Themed Playlist: Hungarian Cinema- A Taster in 12+ 1 (mostly) Contemporary Films

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:



Lucy Szemetova is currently in our MLitt programme and accepted for PhD study in which she will be working on the repurposing of the archive in contemporary Hungarian cinema. Here she offers a selection of Hungarian cinema:


The countless hours spent in isolation in our homes (or wherever we are right now) might be a prime time to discover films that we would not normally watch in our free time. In fact, why not be bold enough and explore a great variety of periods and styles from one particular country – Hungary. Hungarian cinema often gets associated with one name only – Béla Tarr, the master of slow cinema – yet there is a lot more to be explored. It turns out finding Hungarian films with English subtitles online is more challenging than it seems. This list of 12+ films could not include all the masterpieces from this part of the world, but it is a good starting point. It includes the great classics of Hungarian cinema, award-winning fiction films or documentaries spanning across different periods giving also a sense about this country’s history and socio-political context.



1. A tanú (The Witness, Péter Bacsó, 1969)


A long-lasting masterpiece, Bacsó’s satire draws an amusing but oftentimes scarily accurate picture about the absurdities of 1950s Hungary. It follows the faith of Pelikán, a simple dike-reever, who gets into high communist positions yet always manages to fail and end up in prison. All this happens so he can eventually become a perfect witness in a show trial, but will he fail this task too? This film full of gags, superb performances, and historical references can be rented here:



2.  Az ötödik pecsét (The Fifth Seal, Zoltán Fábri, 1976)


The film is similarly set in an important moment in Hungary’s history, during the short-lived rule of the far-right Hungarist Arrow Cross Party towards the end of the Second World War. One night in a pub a group of friends has a seemingly innocent yet heated discussion stemming from recipes to the biggest moral questions of our humanity. The next day, however, they suddenly have to decide between honour and life. The film has recently been made available for free by the National Film Archive here:




3. Napló gyermekeimnek (Diary for My Children, Márta Mészáros, 1982)


The first part of Mészáros’s diary trilogy set in 1947 is a tale of Juli, an orphan who returns to Hungary from her soviet emigration. This semi-autobiographical drama shows a rebel teenager’s struggle with the new world around her, especially battling with her devoted socialist foster mother. This private history continues in two other films and they are all available for free:




4. Saul fia (Son of Saul, Nemes Jeles László, 2016)


A film that brought a new way of representing the horrors of the Holocaust is in fact systematically limiting our vision and leaving it up to the imagination. We solely focus on Saul, a member of the Sonderkommando, who is determined to give a proper burial to a boy he finds in the gas chambers. This award-winning masterpiece of cinematic immersion is available to stream on Netflix:



5. Péter Forgács compilation (1978-2018)


One of the most important and prolific experimental documentary filmmaker and media artist, Forgács is a true expert in archival re-mixing. He is mostly known for his series Private Hungary relying on amateur home movies from the 1930s to 1960s documenting everyday life interrupted by historical traumas. His thematic range also includes East German tourists at Balaton, female painters, or the faith of Hungarian immigrants fleeing to the US around the turn of twentieth the century. Unfortunately, only excerpts and trailers are available online with subtitles, but still definitely worth a look:




6.  Werckmeister harmóniák (Werckmeister Harmonies, Béla Tarr co-directed with Ágnes Hranitzky, 2000)


Just when you thought there would be a list of Hungarian films without Béla Tarr, well here it is. This film is often viewed as Tarr’s most digestible and a good initiation into his mature style. Set during socialism in a small isolated town in Hungary, a mysterious circus arrives and eventually causes a great disturbance. Despite the various historical and political readings, the film still holds relevant in dissecting universal themes of deceit, fear of the unknown, or the thin line between harmony and disorder. Available for rent here:




7. Taxidermia (György Pálfi, 2006)


Pálfi’s grotesque and graphic take on history takes the viewer on a journey across three generations from the Second World War to its present day. This body horror presents an orderly, a speed-eater, and a taxidermist who all struggle with their desires, be it excessive sexuality, gluttony, or wish for immortality. This hard to stomach, yet excellent tale of repression can be rented here:



8. Kontroll (Control, Nimród Antal, 2003)


A quintessential piece of post-socialist Hungarian cinema is set entirely in the iconic Budapest metro. It follows Bulcsú, a ticket inspector (one of the most hated professions in Hungary), who together with his team of misfits, spends his days fighting either with disrespectful passengers, the rival team of colleagues, or with his uncompromising bosses. Can he escape this unnatural world after defeating a mysterious hooded villain? Available for rent on Amazon (US) or Eastern European movies.



9.  Testről és Lélekről (On Body and Soul, Ildikó Enyedi, 2017)


A strong come back of director Enyedi presents an unusual love story and a masterpiece of haptic sensuality. Though the film shows the harsh reality of a slaughterhouse workplace the soft dream sequences of the main characters bring balance into it. The two colleagues are unable to get closer due to their mental and physical disabilities, but gentleness and a need for love eventually prevail. This intense film experience can be rented on MUBI and Amazon.



10.  Liza, a Rókatündér (Liza, the Fox-Fairy, Károly Ujj Mészáros, 2015)


Liza, a lonely nurse, whose only friend is a Japanese pop-singer ghost, turns 30 and decides to finally find love. Her potential partners, however, all mysteriously die in bizarre accidents which starts to bother not only the police, a private investigator, but Liza herself fearing she is cursed. This surrealist film with its alternative world, charming set design and catchy music can be found on Amazon (US) and  Eastern European Films.



11. VAN Valami Furcsa És Megmagyarázhatatlan (For Some Inexplicable Reason, Gábor Reisz, 2014)


A prototype of a Hungarian mumblecore presents you with the usual millennial struggles – unemployment, heartbreak, passivity, and over-caring parents. Its main character, a film graduate Áron makes us laugh as well as instantly recognize ourselves in his awkwardness and failures of meeting society’s expectations. This coming-of-age story is also a true love letter to Budapest, the city plays a crucial role in setting the overall atmosphere. It is available on Hungarian Netflix but unfortunately currently unavailable on UK services.



12. Ítélet Magyarországon (Judgment in Hungary, Eszter Hajdú, 2013)


Hajdú’s often gut-wrenching film documents the 167 day long trial of four defendants charged with attacks and murder of random members of the Roma community in Hungary. The documentary is an observational drama that balances between static fixed frames and the turbulent emotions among the participants. It is able to show in a cramped courtroom the various levels of injustices committed against the Roma due to structural racism in Hungary. This award-winning documentary is available to stream here:



+ 1 Extra: Békeidő(Treasure City, Szabolcs Hajdu, April 23, 2020)


To end on a happier note, due to the current situation the makers of this film have decided to have an online premier. The film started in an educational program involving several students as well as professionals both from Hungary and Romania. It has expanded into a film anthology, a series of intertwining and intricate stories about human relationships all taking place at night. Though hard to recommend a film that I have not seen before, knowing Hajdu’s previous work, we are in for a special treat! The film is available through Vimeo in Hungary and Romania with English subtitles.



1 thought on “Themed Playlist: Hungarian Cinema- A Taster in 12+ 1 (mostly) Contemporary Films”

  1. Great news, The Hungarian National Film Institute – Film Archive has just made available Hungarian comedies (online with English subtitles) for 10 days, I’d highly recommend adding Moscow Square (2001) to the list, a cult film about Generation X and their experience of the system change and you can even find The Witness (1969) for free. Happy watching!


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