Themed Playlist: An (Abridged) History of Hungarian Cinema
About the lists: Calls to socially distance and self-isolate are driving people to look for things to watch. But the sheer amount of options out there can be overwhelming. For this reason, we at the Centre for Screen Cultures are producing themed playlists of film, video, and television so you can organise your own series or festival at home (or home school). They will update here and here: https://screenculture.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/category/media-playlists/
The Streaming Resources for Times of Social Distancing page offers numerous links to sites of world cinema, including the Hungarian National Film Institute. But when faced with such a wealth of options, how can one even begin? Our resident expert in Hungarian Cinema, Dr Phil Mann, who was recently awarded his PhD from University of St Andrews Film Studies, guides us through their offerings for An Abridged History of Hungarian Cinema:
Hungary is a small nation with a very rich cinematic heritage. While many will be familiar with popular Hungarian émigré in Hollywood including Béla Lugosi, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Michael Curtiz, Alexander Korda, Emeric Pressburger, George Cukor, producers William Fox and Andy Vajna, and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, to name but a few, Hungary’s own national cinema has remained somewhat more obscure. This, of course, can be attributed to a number of different factors, the complexity of the Hungarian (Magyar) language, for example, and the fact that the language is not widely spoken outside of Hungary. One may also attribute Hungarian cinema’s limited global reach to the fact that Hungary’s is a particularly inward looking cinema, one that has an intimate relationship with indigenous society. Indeed, Brian Burns, in his book World Cinema – Hungary (1996), describes the ethos of Hungarian cinema as being ‘resistant to transplantation or to interbreeding: its great virtue is its close relationship with a particular, local culture and its servicing of the needs of that culture’ (113). Consequently, themes and subject matter addressed in Hungarian cinema have typically derived from Hungary’s unique national character and from the experiences and norms of Hungarian life, specific national traits, traditions and values that do not necessarily translate universally. Compounding this lack of global visibility has been the fact that for nearly forty years, Hungary was part of the Eastern bloc and, consequently, Western audiences have had only intermittent access to Hungarian films and often lacked the cultural and historical context behind them. Even in the now global climate of post-communism, Hungary has remained on the fringes of western culture, and Hungarian films continue to remain niche. So, as a means of introducing newcomers to Hungarian cinema, I present this heavily abridged history (all of which contain English subtitles). It is my hope that these films might whet the readers’ appetite and encourage them to further explore this deeply rich and varied cinema.
Men on the Alps, Emberek a havason, 1941, director: István Szőts
Described by Hungarian historian, screenwriter and producer István Nemeskürty (1965) as “the most outstanding Hungarian film made before the Liberation” (137), Men on the Alps focuses upon a woodcutter and his family, who are evicted from of their idyllic Transylvanian mountain home following the opening of a new lumber mill. Forced into working for the very company that ejected them, their lives slowly begin to unravel as tragedy befalls, causing their lives to spiral out of control. Based on a collection of short stories by Hungarian novelist József Nyirő, the film explores Hungarian modernisation through the conflict between village and town, utilising landscape allegory as a means of exteriorising character subjectivities, projecting their psyches onto the natural environment.
Somewhere in Europe, Valahol Európában, 1947, director: Géza Radványi
In his book Hungarian Cinema: From Coffee House to Multiplex, John Cunningham (2004) claimed that Somewhere in Europe perfectly epitomised the moment of history in which it was made; perfectly encapsulating the sense of dislocation that characterised post-war Hungary. The film follows a group of war orphans as they attempt to survive the harsh conditions of the early post-war years. The gang scour the countryside in search of food and shelter and are taken in by a kindly orchestra conductor who is hiding out in a ruined castle. Under the wise old man’s patronage, the children begin to rebuild a rudimentary society but face the threat of the local townspeople, who are tired of having their crops stolen. Somewhere in Europe has regularly been aligned to the Italian Neorealist movement, perhaps unsurprisingly given its use of non-actors and actual locations, its focus on children, and the consequences of war.
Professor Hannibal, Hannibál tanár úr, 1956, director: Zoltán Fábri
Following the nationalisation of the Hungarian film industry in 1948, Hungary would endure a short-lived period of totalitarian censorship in which cinema was tightly bound to the constraints of Socialist Realism. From this aesthetically sterile period would emerge Zoltán Fábri, whose Körhinta/Merry-Go-Round (1955) would garner international attention. However, it would be Fabri’s next film, Professor Hannibal that would establish him as one of Hungary’s most daring filmmakers. The film follows a meek Latin teacher, Béla Nyúl (Ernö Szabó) who publishes an essay on the Carthaginian General Hannibal, in which he claims that Hannibal was overthrown by social revolution not Imperial Rome. While he is initially hailed a genius and celebrated by the townsfolk, their attitudes soon change when his article becomes a tool of the right-wing, who claim that Nyúl is attempting to incite a revolution and denounce him as a traitor. Set in the 1930s, this tragi-comic film casts a critical eye over the ultra-national interwar years and the seemingly arbitrary and interchangeable nature of political demigods and the fickleness of the masses.
The Round-Up, Szegénylegények, 1965, director: Miklós Jancsó
Set in a detention camp in Hungary 1869, at a time of guerrilla campaigns against the ruling Austrians, Jancsó historical parable explores the politics and strategies of despotic power. The Round-Up utilises the harsh and unforgiving environment of the Great Hungarian Plain (puszta) as a means of allegorically challenging Soviet morality through a narrative of dehumanisation and brutality. Jancsó set many of his films during key periods of Hungarian and Eastern European history but, as Graham Petrie (1978) argues, through his heavily stylised aesthetics, Jancsó isolates events from their specific historical settings as a means of extracting themes relevant to the contemporary milieu. A modernist classic.
Cold Days, Hideg napok, 1966, director: András Kovács
Set in 1946, Cold Days engages with a highly controversial chapter in recent Hungarian history, the Novi Sad massacre of 1942 in which Hungarian armed forces were implicated in the murder of 3,000 Yugoslavian Serbs and Jews during the Nazi Occupation. The film focuses upon four Hungarian soldiers who are put on trial for the crimes. They debate their role in the atrocity, denying individual responsibility for their actions by claiming that they were only following orders and that they could have done nothing to stop the tragic events that transpired. While the film is based upon a novel by Tibor Cseres, it nevertheless invited contemporary audiences to engage with their own questions of complicity during the Second World War, challenging the myths of communist-dictated history.
The Boys of Paul Street, A Pál utcai fiúk, 1968, director: Zoltán Fábri
The first Hungarian film to be nominated for an Academy Award, The Boys of Paul Street focuses upon two rival gangs of schoolboys who lay claim to a vacant timberyard. Territorial rivalry leads to escalating hostilities until the lot is eventually taken over by the government for redevelopment. Based on the popular children’s novel by Ferenc Molnár, this Hungarian American co-production won critical acclaim for faithfully translating Molnár’s novel. However, a point of contention for many Hungarians is the fact that the children are largely made up of English actors on the insistence of the film’s American producers, who felt that either subtitles or dubbing would prove unpopular in the USA.
Love, Szerelem, 1970, director: Károly Makk
This heart-warming political drama focuses upon the wife of a political prisoner in the 1950s. She tends to her ailing mother-in-law in her husband’s absence, keeping the truth about her son’s whereabouts from her. Despite the husband being in prison, the mother receives letters from her son sent from America, as she believes he is in New York shooting a film. However, the letters are instead being written by her daughter-in-law in an effort to appease the elderly mother in her infirm state. The film would win the Jury Prize at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival amongst a number of other awards and accolades.
The Fifth Seal, Az ötödik pecsét, 1976, director: Zoltán Fábri
Set in Budapest in 1944, a watchmaker, a book seller and a carpenter drink in a bar with the owner. One night the group are joined by a so-called “artistic” photographer and begin to engage in debate over issues of morality and righteousness, posing a number of philosophical questions and ruminations. One such question asks whose fate they would choose if, after death, they were resurrected as either a wealthy tyrant or oppressed but honourable slave. However, these philosophical questions will later become in reality when the bar is suddenly overrun with members of the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian Fascist Party.
Mattie, the Goose-Boy, Lúdas Matyi, 1977, director: Attila Dargay
The most popular feature-length Hungarian cartoon ever produced, and one that Hungarian footballer, the former West Brom and Fulham attacking midfielder, Zoltán Gera described as “elemental to every Hungarian child”. An animated re-telling of Mihály Fazekas’ narrative poem first published in 1817. The film focuses on a young peasant boy who stands up to tyranny, aided by his trusty friend, a goose. Mattie, the Goose-Boy would also be adapted into a live action feature film in 1949, starring Imre Soós.
Márta Mészáros’ Diary Trilogy
Márta Mészáros diary trilogy, Diary for My Children, Diary for My Loves and Diary for My Father and Mother offer a re-reading of Hungarian history from a gendered perspective, emphasising the interconnectivity between the individual and the political system under which they live. Through semi-autobiographical narratives set against the backdrop of Hungary’s recent past, Mészáros explores female subjectivity, balancing personal reflection with a desire for historical reappraisal. The first film in the trilogy, Diary for My Children introduces us to the teenage Juli (Zsuzsa Czinkóczi), a character partly based on Mészáros herself, and chronicles her return to Budapest in the late 1940s after having spent the previous decade living in the Soviet Union. Scarred by the wounds of the past, she is repulsed to see the very same spectre of socialist oppression now rife in her homeland. Diary for My Loves continues Juli’s story into the 1950s, focusing on her attempts to become a filmmaker in Moscow after a failed attempt to do so in Hungary and engages the many falsehoods and political myths that spread throughout Hungarian and Soviet society during this period. In the final film of the trilogy, Diary for My Father and Mother, Julie returns to Budapest during the final stages of the failed Hungarian Revolution of October 1956.
Diary for My Children, Napló gyermekeimnek, 1983, director: Márta Mészáros
Diary for My Loves, Napló szerelmeimnek, 1986
Diary for My Father and Mother, Napló apámnak, anyámnak, 1990
Colonel Redl, Redl ezredes, 1984, director: István Szabó
Following the success of his Oscar-winning film Mephisto (1981), István Szabó would maintain his preoccupation with the intersecting lines of history and morality in Colonel Redl, a film set in pre-World War I Austria-Hungary. The film follows Alfred Redl’s rise through the military ranks, from his modest beginning as the son of a peasant to officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army. Redl is seduced by power and quickly learns to adapt to circumstances, disguising his true identity by concealing his humble origins with claims that he came from an aristocratic background, and disguising his homosexuality. Szabó stated that both Colonel Redl and Mephisto explore a “clash between the soul of the protagonist and the realities of politics”. Here, Redl is ultimately unable to escape his true identity.
We Never Die, Sose halunk meg, 1992, director: Róbert Koltai
One of the first genuinely popular films to be produced in Hungary following the post-communist transition, We Never Die is a nostalgic comedy set in the early 1960s and follows and a travelling coat hanger salesman who attempts to educate his teenage nephew about life as they go on his rounds. Directed and starring beloved Hungarian comedy actor Róbert Koltai as the roguish but loveable Uncle Gyuszi, who uses the money he raises to drink, womanise and gamble, the film is a sentimental film that rather than dwelling on the political struggles of the period, instead evokes a sense of care-free indulgence, capitalising on post-communist Hungary’s nostalgia for the communist past.
All these films and more can be found on the Hungarian National Film Institute website:
Phil Mann recently completed his PhD at the University of St Andrews. His thesis, entitled ‘Challenging Political Mythology: Representations of the Rural in Post-Communist Hungarian Cinema’ explores the complex ways in which cinematic representations of the rural function as a site of mythoclastic counter narrative in post-communist Hungarian cinema. Utilising a small national cinema framework, Phil’s research examines the ways in which the polysemic space of the cinematic countryside operates as a site of self-knowledge, candour and resistance, and a site through which filmmakers have challenged the multifarious political myths that have risen in the ideological wake of communism. Phil’s research interests lie in Hungarian cinema; in particular, the post-communist generation’s continued preoccupation with issues of national social and historical concern, and he has published articles on Béla Tarr’s A turinió ló/The Turin Horse, György Pálfi’s Hukkle and Bence Fliegauf’s Csak a szél/Just the Wind.