate length.
In some circles, these two films were well received; Jancsó was given an award at Cannes in 1979 for lifetime achievement, the films picked up the audience’s prize in Barcelona the same year, and Jancsó’s cinematographer, János Kende, won the award for camera work at the 1981 Cartagena Festival. Elsewhere, however, Jancsó was again criticized for redundancy and meaningless formalism and, when his next feature, the Hungarian-Italian coproduction The Tyrant’s Heart (A zsarnok szíve,1981) was released, it also met with mixed reviews.16
So, too, have Jancsó’s most recent works been greeted. In 1984 he filmed a rock concert (Omega, Omega), and critics wondered why. In 1985 he completed a French production, The Dawn (L’Aube), based on a book by Elie Wiesel; this film has been praised for its disciplined interior camera work and condemned as boring. His latest film, Season of Monsters (Szörnyek évadja, 1987), has drawn the usual charges.
It cannot be said, however, that Season of Monsters contains nothing new. The setting is contemporary and the opening scenes take place mostly within compact urban interiors: a hotel room, corridors, elevators, the inside of a speeding Volkswagen. There are two “stories,” or, rather, story fragments: the first, told in a language near to realism, concerns Zoltai, an émigré professor who has returned home to Hungary to commit suicide, and his former classmate, Bardócz, called as a physician to the scene of the suicide. The second story, by far the longer and more complex, focuses on a weird birthday celebration which Bardócz attends. The setting shifts to an isolated rural location more typical for Jancsó, and the film language becomes nonrealistic, frequently surreal. The theme is no longer suicide, but rather the conflict between elitism and egalitarianism (as personified, respectively, by Bardócz and a new character, Komondi). The first story has not been entirely forgotten, for the image of Professor Zoltai, in an interview just before his death, intrudes upon the birthday celebration by appearing on a video monitor. Outside, monsters have been reported in the lake. The action is filled with such things as multiple fireballs, murders that do or do not take place, and resurrections. A police helicopter appears and causes nothing but chaos. At the end, a verse from Genesis is quoted with deep irony: “And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” Season of Monsters presents a complicated, puzzling vision of impending doom depicted in Jancsó’s unique cinematic language.
Such language has always been too esoteric for many audiences, and it may no longer have the freshness it possessed in the sixties. But it is unjust to accuse Jancsó of having lost his creative spark. In each new film he shows us something more, he continues to develop his style. It is a consistent, recognizable style which marks a film as uniquely and unmistakably “Jancsó.” If he has failed to follow his revolutionary achievement of the sixties with further breakthroughs, he should be entitled to our forgiveness. After all, Jancsó’s contribution to cinema is one that very few filmmakers can hope to equal.
In the seventies and eighties, István Szabó (b. 1938) came to be widely regarded as Hungary’s foremost film director. Szabó’s prodigious talent was apparent from the beginning of his career; even before The Age of Daydreaming (1964), three of his short films had won prizes, and The Age of Daydreaming, completed when Szabó was twenty-six years old, captured the award at Locarno in 1965 for best first feature. Since then, almost every time István Szabó has directed a film, it has won one or more awards in major international competitions, at the festivals in Cannes, Locarno, Moscow, and elsewhere. His greatest success to date has been Mephisto (1981), a Hungarian-West German coproduction which picked up two prizes in Hungary and seven abroad, including the American Academy Award (Oscar) for best foreign-language film and the prize at Cannes for best screenplay. Not a prolific filmmaker, Szabó chooses his projects with deliberation and prepares them meticulously.
Over the years, both his style and his stories have shown a clear, consistent progression.17 Szabó’s early works were strongly influenced by the French new wave. The Age of Daydreaming pays homage to François Truffaut in its explicit mimicking of Truffaut scenes, especially from Jules and Jim, and its gentle-painful story of characters from the filmmaker’s own generation: Daydreaming is about young idealists who fall victim to the human failings of their elders. By the time of his third feature, Love Film (Szerelmes film, 1970), Szabó’s style had come to resemble that of Alain Resnais as he interwove pieces of reality, memory, and fantasy, but in this work as well as in his second film, Father, Szabó proved that he can learn from others while still displaying his own originality.
These first three films tell very personal stories about young people maturing, struggling for self-identity, falling in love, and resolving the discrepancies between truth and fantasy. The stories are told with wit, but they are colored by the intractability of larger, impersonal forces which limit the scope of human efficacy. In Father the hero is a fatherless boy who grows up amid the postwar chaos of revolution and social turmoil. In Love Film, a young man whose childhood sweetheart has left Hungary travels to the West to see her, experiencing the passion of memories and the reality of permanent separation.
From this early phase of Szabó’s filmmaking, Father is the most acclaimed work and Love Film the most underrated. Thematically, Father is an ambitious film; the boy Takó represents an entire generation of Central Europeans emerging, still children, from World War II. Growing up without a father and substituting fantasies for a real sense of identity becomes a metaphor for the experience of entire nations struggling through a time of insecurity. Love Film, in contrast, presents a specifically Hungarian story but tells it with a deeper attempt at probing the mysteries of human memory. Jancsi and Kata, the young lovers, have been separated by Kata’s decision to emigrate during the national tragedy of 1956; in real life, thousands of Hungarian families were torn apart by such decisions.18 Love Film shows us the images of Jancsi’s mind—scenes of him and Kata sledding, hiding in a bomb shelter together, being reunited on a train platform in France; scenes of people he had known and events he had heard about—without distinguishing clearly between past and future or between “real” happenings and flights of fantasy. Szabó has edited the cuts between reality and memory/anticipation with exquisite delicacy, producing a narrative flow that is lovely in its complexity and yet not difficult for audiences to grasp.
In these first three films, Szabó developed a visual technique that moved the stories from the personal to the universal level. An example is a scene from Father in which the grown-up Takó resolves to swim across the wide Danube—something his father had never done; he swims hard, and just when we know he’s going to make it, the camera tilts upward from the lone figure of Takó and the focus widens to show a river filled with swimmers. Szabó employs an analogous technique in the final scene of Love Film: back in Budapest, Jancsi sends a telegram to Kata and the camera pans across the post office to show other Hungarians also sending messages to loved ones abroad.
Szabó’s next several projects led him into still more experimental narrative styles focusing on collective protagonists. In the segment “A Dream About a House,” from a series of short films collectively titled Budapest, Why I Love It (Budapest, amiért szeretem, 1971), an impersonal camera captures the human events that have taken place over the lifespan of an old apartment building, showing them elliptically and in a jumbled time sequence.19 In 25 Fireman’s Street (Tüzoltó utca 25, 1973), the camera assumes the viewpoint of the characters themselves, a small community of people who have lived in a building now undergoing demolition. Their memories pour onto the screen, and the narrative takes bewildering leaps in time and space as it recreates numerous overlapping stories about the Second World War, the occupation, the deportations, and the postwar changes. In Budapest Tales (Budapesti mesék, 1976), the community is made up of individuals who emerge, one by one and two by two, in the aftermath of an unidentified holocaust and take refuge together in an abandoned trolley car. As they push the car across an isolated landscape on tracks which they believe must lead to civilization, they play out characteristic human games of organization, power, and cruelty.20
Budapest Tales is a transitional film for Szabó. Its community point of view and the abstract quality of the story fit logically into the pattern of his work after Love Film. At the same time, there is in Budapest Tales a return partway to straight-line narrative, foretelling the greater narrative conventionality that would make Szabó’s next three films successful with mass audiences abroad.
In Confidence (Bizalom, 1979), a man and a woman, strangers to each other, hide out together in a room amid the fierce combat raging in Budapest during the autumn of 1944. Wanted by the authorities because of their connections with the Resistance, they have been given refuge by sympathizers. They take assumed names, pretending to be husband and wife, entering a situation as unsettling as the hostile environment outside. Never knowing if they can trust each other, they nevertheless fall in love, only to realize the insecurity and transiency of their situation.
Confined to one room for almost the entire film, the setting has a stagelike ambience. Close camera work and exquisite subtlety in the acting performances by Ildikó Bánsági and Péter Andorai give the minimal plot an unexpected emotional charge. When Liberation Day arrives, the two protagonists suddenly confront the moment they have long awaited and yet come to dread—their reemergence from the womblike shelter to a world whose contours are now unfamiliar.
Identity and security, the twin themes running through Confidence, receive an even more powerful treatment in Mephisto (1981) and Colonel Redl (Oberst Redl, 1984). In Mephisto, the actor Hendrik Hófgen desperately seeks security through public acceptance and acclaim, but he discovers that the only way to achieve it in the increasingly vicious environment of Nazi Germany is to sell his soul, Faust-like, to the forces of evil. In Colonel Redl, a poor boy from a marginal ethnic background (Ruthene) seeks security and power in the upper ranks of the Austro-Hungarian Army—and discovers that he cannot forever escape the sentence imposed on him by his true identity.
In both films the central conflict, to use Szabó’s own words, is the “clash between the soul of the protagonist and the realities of politics.”21 Mephisto’s Höfgen wants only to perform, to direct, to give the public art—and to be acclaimed as an artist; politics interest him only insofar as it provides a context for his art, and so he moves without compunction from the left-wing cabarets where his career begins to the directorship of the State Theater under Nazi rule. There he discovers that he cannot achieve the glory he so fiercely desires without subordinating his art to the policies of the state. Colonel Redl finds similar disillusionment. He has risen through the ranks of the army believing that loyalty to the emperor is the only politics required for success, but he discovers among the elites of the dying monarchy a maze of intrigue through which he cannot find his way.
Szabó’s narrative style in Mephisto and Colonel Redl has a more conventional look compared to his earlier films, but his imagery is no less complex. Numerous visual metaphors enrich the narrative. In Colonel Redl, a scene at the site of Roman ruins foretells the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the final scene of Mephisto, as another example, Höfgen is blinded by bright lights: an allusion to the blinding of Faust at the end of Goethe’s play, as well as to Höfgen’s own moral blindness. Masks are another metaphor, occurring in both films. Actor Höfgen plays his greatest stage role as Mephistopheles in whiteface, a mask that haunts and dominates Mephisto’s imagery. Masks appear in Colonel Redl, too, at a New Year’s ball that foreshadows Redl’s downfall. In their lives, the protagonists mask themselves. Höfgen, masked as the servant of art, effectually serves the state. Redl, masked as a member of the ruling aristocracy with all its manners and morals, is in fact just a poor naïf with an even more perilous secret—he is a homosexual. His ultimate unmasking puts an end not only to his ambitions but also to his reason for living.
Throughout his career, István Szabó has been obsessed by history: history as understood in a Central European way—history as an intruder in human affairs, a destroyer of families, a brutish and impersonal antagonist locked in combat with the individual. It is this history that weaves its way relentlessly through Szabó’s films. History treats his characters unkindly, whether they deserve it or not. But still they struggle for the security of self-identity, what Szabó considers “one of the great problems of the twentieth century.”22 The portrayal of that struggle gives Szabó’s films a deep humanistic quality and marks him as one of Europe’s most important contemporary film directors.
In contrast to the measured consistency of Szabó and the perennial controversy of Jancsó, the long career of Károly Makk (b. 1925) has been characterized by peaks and valleys. In fact, it can fairly be said that Makk’s international reputation has been earned by two films: Love (Szerelem, 1970) and Another Way (Egymásra nézve, 1982).
Makk was active in filmmaking as early as 1944 and assisted Géza Radványi on the set of Somewhere in Europe (1947), but he had to wait for his own first feature until 1954 (Liliomfi). Liliomfi was popular in Hungary, and The Fanatics (1961) was notable for its political statement, but it was not until the appearance of Love that Makk’s exquisite talent became clearly recognizable.
Love, adapted from two short stories by the important contemporary writer Tibor Déry, centers on an aged woman who is slowly dying and her vivacious daughter-in-law, Luca. It is set in the Budapest of 1953. Missing from the first scenes is János, the old woman’s son and Luca’s husband. Gradually it is revealed, through indirect dialogue and flash frames of a prison cell, that János is a victim of the Rákosi-era purges, but Luca valiantly attempts to humor her mother-in-law by making up stories to explain János’s long absence. In the end, János is released without explanation and comes home to a bittersweet reunion with his wife: a small basket containing the old woman’s eyeglasses and a few of her favorite possessions tells him that his mother has died.
The film displays Makk’s craftmanship at telling a story of great emotional power with the restraint necessary, at the time, for treating the political realities with honesty and clarity. Luca, married to an “enemy of the people,” loses her friends, her job as a schoolteacher, and most of her apartment—all revealed through scenes that are direct and ugly, but understated. The realism with which Luca’s world is depicted stands in contrast to the soft tones of the room where her bedridden mother-in-law spends her last days and nights, surrounded by outdated furnishings and the knickknacks of a bygone day. The old woman “sees” flash frames of yesteryear, gallant men on horseback and ladies with parasols photographed with the slight distortion of a wide-angle lens, whereas Luca sees crisp images of her own era with its crumbling plaster and shortages of food. Filmed in black and white, the contrasts are very effective. There is humor in the depiction of the old woman and in Luca’s sometimes playful, sometimes exasperated interaction with her, but the film never descends to ridicule. It is one of the film’s outstanding achievements that we see in the old woman’s increasing senility a profound dignity.
Superb acting performances by Mari Törőcsik, as Luca, and Lili Darvas, the widow of playwright Ferenc Molnár, combine with Makk’s directing to make Love one of the most delicately beautiful films ever made. Not only is it remarkable for its tender view of the old woman and her faithful daughter-in-law, but by opening up the subject of the purges it picked at one of the most painful sores in Hungarian history.
Makk’s next cinematic peak was equally notable, but it did not occur for another twelve years. In between, Makk directed a creditable but not outstanding screen version of Isztván Örkény’s well-known theater piece, Catsplay (Macskajáték, 1974); a soft-edged comedy, A Very Moral Night (1977), about a medical student who lives as a boarder in a turn-of-the-century house of prostitution; and Two Stories from the Recent Past (Két történet a félmúltból, 1979), which passed almost unnoticed. But in Another Way, the world was once again shown the power of Makk’s talent as well as his willingness to take on sensitive political topics.
In Another Way, he in fact took on two hot topics, censorship and lesbianism, and, to make matters still more delicate, worked with a story set in 1958, when the messy political business of the 1956 revolt was still being cleaned up. The heroine, Éva, is a gifted journalist recently readmitted to the staff of a weekly called Igazsag (“Truth”) after having been disciplined for unspecified political indiscretions. On the job, she develops an obsessive attraction for a fellow reporter, Lívia, whose resistance is slowly broken down by the persistent Éva. The two roles are powerfully played by Polish actresses Jadwiga Jankowska-Ciesłak (as Éva) and Graeyna Szapołowska (as Lívia).
On assignment in the countryside, Éva uncovers a story about a cooperative-farm chairman who is alleged to be a successful recruiter but turns out to have achieved his “success” by coercing peasants to join. Éva’s editor judges her story too hot to publish as it is and assumes the task of editing it himself. A series of intense and realistic scenes reveals the workings of censorship, the delicate position of the editor, and the power of the publisher. Éva is fired (she has already resigned). The story ends tragically, with Lívia in the hospital recuperating from a serious gunshot wound inflicted by her outraged husband and Éva killed while attempting to cross the border.
Makk’s visual style again alternates between the realistic and the lyrical. Tender scenes between Éva and Lívia are bathed in warm colors, and the mood is one of a gentle eroticism. Their love begins to blossom not in the springtime, but in the winter: an ironic omen. In keeping with the central theme of truth—truth about Éva and Lívia’s feelings toward each other, truth about the reality which Éva as a journalist so fervently wishes to report—Makk’s image system contains numerous indexes to seeing, such as mirrors, window panes, a reflection in a pool of water or on a shiny table top; scenes revealing Éva’s lesbianism are viewed through curtains or obliquely around a bend, and vulnerability is revealed in the open (as, for example, a scene in which Éva and Lívia are caught by police while necking on a park bench). As Éva approaches the border, knowing that she will be shot, an owl spies on her.
At first glance the issues of lesbianism and censorship may strike one as unlikely twins, but a brilliant idea links them in this story. For Éva, sexual and political nonconformity are of one piece. Since she cannot accept the Party line on matters of sexual preference—the Party line being roughly as judgmental about homosexuality as typical American mores at the time—she can equally well reject the Party’s line on journalistic standards. Falsehood is her enemy.
At the Cannes Festival in 1982, Another Way earned the FIPRESCI critics’ award and Jadwiga Jankowska-Ciesłak won the jury’s prize for best actress. The film has been screened at several festivals in the United States, but it has not been well appreciated here and is not, at the time of this writing, in American distribution.
It is true that some of Makk’s films are lightweight; A Very Moral Night and Lily in Love (1984), an English-language American coproduction starring Christopher Plummer and Maggie Smith as an aging show business couple, are representative examples. But Károly Makk’s films, at least those of the seventies and eighties, always show the elegant touch of a mature director in control of his art. At their best, Makk’s films are brilliant as they probe sensitive, emotionally charged issues. And though his best stories are set in the past, their lessons relate unmistakably to current political problems. Love reminded Hungarians in 1970-71 that the victims of Stalinism carry their pain with them. Another Way’s message, about nonconformity, tolerance, and truth, bears obvious relevance to the mid-eighties, when smug attitudes about the relative permissiveness of Hungarian society masked a continuing official starchiness about certain issues. Éva’s editor, who argues the need for compromise in order to protect the limited gains of his day (compared to the stringencies of Stalinism), speaks for editors, publishers, and producers in the eighties.
Márta Mészáros’s work is almost as controversial as Miklós Jancsó’s. With the exception of her newest pictures—the Diary sequence (see below)—her films have commanded much more favorable attention abroad than in Hungary. “All my previous work has been hated and despised,” she has said, referring to her standing in Hungary,23 whereas she has received awards for Adoption (Örökbefogadás, 1975) at the Berlin and Chicago festivals, for Nine Months at Cannes and Teheran, for Just Like at Home (Olyan mint otthon, 1978) at San Sebastian, and for Diary for My Children (Napló gyermekeimnek, 1982, 1984) at Cannes, Munich, and Chicago. Only Diary has won awards in Hungary.
Prior to the eighties, Mészáros’s films told stories about women in search of fulfillment and individuality in a society that denies them the totality that they seek. In The Girl, the search is complicated by the conflict between peasant traditions and urban lifestyles. In Nine Months, the heroine is isolated by generalized societal prejudices and the intolerance of her man. In Women (Ők ketten, 1977),24 a young woman and a middle-aged woman, both unable to solve their marital problems, form a deep friendship despite their different social backgrounds.
Mészáros’s films insist that motherhood is an important part of the feminine identity, and conflicts between the role of mother and the drive for individuality are strongly played out. She has sometimes drawn criticism, however, for making stereotyped “heavies” out of the men in her stories, particularly in Nine Months and Women.
Between Women and the first Diary Mészáros directed three coproductions, none of which attracted much attention: On the Move (Útközben, 1979), a Hungarian-Polish collaboration, and two Hungarian-French productions, The Heiresses (Örökség / Les héritières, 1980), and Anna, also known as Mother and Daughter (Une mère, une fille . . . , 1981).
And then she embarked upon what would be her grandest, and most personal, project, the Diary sequence. By the time of this writing, two films have been completed: Diary for My Children and Diary for My Loves (Napló szerelmeimnek, 1987). Originally, director Mészáros had envisioned a trilogy, but her most recent plans—again, as of this writing-anticipate at least four installments of the story, each a full-length movie.
The heroine of Diary is Juli Kovács, a semifictionalized alter ego of Mészáros (b. 1931) herself, the daughter of a sculptor who fled Horthy’s Hungary with wife and daughter to the Soviet Union, where he disappeared in Stalin’s purge of the intellectuals during 1938. These story elements are told in flashback, as Diary for My Children begins with Juli’s return to Hungary as a teenager in 1946. Her mother has died in Russia, too, so Juli takes up residence in Budapest with a family friend, Magda, who is an officer in the state security police. Hungary is drifting into Stalinism, and Magda is one of the chosen.
Living with Magda, Juli quickly recognizes the sinister political atmosphere descending over Hungary and watches as Magda increasingly personifies the hypocrisies of a new ruling caste. Juli becomes infatuated wth János, a friend of Magda’s who reminds Juli of her lost father; when János falls victim to Hungary’s political terror and Magda refuses to help, Juli packs her bags and breaks with Magda.
In the second installment of the story, Diary for My Loves, Juli is living on her own but cannot get away from Magda completely. Despite their ongoing conflict, Juli accepts Magda’s help and receives a state scholarship to study in Moscow. There she enters the film academy and studies directing, following a movie obsession she had developed in the first installment of Diary. While in Moscow, she makes an effort to find her father and learns that he has died.
Diary for My Loves takes place between 1953 and 1956, and in the relaxed political atmosphere Juli aspires to make truthful documentaries about her country. So she returns to Hungary to begin her career. In the studios, however, censorship is still tight. Through János, who has been released from prison, she meets people who are working for positive change. Filled with optimism, Juli makes a return trip to Moscow to receive her diploma. Once there, she learns that fighting has broken out in Hungary. The border is closed, and she cannot return home.
In its explicit treatment of political realities, Diary broke much new cinematic ground. Like her heroine, Director Mészáros set out to tell the truth about the times. Thus we are not spared the explicit information that Juli’s father perished unjustly in the Soviet Union; that those who championed an egalitarian society of and for the workers were quick to assume the lifestyle of the bourgeoisie whom they had displaced; and that life for political prisoners was inhumanly brutal (seen in the second Diary as János emerges from incarceration with permanent internal injuries). In the second Diary there is some footage from a newsreel showing Imre Nagy speaking in parliament—the first such cinematic reference to the executed leader of 1956.25
Both films show Mészáros’s characteristic preference for realism, spiced with many carefully chosen images captured by cinematographer Miklós Jancsó, Jr.: a sparkling chandelier in Magda’s apartment indexes her position of social privilege; the abundant red banners display the political ebullience of the time while olive drab uniforms on the members of the Communist Youth League bear witness to the militarized atmosphere of everyday life.
The first Diary is filmed in black and white, with the happier flashbacks of Juli’s childhood shot in a dream-like harsh light: one of the few deviations from strict realism. The second Diary is filmed primarily in color, with flashbacks in sepia tone and newsreel clips in the original black and white. In both films a deft, confident camera frames its scenes with care. Zsuzsa Czinkóczi, the young actress who plays the demanding role of Juli, does so adequately in the first Diary but lapses into an unsatisfying passivity in the second.26
In Diary for My Loves, Mészáros could not resist the opportunity to make a feminist comment, as Juli’s teachers in Moscow scoff at her desire to enter the men’s world of film directing. In most respects, however, the two Diaries mark a departure in Márta Mészáros’s career, combining a highly personal story about a girl who loves movies and a commentary on broader political questions. They follow by more than a decade the first Hungarian films that looked critically back at the Rákosi years, but they do so in a way that removes virtually all remaining traces of euphemism. Mészáros’s two projected sequels will carry the story through to approximately 1968.
One of the most popular directors is Péter Bacsó, most of whose films in recent years have been social and political comedies—a “genre” that, for Hungary, Bacsó invented. The Witness, completed in 1969 but withheld from distribution for political reasons until 1978, is an outrageous satire set during the Rákosi years. Its hero is a hapless bungler, but he has a friend in an official position who gets him “important” jobs (the directorship of a “people’s amusement park,” the managership of Hungary’s first-ever orange grove) that are far beyond his competency. The film teeters between humor and horror when the protagonist, compelled to give false testimony at a political trial, forgets his lines.
Bacsó tried to follow up the delayed success of The Witness, again poking fun at the foibles of the Stalinists in Oh, Bloody Life! (1983), about an operetta singer banished to the countryside because she was formerly married to a count. In What’s the Time, Mr. Clock? (Hány az óra, Vekker úr?, 1985), Bacsó filmed a tragicomic tale of a Jewish clockmaker in World War II whose ability to tell the time without a watch enables him to become a hero. Banana Skin Waltz (1987) is a contemporary story about a surgeon whose life is turned topsy-turvy by a chance encounter with a deranged naked woman.
Bacsó’s movies draw big crowds in Hungary, but few of them travel well; the Bacsó brand of comedy does not translate easily across cultural barriers. Some Hungarian critics deplore Bacsó’s attempts to find humor amid tragedy, arguing that there was nothing funny about Stalinism or the Second World War and that Bacsó’s satires trivialize history. Bacsó defends his work by arguing that his films do not poke fun at tragedy, they poke fun at those who hold power. One of the most important qualities about power, Bacsó says, is its humorlessness; accordingly, one of the most effective weapons with which to combat power is humor.27
Apart from the question of their appropriateness, one can justifiably ask whether Bacsó’s films are good satires, relying as they do on stereotype and hyperbole. The Witness was certainly a daring venture into uncharted territory, and, partly because of its shock value, it worked. The other films mentioned, however, can be faulted for exaggerated situations, forced humor, or awkward balancing between comic and tragic elements.28
Still, there is no question about Péter Bacsó’s importance. He remains well loved by his Hungarian fans, and his work has not gone unnoticed abroad; among other honors have been awards at Cannes (1981) for The Witness and Locarno for Present Indicative (Jelenidő, 1971), and the grand prize at Sanremo for The Last Chance (Harmadik nekifutás, 1973). It must also be mentioned that, as head of MAFILM’s “Objektiv” studio unit, Bacsó fought for the right to produce and distribute Károly Makk’s Love and succeeded—even while his own pathbreaking film, The Witness, languished on the censor’s shelf.
Many additional Hungarian directors would deserve mention on the basis of at least one quality film since the late seventies. Some of the names and titles familiar in the West are Pál Gábor, who wrote and directed the much-honored Angi Vera (1978); András Kovács, The Stud Farm (Ménesgazda, 1978); János Rózsa, Spider Football (Pókfoci, 1976) and Mascot (Kabala, 1981); Ferenc András, Rain and Shine (Veri az ördög a feleséget, 1977)29 and The Great Generation (A nagy generáció, 1986); Zsolt Kézdi-Kovács, When Joseph Returns (Ha megjőn József, 1975), The Nice Neighbor (A kedves szomszéd, 1979), and Forbidden Relations (Visszaesők, 1982); Imre Gyöngyössy and Barna Kabay, The Revolt of Job (Jób lázadása, 1983); György Szomjas, Light Physical Injuries (Könnyü testi sértés, 1983); Judit Elek, Mária’s Day (1983); Pál Erdőss, The Princess (1982); and Péter Gárdos, The Philadelphia Attraction (Uramisten,1984)30 and Whooping Cough (1986).
Two promising film directors who emerged during the seventies are, unfortunately, no longer living. They are Zoltán Huszárik (1931-1980) and Gábor Bódy (1946-1985). Huszárik’s Sinbad (Szindbád, 1970) has been widely praised for its visual beauty in the portrayal of an aging man who no longer lives the life of sensual pleasures he once did—but remembers it in poetic detail. In Csontváry (1980), Huszárik turned his visual flair to a portrait of Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka, an important fin de siècle painter.
Bódy burst upon the scene with American Fragment, also known as American Torso (Amerikai anzix, 1975). The grand prize winner at Mannheim in 1976, American Fragment is a psychological study of three Hungarian freedom fighters who find themselves fighting on the side of the Union in the American Civil War. Bódy shot the film in black and white and painstakingly edited it to make it appear like a complex series of sepia-toned period photographs somehow set in motion. He followed with Narcissus and Psyche (Nárcisz és Psyché, 1980), a resetting of the ancient myth in nineteenth-century Europe, and The Dog’s Night Song (1983), one of the most original European films of the eighties. The Dog’s Night Song tells the story of a fake priest (acted by Bódy himself) who suddenly appears in a Hungarian village and, by preaching a gospel of Christian love, sets himself apart from his community. The plot is full of twists and tangents, moving from the story of a strange friendship between the bogus priest and a suicidal, paraplegic Communist, to a soldier quarreling with his young wife, to a nonsense interview with a punk rock group called The Galloping Coroners (an actual group popular in Budapest at the time). It is an artsy film with radical color contrasts (blue scenes, red scenes) and experimental sound techniques in places, and the themes running through it boggle the intellect: human love and the lack of it in our time, punk nihilism as a response to moral chaos, the unfulfilled promises of an optimistic age (this message would appear to aim indiscriminately at both socialism and capitalism). The film’s title connects to a segment of dialogue between a small boy and a learned astronomer: “Why do dogs bay at the full moon?”—“I don’t know. Maybe they remember when the moon crashed and Atlantis sank . . . Or maybe they’re just expressing the misery of being a dog.”
Especially talented among the surviving members of Bódy’s generation are Péter Gothár (b. 1947), Gyula Gazdag (b. 1947), and András Jeles (b.1945). Gothár worked with Hungarian Television during the sixties before entering the Academy of Theater and Film Art in Budapest. His first feature, A Priceless Day (Ajándék ez a nap, 1979), won a Gold Lion at Venice, as well as the Hungarian Film Critics’ Prize for best direction. Gothár repeated this early success with Time Stands Still (Megáll az idő, 1981), capturing awards in Cannes, Chicago, New York, Brussels, and Tokyo. A Priceless Day tells a hard-hitting story about disintegrating family life and the nasty world of the black market housing business—two subjects the government had always treated with delicacy. Time Stands Still, sometimes superficially compared to George Lucas’s American Graffiti (USA, 1973), paints a dusky, agonizing picture of Hungarian teenagers circa 1963, their family life still affected by the loss of loved ones from the 1956 revolt even as they struggle to find their way through the normal trials of adolescence. Gothár’s third film, Time (Idő van, 1985), is a comic surrealist adventure that tells the story, as Gothár likes to describe it, of “a typical Hungarian family going on holiday.”31 The Hungarian title means “there is time,” in the sense of “there’s still time”—a reference to the mid-life anxiety of the protagonist, who despairs over not having accomplished anything in his thirty-five years. Western audiences find Time incomprehensible or puzzlingly amusing; Hungarian audiences find it uproarious, reading the subtext that is replete with references to Hungarian political obsessions, outrageous jokes about factory relations, and depictions of tragicomic family situations.
Time establishes Gothár as a director of versatility whose style has shown a remarkable pattern of development. His first film, A Priceless Day, is told mostly in the realist vein, though Gothár tinted some of his scenes with harsh color. In Time Stands Still, Gothár and his cinematographer, Lajos Koltai, created a pervading impressionistic aura, dark and somber, enveloping the young protagonists, who can only seek relief by grasping at the sympathetic music of American heart-throb, Paul Anka. One of numerous unforgettable images from this film is that of dancers in ducktail and bouffant hair-dos, their faces contorted with adolescent yearnings, crooning along with Anka’s “You Are My Destiny,” played by a phonograph in a murky makeshift ballroom.
The prolific Gyula Gazdag is not yet well known in the West, but he has been directing films since his documentary, The Long Distance Runner (Hosszú futásodra mindig számíthatunk, 1968), completed when Gazdag was twenty-one. His first feature film came three years later, Whistling Cobblestone (Sipoló macskakő, 1971), a remembrance of political disillusionment among kids at a summer camp—a story startling for its time. Gazdag moves freely from documentaries to features, and in both forms he shows much courage and originality. His Package Tour (Tarsasutazás,1984) is a documentary about a return visit by survivors of Auschwitz to the death camp forty years later. Gazdag and his cinematographer, Elemér Ragályi, trained their disciplined camera on the members and organizers of the tour from a neutral stance, allowing the event to unfold without narrative comment, revealing the tour organizers as insensitive and poorly organized while the returnees, slowly at first and impassively, then with increasing emotion, recall their experiences at that horrible place. Gazdag’s most recent film is Hungarian Fairy Tale (Hoi volt, hol nem volt, 1987), a fable about an orphaned boy who, upon the death of his mother, sets out on a fantasy-like adventure in search of the man whose name was arbitrarily entered on his birth record as his father. Filmed in black and white, the story is told in a highly original style; keyed to the music of “The Magic Flute,” the lyrical tones of the beginning evolve almost imperceptibly into the fantastical scenes toward the end, when the boy and two eccentric grown-ups he has met fly off on a large metal eagle. The fairy-tale tone masks ambitious intentions. The movie raises questions about love and family and the social welfare bureaucracy; it seems to suggest, in a clever but ultimately unsatisfying way, that the only escape from the absurdity of the case worker syndrome is through fantasy. Still, Gazdag’s talent shows throughout this film, and he is a director whose work deserves more international attention.32
Even less known outside Hungary is András Jeles. As of this writing, Jeles had completed only two films, The Little Valentino (A kis Valentino, 1978) and Annunciation (Angyali üdvözlet, 1984). The first of these tells a story about one day in the life of a twenty-year-old drifter, told in the language of an absurd realism. Annunciation, equally simple in form, is Jeles’s adaptation of a nineteenth-century work, Imre Madách’s The Tragedy of Man (Az ember tragédiája). Madách’s dramatic poem is a sweeping epic about the tragic follies of mankind; Jeles’s adaptation loosely follows the original. The story begins with the fall of Adam and Eve, after which Lucifer guides Adam through a dream in which he plays changing roles: as Miltiades, the Athenian general unjustly condemned to death by a mistaken public; as a crusader in Byzantium witnessing a conflict between Christian sects which sends thousands to the stake; as Kepler in service to the petty and eccentric emperor Rudolf; as Danton amid the Reign of Terror; and so on. Coming out of the dream, Adam despairs about the future of his species, but just as he is about to commit suicide, Eve tells him she is pregnant and he decides to live. Despite the complexity of the story and the difficulties of adapting it to the screen, Jeles opted for a simple, stage-like approach and, in a stunning choice, cast the acting entirely with eight- to twelve-year-old children. The result is a remarkable, unique piece of cinema which has unfortunately not been released outside Hungary.
Jeles’s third film, The Workers’ Dream Brigade, will be discussed below.
Hungarian filmmakers cover a wide variety of subjects, but as one surveys their work, two themes recur with noticeable consistency. The first is that quality that we have referred to as “Hungarity,” the nature of the Hungarian experience and the community identity. The theme raises questions that draw filmmakers into historical reflection, examining the myths of both the distant past and the more recent past. The second broad theme has to do with the quality of contemporary life. Subsumed under this theme are a wealth of specific issues—family life, the role of women, the realities of workers, morality, and others.
Somewhere in Europe, the title of Radványi’s 1947 film, tells us that “Hungarity” has long been on the minds of filmmakers. The Hungary of Miklós Jancsó is a place drenched in history; its people dance in a timeless ballet enacting and reenacting a story of romantic delusions and unequal conflicts. In contrast, the Hungary of István Szabó’s early films is a community that appears to have the capacity, singly and together, to find its identity; in Szabó’s later films, however, the quest for identity frustrates his characters, who are ultimately swallowed by forces beyond their comprehension.
In Mária’s Day (1983), written and directed by Judit Elek, the Hungarian condition is one of betrayed ideals; Elek’s aristocrats, in-laws of the great poet Sándor Petőfi who was martyred in the 1849 uprising, sit around and mourn their country’s subsequent compromise with the Austrians. The Hungarian aristocracy can only dream idle dreams of a new heroic epoch. In Lászlo Vitézy’s A Fond Farewell to the Prince (1986), the seventeenth-century ruler of Transylvania, Gábor Bethlen, must chart a hazardous course between the Ottoman sultan, his protector, and the Habsburg emperor, whose designs extend to the prince’s realm. Transylvania’s position, like that of present-day Hungary, allows the prince to give his subjects a degree of prosperity and religious freedom (the prince himself being a Calvinist) that their Hungarian co-nationals living under the Habsburgs do not enjoy. But Don Diego, the resident historian summoned from Venice by the prince to write his memoirs, sees the truth: Transylvania’s independence is limited, and the country’s prosperity is fragile.33
In Sándor Sára’s documentary At the Crossroads (1986), the Hungarian condition is one of marginality. Much favored by Hungarian film critics, At the Crossroads tells the story of a small community of Transylvanian Hungarians who have been repeatedly brutalized and displaced throughout the past two centuries.
Is a Jew also a Hungarian? Historically, Jews tended to fare better in Hungary than in most other Central European countries, but one sees few Jewish stories in Hungarian films. Those that one does see, however, can be extraordinary, such as Gyöngyössy’s and Kabay’s The Revolt of Job (1983), a softspoken World War II story about an elderly Jewish couple who, having no children to inherit their property and sensing the danger in the air, adopt a feisty Gentile boy to carry on after their departure. Two years after this film, Gyöngyössy and Kabay collaborated with Katalin Petényi to produce a moving documentary, The Land of the Miraculous Rabbis (Add tudtul fiaidnak, 1985), about the last few Jews living in a rural community of northeastern Hungary. These two films, together with Gazdag’s Package Tour, make for an impressive trio of Hungarian films treating the subject of the holocaust. Less impressive, but worth seeing, is Erika Szántó’s Elysium (1986), a story about the disappearance of a ten-year-old boy into the camps.
“Setting aside stupidity, . . . we are pure,” reads the epigraph to Zoltán Fábri’s Hungarians.34 Because of the war, Fábri’s dirt-poor peasants have a rare opportunity to earn a decent living in Germany. Their relative affluence comes at the cost of homesickness, but worse than this is the destruction of their innocence: they see prisoners of war, French and Russian, forced to work without adequate nourishment and shot if they do not maintain the pace; Polish women and children are brought to nearby barracks under armed guard, and later they disappear. At the end of the film the Hungarian migrants have returned to their home village, only to learn that their men are now being taken away to fight in the war that had, initially, brought them unexpected fortune.
Are they so pure? One foreign observer of the Hungarian cinema, writing in 1976, has chastised Hungarians for their unwillingness to accept any responsibility for historical tragedies. According to this viewer, Hungarian filmmakers always blame others—the Turks, the Habsburgs, the Nazis; Hungarians, the prisoners of geopolitics, are the victims of forces too great to be resisted.35 Perhaps the argument is true for Hungarian films prior to the mid-seventies, but there have been changes since then. In Mária’s Day, for example, Hungarian helplessness is a state of mind; in At the Crossroads, there is testimony that Hungarian governments have been just as insensitive as others to the plight of the displaced community that serves as the film’s subject. In Fábri’s Hungarians, the “pure” villagers are supervised by a Hungarian foreman who, by simply fulfilling his task on the farm, clearly plays a role of importance in the larger scheme of things.
There are hints of Hungarian responsibility in other films made since the mid-seventies. If Budapest Tales is an allegory about postwar Hungary, as some critics argue, then Szabó’s Hungarians are capable of not just petty bickering but brutality as well. In Fábri’s Bálint Fábian Meets Cod (1980), the parent generation of his Hungarians gets caught up in World War I, the Republic of Councils, and the white terror, and these “innocent” peasants turn out to be quite capable of committing atrocities. Gazdag’s “package tour” participants acknowledge that there is still some antisemitism in Hungary forty years after the Holocaust. And finally, of course, in the many films that have been made about the Rákosiera, from Bacsó’s satires to Mészáros’s Diary, the finger of responsibility points backward; about the fifties, Hungarian filmmakers have chanted a chorus of mea culpas.
The seventies and eighties have seen a proliferation of films on contemporary problems that, as subject matter for the cinema, were previously considered taboo. Márta Mészáros’s exploration of the woman’s condition opened the more general question of family relations, beckoning filmmakers like Péter Gothár, Judit Elek, and Zsolt Kézdi-Kovács to enter this arena. Life among the working class, a delicate political topic in a workers’ state, especially attracted Pál Erdőss, while issues of personal and social morality were taken up by Gábor Bódy in The Dog’s Night Song, Károly Makk in Another Way, and several others.
Elek’s Maybe Tomorrow (Majd holnap, 1979) is a story about two families racked by marital fighting, adultery, jealousy, and violence. Kézdi-Kovács’s The Nice Neighbor (1979) tells an even uglier story about the residents of a condemned building; they will all be resettled into new flats, but the housing authorities will determine how large an apartment each household is entitled to. In their efforts to position themselves advantageously, the residents are not above bribery, lying, character assassination, marrying for the sake of obtaining more living space, and shunting unwilling parents into nursing homes.
Years ahead of their time, Tamás Andor and Pál Schiffer Jr. made a documentary about the lives of workers who commute by train from small towns and villages to work in the factories of Csepel Island (Budapest). The resulting film was Black Train (Fekete vonat, 1970), a Béla Balázs Studio production which exposed a laundry list of social ills: low wages, deplorable housing conditions, poor diets, alienated youth, and uncaring bureaucrats. Black Train was not widely viewed, but twelve years later, Pál Erdőss’s fictional story about young workers, The Princess, was distributed both in Hungary and abroad, winning awards at the Budapest, Cannes, and Locarno festivals. The Princess focuses on a teenage girl, Jutka, who arrives from the country to work in a Budapest textile mill and lives in a women’s hostel. Before long, the wonders of city life turn into a sad experience replete with unsafe working conditions, miserable housing, alienation, rampant alcoholism, black marketeering, conspicuous consumption among the socialist bourgeoisie, male chauvinism, violence, rape, and the community’s prejudices against single parenthood. In the sequel, Countdown (Visszaszámlálás, 1985), Jutka marries a young man who sets himself up as a self-employed trucker only to discover that the private sector, encouraged by the economic reforms of the eighties, is full of shysters and manipulators.
Manipulation and exploitation are themes that run through Pretty Girls (Szépleányok, 1986), a documentary by András Dér and Lászlo Hartai about the “Miss Hungary” pageant of 1985—the first national beauty contest in fifty years. The film tells a disgusting story of commercialism and disregard for the sensitivities of the contestants, some of whom were sold into the West European soft-core pornography market without being aware of their rights. The winner, a lovely seventeen-year-old named Csilla Andrea Molnár, committed suicide during the year of her reign.
Finally in this section, mention must be made of Ferenc András’s The Great Generation (1986), for it connects themes of “Hungarity” and contemporary society into one of the best Hungarian films of the eighties. Its three male protagonists, one of whom (Réb) has returned for his first visit after eighteen years of living in America, remember their closeness in the sixties when they, like young people in many countries, thought of themselves as a special generation. They were not, of course, and their ordinariness is all too evident in what they have subsequently become, each quite miserable in his own specific corruption—Réb as an unsuccessful petty con man, Nikita as an affluent private entrepreneur, and Makay as a disk jockey lost in the rock ‘n’ roll of his youth. András’s ambitious film paints an unflattering portrait of one generation, but it does not stop there; it also seeks to deflate the myth of emigration and dull the glamour of private wealth. Though told with wit and irony, The Great Generation is a sad story about people who have lost their purity and no longer have even their self-illusions to fall back on.
Increasingly during the late seventies and eighties, Hungarian filmmakers broke the old rules that had prohibited the direct portrayal of sensitive social and political questions. Just as Makk was making a film about a lesbian (Another Way), Kézdi-Kovács directed Forbidden Relations, a story of a man and a woman who fall passionately in love before learning that they are stepbrother and stepsister, separated since childhood. Forbidden Relations treats the subject of incest and community standards with a candor that is astonishing, yet it avoids the sensationalism into which films like this could so easily slip.
Political taboos have fallen gradually since the startling release of Makk’s Love. Not only the nineteen fifties, but another revolutionary period became a target for cinematic demythification. Dezső Magyar (now working in the United States) led a team of young rebels from the Béla Balázs Studio in making The Agitators (Agitátorok, 1970), a story of unthinking fanaticism among the leaders of the 1919 revolution. The Agitators was shelved for fifteen years before finally being released in early 1986. Though the events of 1919 continue to be approached with some caution, further cinematic treatments of that period can be seen in Bálint Fábian Meets God and The Red Countess (A vörös grófnő, 1984). The latter, written and directed by András Kovács, tells the story of the ill-fated succession government led by Count Mihály Károlyi and its capitulation to Béla Kun and the Communists. Centering on Károlyi’s wife, a progressive-minded daughter of the elite Andrássys, the film captures the milieu of the aristocracy not uncritically, but with much warmth and nostalgia.
Nor was Love the first film to deal with the Rákosi era. Other stories related to Stalinism in one way or another were Fábri’s Twenty Hours (Húsz óra, 1964), Gaál’s The Green Years (Zöldár, 1965), Ferenc Kósa’s Ten Thousand Suns (Tízezer nap, 1965), and Sándor Sára’s The Upthrown Stone (Feldobott kő, 1968). In the early seventies, political topics tended to be treated through metaphor, as, for example, Gaál’s The Falcons, a stylized film about a bird farm where a benevolent but stern chief supervises the training of falcons for the purpose of keeping magpies and other local pests under control,36 and Sára’s Pheasant Tomorrow (Holnap lesz fácán,1974), an ironic story about authority and order in a vacation campground.
Outside Hungary, these subtle films were either little known or poorly understood when The Stud Farm and Angi Vera (both 1978) were released abroad in 1979, drawing great international attention. The Stud Farm, directed by András Kovács, tells a story of conflict between the new manager of a horse-breeding farm and the villagers, resentful of the outsider’s authority. Just below the surface lies the terror enforcing the Hungarian collectivization drive. When two stallions are led out for mating, they bolt and challenge each other in a savage battle that illuminates the real nature of the human conflict.
In Pál Gábor’s elegant and understated Angi Vera, winner of more than a dozen awards internationally, an honest nurse who dares to criticize conditions in her hospital is chosen by the Party for political training. At the Party school, she metamorphoses from naïve young thing to alert Stalinist with an icy-cool understanding of the political environment. In a public self-criticism session, she admits having a love affair with a married teacher, costing him his position but gaining for herself a golden future in Party work.
These films opened the floodgates. By the mid-eighties, it seemed that every filmmaker had a story about Stalinism, and, encouraged by the regime’s stated openness in confronting the misdeeds of the early fifties, they spilled their stories onto the screen. Good intentions do not always make good art, and some of the resulting films are not of high quality. Ironically, just when the Soviet cinema began at last to peel back the layers of restriction that had so long buried the past, Hungarian moviegoers considered Stalinism old hat.
Not so, or not quite so, with the national tragedy of 1956. The thirtieth anniversary of the uprising brought out many public discussions characterized by a cautious honesty (the uprising, for example, cannot be referred to in the public media as a “revolution,” but on the other hand, it is no longer mandatory that it be called a “counterrevolution”). Filmmakers continue to treat the subject with delicacy,37 as they have since as early as 1957, when György Révész’s At Midnight (Éjfélkor) presented the dilemma of people having to decide between emigrating and staying in the homeland. Cinematic treatments, though few, have become increasingly bold, and recent benchmarks of candor can be seen in Mészáros’s Diary for My Loves and Péter Gárdos’s Whooping Cough (1986).
Whooping Cough is a personal story told from the viewpoint of a ten-year-old boy (Gárdos, who both directed and co-scripted the film, was eight in 1956). The boy and his younger sister are enjoying a holiday from school and do not quite comprehend their elders’ anxiety. Fighting rages outside, and the adults’ increasingly frantic behavior appears nonsensical and even funny. To the children, the atmosphere is one of unexpected freedom in which they can get away with all kinds of mischief. They escape from the house and, together with several other children, make their way to the outskirts of the city. There they find an abandoned handcar and figure out how to move it along the railroad tracks. Suddenly they are caught in a crossfire; they drop to the floor as the handcar rolls on, eventually passing out of the bullets’ path. But one of the children has been killed, and all of them have had the reality of the fighting impressed upon them forever.
Whooping Cough is a clever and original film, its tragicomic irony reminiscent of certain works from the Czech new wave, particularly Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (Ostře sledované vláky, 1966). Whooping Cough has received some attention abroad by winning the grand prize at the 1987 Chicago Festival. Hungarian audiences appear to be divided in their response, some finding it warm and moving, others criticizing it for its lighthearted beginning. But its production marked a bold new cinematic approach to the remembrance of an event that Hungarians will never forget.
Nor have contemporary political realities been overlooked by filmmakers, though in this area an even greater degree of caution prevails. The benchmark here is A Fond Farewell to the Prince. No Hungarian viewer will fail to recognize the resemblance of seventeenth-century Transylvania, kept on a relatively loose leash by the Ottoman empire, to current-day Hungary, the most successful social and economic innovator of the Soviet bloc. More daring still is the story’s implication that the Transylvanian prince acceded to the throne after having his predecessor murdered—a not-so subtle allusion to the manner in which János Kádár, the Hungarian leader between 1956 and 1988, gained his position.
The boundary between what the authorities of the late eighties considered permissible and what they did not appears to lie somewhere between A Fond Farewell to the Prince and András Jeles’s The Workers’ Dream Brigade. Dream Brigade is a most unusual film, combining elements of absurd surrealism with a savage flair for satirical broadside. The story wanders hither and yon, narrated by an older man whose face and clothing are colored like marble, before eventually centering on a “brigade” of factory workers organized, against their wishes, to perform a play before an audience of professional thespians. Throughout the scenes involving the workers, they are shown to be angry and resentful, constantly mouthing off in blistering obscenities about the quality of management, “the Party,” and the privileged lives of the intellectuals, for whom the workers do not like being compelled to perform. Jeles’s film, scripted, shot, and shelved in the mid-eighties, remains in rough cut while the director awaits permission to finish it. If permission is forthcoming, it will be a signal that yet another set of taboos has fallen.
HUNGARIAN CINEMA IN THE
LATE NINETEEN EIGHTIES
Hungarian cinema, as a state-owned industry, is of course subject to censorship. And yet, many films have shown candor in their portrayal of Hungarian social and political realities. The Hungarian preference for decentralized authority is largely responsible for this, but the studio units’ autonomy would not be possible but for a comparatively indulgent Ministry of Culture. Ordinarily, film censorship is self-censorship, and authorities of the state rarely interfere; filmmakers know the limits of what the state will tolerate and, for the most part, stay within them. Studio committees develop a special sensitivity to the ministry’s standards, and, while their critics sometimes accuse them of conservatism, theirs is a realistic approach which has made possible a gradual, consistent expansion of the permitted territory.
Once in a while a film unit will reveal an uncanny sense of timing by producing a film that pushes the boundary of the permissible outward, as in the case of Another Way. In other cases, a fight must be fought; it took Makk and his studio more than five years to get permission to film Love. And then, there is always a possibility that a film project will be approved, the script will be developed, the shooting will take place, and maybe even the final editing will be completed—as with The Witness—but the finished film will be shelved by the judgment of a higher authority; for it is still true that the Ministry of Culture has final say on whether or not a film is fit for distribution.38
The process whereby a project is first proposed, then scripted, cast, shot, edited, and distributed involves consultations and even negotiations at every step, and at every step the filmmaker can be asked to make changes. This may seem intrusive, but in actuality the process is analogous to the Hollywood system except that the large commercial studio is replaced by a small noncommercial unit, the bankrolling producer is replaced by employees of the state, and the priority of commercialism is replaced by a mix of political and aesthetic judgments. Few Hungarian film artists, it appears, would trade their system for Hollywood’s, despite the apparent advantage of Hollywood money.39
That hardly means the Hungarian system has no problems. Lacking a firm commercial base, the Hungarian cinema relies on subsidies from the state. The national budget has been under severe pressure during most of the eighties, and the film industry has been obliged to take its share of the cuts. MAFILM, which produced only twenty films in an average year during the seventies, has reduced its annual output to as few as sixteen. Similar cuts have hit Pannonia, a studio for documentary and animated films, and the Béla Balázs Studio, where young filmmakers fresh out of film school have an opportunity to practice their skills.
In the atmosphere of persistently tightening budgets, filmmakers have often sought international coproduction contracts, hoping to have the best of two worlds—the artistic freedom of their own country and the legendary bankrolls of the West. Jancsó enjoyed a modest success by working in Italy during the seventies, and Szabó has had a tremendous experience with both Mephisto and Colonel Redl. But it is not so easy. Mészáros’s coproductions have not done well commercially or critically, Makk’s Lily in Love was not successful, and less well-known Hungarians find it very difficult to sell their talents abroad.
Some, like Pál Gábor, have learned just how dangerous the risks of coproduction can be. Gábor, whose personal style made Angi Vera the international success it was, snapped at the lure of an American coproduction to direct Brady’s Escape, also known as The Long Ride (A hosszú vágta, 1983). Suddenly he was no auteur but the employee of a producer. The script, by William Lewis, is about an American airman, J.T. Brady (John Savage), whose plane is shot down over Hungary in 1944. Forced to parachute, Brady gets away from the Nazis because the horsemen of the Hortobágy puszta, decked out in their colorful tourist-show costumes, consider the occupying Germans as much of an enemy as Brady does. The script is a catalogue of silver-screen clichés, culminating in the predictable escape of the American hero while the natives, obviously expendable, die like so many Comanches. Gábor, whose strength as a director lies in understatement, had not only to work with an overly sentimental Hollywood script, but also to use an American musical score and submit to American editing, surrendering the final cut to the American producer. The resulting movie was a disaster, good for nothing but late-night American television.
So what lies ahead? This question is on the minds of many cineastes. Some, like Miklós Jancsó, look back with nostalgia to the sixties, when Hungarian films captured so much world attention in a day when few small countries fielded notable cinematic teams. Today, the phenomenon of small-country cinema is not so unusual; the world knows quality films from places as far flung as Bolivia, Tunisia, and Hong Kong. Hungarian cinema, lost amid the crowd, no longer commands the respect it once enjoyed.40
Besides the now-chronic financial crisis, two major questions confront Hungarian filmmakers. The first concerns subject matter. Hungarian cinema, as the foregoing discussion makes clear, has always looked inward, drawing its themes primarily from the Hungarian experience. At their best, Hungarian films are capable of projecting that experience in ways that engage the world audience, but many films—including many good films—plainly do not interest foreigners. Most filmmakers consider it their primary responsibility to produce for the domestic audience (this is as it should be), but they also long to tell their stories and communicate their messages to the wider world. How can they do this without falling into the trap of Brady’s Escape?
The second question concerns originality of form. Every film culture in the world feels the impact of Hollywood, whose technical virtuosity and glitzy style appeal to all audiences. Hollywood offers a Faustian bargain: popularity and fame in return for the artist’s soul—that is, access to mass audiences through “professional” scripts and formulaic narrative structures. If Hungarian filmmakers are to attract international attention, must they adapt their styles to mimic the Hollywood look?
Some Hungarian critics charge István Szabó with just this offense, arguing that his move to big-money West German coproductions coincided with his retreat from formal experimentalism toward a greater realism. (At the time of this writing, Szabó was involved in the early stages of an American coproduction.) In fairness, it must be reiterated that Mephisto and Colonel Redl show a great deal of originality, even if their narrative lines have a conventional look.
The same critics point to examples like The Fall (Zuhanás közben,1987), the debut film of Tamás Tolmár (b. 1950), in which they see the dangers of the Hollywood influence. The Fall is a big-city crime story filled with violence and climaxing with a car chase—a movie that appeals to mass tastes but, in the eyes of the critics, betrays the aesthetic purpose of Hungarian film. The critics fear that continuing financial pressures may push MAFILM more toward productions of this sort for the mass market, and they see it as their task to prevent this tendency from dominating the future of Hungarian cinema.
The critics are doing their job, but perhaps they exaggerate the danger. Hollywood presents not only a threat but also an alternative. Péter Gárdos, for example, admits to a Hollywood influence,41 and his Whooping Cough demonstrates that the style can be employed to tell a Hungarian story—and tell it well. The same can be said about the recent films of János Rózsa (b. 1937). Rózsa’s Love, Mother (Csók, anyu, 1986), was co-winner of the jury’s main prize at the 1987 Hungarian Film Festival, indicating that some critics have an open mind on the question of the Hollywood style.
At the same time, the work of such promising younger directors as Gyula Gazdag, Péter Gothár, and András Jeles continues to resist any Hollywood tendencies. Moreover, the Budapest Academy of Theater and Film Art and the Béla Balázs Studio, the most important institutions that train Hungarian filmmakers, still encourage experimentalism as a way for future auteurs to develop their own styles.
In this context, and at least for the time being, the Hollywood threat does not loom large. The Hungarian cinema in the late eighties retains its pluralism and carries on its bold inquiries into Hungarian themes.
The author gratefully acknowledges the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the generous assistance of Hungarofilm. He also thanks the American Philosophical Society for a supplementary grant during an early stage of his research. A word of personal thanks is due to János Huszár, and especially to Éva Kun and Katalin Vajda, for their always cheerful help, and to Anamária Róna for expert translating assistance.
1. A curious thing sometimes happens to the title when a Hungarian film goes into American distribution. In this case, the original title, more accurately translated as “The Hopeless Ones” or “Outlaws,” was abandoned for one deemed to be more “catchy” and bearing a cultural reference that Americans would readily understand. Jancsó’s films have been especially vulnerable to retitling in translation, probably because many of the original titles carry a culturally specific meaning; examples are My Way Home (ĺgy jöttem, or, roughly, “Thus I Came,” 1967), Confrontation (Fényes szelek, “Luminous Winds,” 1968), and Red Psalm (Még kér a nép, “The People Are Still Asking,” 1971). Though many of the titles discussed in this chapter have been significantly changed from Hungarian to English, I shall call the reader’s attention only to those retitlings that are particularly amusing.
2. For a number of years Jancsó and Mészáros were married. Their son, Miklós Jancsó, Jr., is now a talented cinematographer who has directed the photography for Mészáros’s two recent films, Diary for My Children (Napló gyermekeimnek,1981/1984) and Diary for My Loves (Napló szerelmeimnek, 1987). The author adds this not to spread gossip but to illustrate the closeness of the Hungarian filmmaking community in which such a wide range of styles and approaches coexist.
3. The Hungarian title means approximately “King, Give Me Some Soldiers!”
4. Mira and Antonín J. Liehm, The Most Important Art: East European Film after 1945 (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1977), p. 146.
5. The Most Important Art, p. 168.
6. Cantata was Jancsó’s second feature. His first, The Bells Have Gone to Rome (A harangok Romába mentek, 1958), was not particularly successful and was followed by several more years of working on documentaries and shorts.
7. For more detailed discussion of Hungarian film between 1945-1960, see Liehm and Liehm, The Most Important Art, pp. 146-73 and Graham Petrie, History Must Answer to Man: The Contemporary Hungarian Cinema (Budapest: Corvina Kiádo and London: Tantivy Press, 1978), pp. 1-20.
8. Of course, it might be argued that anti-Stalinist films, now common in Hungary, are in fact pro-regime films because the current regime has so strongly disassociated itself from the policies of the Rákosi period. Contemporary filmmakers who continue to focus on the injustices of the fifties sometimes come under attack by Hungarian critics who consider it easy to take pot shots at the past and would prefer to see more contemporary problems portrayed on the screen.
9. The films just mentioned, as well as the subject of “Hungarity,” will be discussed below.
10. O.W. Riegel, “What Is ‘Hungarian’ in the Hungarian Cinema (Part III),” New Hungarian Quarterly 18 (65) (Spring 1977), p. 208.
11. For a detailed discussion of István Gaál’s films, see Petrie, History Must Answer to Man, pp. 138-74; cf. Liehm and Liehm, The Most Important Art, pp. 387-88, 401-402, and Eric Koopmanschap, De Hongaarse Film (Netherlands: Den Bosch, 1983), p. 51.
12. Liehm and Liehm, The Most Important Art, p. 166.
13. Interview with the author, February 26, 1987.
14. The foregoing Red Psalm sequence is described in detail by Roy Armes in The Ambiguous Image (Bloomington, IN and London: Indiana University Press, 1976), p. 152; the Confrontation sequence is described by Petrie in History Must Answer to Man, pp. 94-95.
15. By the mid-seventies, one critic—even without having seen Private Vices—expressed “irritation with [Jancsó’s] symbol codifications, his manneristic style, the deliberate mystification, the endless marches and counter-marches, the casual killings, the obligatory nudes and horses, the hermetic never-never land of parading zombies.” O.W. Riegel, “What Is ‘Hungarian’ in the Hungarian Cinema (Part II),” New Hungarian Quarterly 17 (64) (Winter, 1976), p. 207. For a spirited defense of Jancsó’s work during the seventies, see Petrie, “Miklós Jancsó: Decline and Fall?” in David W. Paul, ed., Politics, Art and Commitment in the East European Cinema (London: Macmillan, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983), pp. 189-210.
16. Full title of the film is The Tyrant’s Heart, or Boccaccio in Hungary. On its reception at the 1982 New York Film Festival, see, e.g., Janet Maslin’s brief but scathing review in The New York Times, October 4, 1982, p. C14, and E. Stein’s laudatory remarks in Film Comment 18 (6) (November-December, 1982), p. 68.
17. For discussions of Szabó’s career to the mid-seventies, see Petrie, History Must Answer to Man, pp. 106-37; also Karen Jaehne, “István Szabó: Dreams of Memories,” Film Quarterly 32 (1) (Fall, 1978), pp. 30-41.
18. Perhaps, by stretching the allusions, the story can be said to be about emigration and separation more generally, but its specifically Hungarian references nevertheless dominate.
19. “A Dream About a House,” for which Szabó won the Main Prize at the Ober-hausen Short Film Festival in 1972, is often shown by itself. The present author has not seen the other films in the series.
20. Petrie, (History Must Answer to Man, pp. 226-27) has pointed out that Budapest Tales contains allegorical references to specific Hungarian events between 1945 and 1956. I do not disagree, but my reading of the film is that it can be interpreted on many levels; accordingly, one can see it as a statement on reconstruction, political conflict, and the abuse of power in Hungary or as a study of community-building in something like a state of nature. The latter perspective is argued by Jaehne, “István Szabó,” pp. 37-40. The film’s title (which can also be translated as “Budapest Fables”) suggests that Szabó had both intentions in mind.
21. Interview with the author, September 25, 1985; published in Columbia Film View 1 (2) (Winter, 1985), p. 4.
22. Ibid., p. 5.
23. Interview with J. Hoberman, Village Voice, November 6, 1984. One Westerner who admires Mészáros’s feminism but criticizes the quality of her films is Petrie, History Must Answer to Man, pp. 211-13, 228-33.
24. Sometimes a translation of the Hungarian title, “The Two of Them,” is used to refer to this film in English, though it is distributed in the United States under the title “Women.”
25. I am told that television programs commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the 1956 revolt in the autumn of 1986 had made cautious mention of Nagy while airing similar newsreel clips.
26. Perhaps it is Director Mészáros’s intent to portray her heroine as an observer, assuming the “objective” position of the young film student’s camera, but, with the exception of only one or two scenes, the effect is to minimize the film’s emotionality for no good reason.
27. Interview with the author, Budapest, September 25, 1985.
28. It should be said that Bacsó has directed more than twenty features, most of which I have not seen. Many of his earlier films were serious rather than comical or tragicomic and, according to Petrie, tended toward the style of cinéma vérité. See Petrie, History Must Answer to Man, pp. 187-89; also Koopmanschap, De Hongaarse Film, p. 50.
29. Hungarian title “The Devil Is Beating His Wife.”
30. Hungarian title “Oh My God.”
31. Interview with the author, September 28, 1985.
32. A Gazdag retrospective was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley during the spring of 1987; one hopes more American screenings will follow.
33. This apparently corresponds to the facts about the Transylvanian principálity, which tends to be idealized in Hungarian popular history. But, as an emigrant Hungarian writer has described Transylvania, “Her independence was limited, and her liberalism ambiguous.” Paul Ignotus, Hungary (New York and Washington: Praeger, 1972), p. 36.
34. The citation was taken from a poem, “Hungarians,” by Attila József (1905-1937).
35. Riegel, “What Is ‘Hungarian’. . . ,” (Part I), New Hungarian Quarterly 17 (63) (Autumn 1976), pp. 185-93.
36. It is not possible to do justice to this extraordinary film in a brief description. For a detailed discussion, see Petrie, History Must Answer to Man, pp. 158-67.
37. However, the irrepressible Péter Bacsó dreams of filming a tragicomedy about 1956, as indicated in an interview with this author (September 25, 1985).
38. For a brief explanation of the process by which a film is made, see Daniel Bickley, “Socialism and Humanism: The Contemporary Hungarian Cinema,” Cineaste 9 (2) (1978-79), pp. 32-33.
39. In a conversation with the author (September 28, 1985), Zsolt Kézdi-Kovács, who is very familiar with the American cinema, expressed what numerous other Hungarian directors have also stated or implied when asked to compare their filmmaking milieu with that of the United States: “The kinds of films we make [in Hungary] are made [in the U.S.] with so little money, and in such unfavorable conditions of distribution and so on, that they haven’t a chance to compete with the big films.” Kézdi-Kovács admires American independent filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and John Hanson who work against the odds of their native film culture.
40. Interview with Jancsó, February 26, 1987.
41. Interview, February 15, 1987.