Popular art films
Experimenting in art film
Documentary style and new ways of story-telling
Documentary and experimental elements, stylisation
New sensitivity - new narrative
The 90s - Hungarian Film Today
Re-birth of the entertaining popular film
Searching for new ways
The Midas Touch, 1988
Pál Sándor discovered the "popular art film", as a suitable genre or means of expression to replace lost illusions and to recreate the myth of community. Régi idők focija (Football of the Good Old Days, 1973), Herkulesfürdői emlék (A Strange Role, 1976) but above all, Szabadíts meg a gonosztól (Deliver Us from Evil, 1978) did indeed re-establish contact with a wider audience. Deliver Us from Evil is probably the best example to use when explaining the characteristics of what we call "popular art film". The story takes place in the Second World War, during the battle of Budapest when a sort of "end of the world" atmosphere prevailed. A coat is stolen and, as a result, the honour of a family lost. The mother of the thief tries to re-establish their good reputation and unexpectedly finds friends and helpers - the idea of a community once again turns into reality. The heroes of the film (the wise Crook, passionate Perdita, the loyal Soldier, and the self-sacrificing Mother) were romantic, post-modern types who rebuilt a myth that could have existed but never did.
The nostalgic yearnings to belong to a community pointed towards the Jewish middle class in Budapest, whose members did indeed live in some kind of a religious and cultural community. Péter Gárdos successfully used this social milieu in his films: Uramisten (The Philadelphia Attraction, 1984) which was about the strange relationship between a lonely, generous illusionist and a manic, lame acrobat; Szamárköhögés (Whooping Cough, 1986) portrayed the grotesque relationships amongst three generations of the same family; A hecc (Just for Kicks, 1988) was a tragi-comic tale of an antique dealer; A Skorpió megeszi az ikreket reggelire (The Scorpio Eats Up the Gemini for Breakfast, 1992) was about a boy whose obsession cuts him off from his loving family; A brooklyni testvér (The Brother of Brooklyn, 1994) was the story of two brothers who had been separated. Dezső Garas appeared in all these films, his role being to provide a unique supporting character who personified a centuries old past and an unchanging identity of mythical proportions.
Géza Bereményi became known in the 70s for his prose and screenplays and the lyrics he wrote for Tamás Cseh’s songs. His first film, A tanítványok (The Disciples, 1985) was based on historical events when, between the two wars, there was a plan to reform education. Although the intelligentsia supported the plan, it failed. His second film Eldorado (The Midas Touch, 1988) told the story of Monori who was king of the market place between 1945 and 1956. This great and seemingly invincible Grandfather secured the family’s fortune and future but then saw his dreams destroyed - not in a struggle against history, but because his disappointing grandson, who had been sheltered from troubles, was incapable of carrying on traditions. The film was set in the 50s but Bereményi seemed to be talking about the present, the 80s, when "the pub", almost a symbolic place, provided the backdrop for informal relationships and deals.
Myths were kept alive - temporarily - by nostalgia and escape from realism.
Ferenc András’s Dögkeselyű (The Vulture, 1982) was a kind of Western with a mythical lonely hero. The world, or rather underworld, demanded that the hero give up certain inner values. Because he couldn’t do this, the conflict remained unresolved. It was a popular film, despite its subject matter, because of the way in which it was presented with a thriller-like plot and a car chase, the likes of which had not yet been seen on the main roads of Budapest.
István Szabó turned away from his allegorical tales about the search for identity and community with Bizalom (Confidence, 1979) which was made Before Mephisto. Confidence was a deeply moving psychological drama, in which the director stopped using his personal voice; he stayed away from the story, yet the characters were perfectly and deeply portrayed. Two people were forced to share a place during the war; they gradually became intimate, and finally fell in love. Mephisto (1981), based on Klaus Mann’s novel and starring Klaus Maria Brandauer, had no precedents either. The story was set in Nazi Germany and dealt with the complex problem of the relationship between art and power, using the career-story of an actor, a controversial character. The structure was classic, the tone objective, the characters perfectly drawn and the camera created an equally impeccable, functional visual world. There was a special emphasis on close-ups of human faces, showing the different phases of a personality’s metamorphosis until it reached its climax in the fade to white at the end. The relationship of man and space was also treated as an important aspect, with the space getting bigger and bigger, growing from human scale rooms and theatre stages into the monumental stadium at the end. Mephisto is an art film and a popular film at the same time; it won an Oscar for best foreign language film. Mephisto was followed by Redl ezredes (Colonel Redl, 1984) and Hanussen (1988). The three films formed a trilogy about the correlation of man and power, about relinquishing and destroying the self in the crazy desire to be identified with power. On the other hand they examined the possibility of preserving human autonomy and its limitations. István Szabó was interested in the same questions as Miklós Jancsó. Jancsó dealt with the problem in allegorical-mythical stories, while Szabó started out with concrete personalities and circumstances; characters, situations, conflicts were treated in a realistic, classic way, but reached the (same) end result: the failure and defeat of a personality.
Gábor Bódy made his Amerikai anzix (American Torso) in 1975, a mixture of documentary and experimental film. A few years later he shot Psyché, a two-part cinema and three-part television version, based on an epic poem by Sándor Weöres. The film was considered to be a synthesis of the post-modern trend in Hungarian film. The protagonists were a syphilitic, erudite poet who lived at the beginning of the 19th century, a gypsy-countess with an enormous joie de vivre and nymphomaniac tendencies, and a Silesian baron with scientific aspirations. They were all archetypes, embodying the twofold nature of human beings, the physical and spiritual. All three desired a complete life - according to their own interpretation, of course - and they also desired each other, so they were also members of an eternal triangle. Though their mythological story took place from the Napoleonic wars until after the First World War (during which they didn’t age at all), events were really moved on by their erotic passion and the historical events of the background received a meaning only through the individuals. Visually it was a great spectacle, in which art nouveau, classicist and romantic styles were enriched by the experimental approach. The documentary-style recollections at the beginning and end of the story slowly disintegrate, images and voices merge and become incomprehensible, as time, individual and collective consciousness erode the past. Psyché is a unique documentary of the conscious, of which one can never tire.
Documentary in the 80s
The making of documentaries did not stop with the 70s, but continued into the 80s, many of them based on similar subjects. Domokos Moldován made a colourful and witty film about an illiterate but extremely rich market trader (Rontás és reménység - Bewitched by Hope, 1981); Livia Gyarmathy shot a film about a gypsy who was trying to escape from the ghetto and was humiliated and robbed both by his own people and Hungarians (Koportos, 1979). László Vitézy’s Vörös föld (Red Earth, 1982) was about the conflicting interests of the powerful and their clumsy, tragi-comical victims. However, these documentary/feature films could no longer present positive models of community life and compared to the trend-setting examples of the Budapest School in the beginning and middle of the 70s, their novelty wore off. It’s symbolic, perhaps, that László Vitézy’s Békeidő (Peacetime, 1979) didn’t show any possible way out but ended with the deadly enemies having a huge party, drinking and eating together. Similarly, in István Dárday’s Harcmodor (Stratagem, 1979) the people who had fought for a common cause lost the battle, while their opponents were rewarded.
In the 80s real events, based on real facts of the recent past, appeared for the first time in Hungarian film, no doubt as a result of the documentaries made in the 70s. Gigantic sociological film-studies fulfilled a most important task: real events of certain black spots in social history were made public, along with other taboo subjects. What’s more, this was done from the point of view of the individual and explored the way they experienced or remembered events of the past. The birth of collective consciousness was witnessed through broken sentences, uttered by "talking heads", which finally made up a continuous story (Néptanítók - Teachers 1981, Pergőtűz - Crossfire 1982, Sír az út előttem - The Road Is Crying in Front of Me 1987, Csonka-Bereg 1989 by Sándor Sára).
Another approach was to film the chroniclers of the past in their present environment. Examples include: Pócspetri 1983, by Judit Ember; A bankett (The Banquet, 1981) by Gyula Gazdag, A határozat (The Decision, 1972-1980) by Judit Ember, Gyula Gazdag, first screened In 1983; Hagyd beszélni a Kutrutzot! (Let Kutrutz Talk! 1985) by Judit Ember; Én is jártam Isonzónál (I’ve Been at Isonzo Too, 1986), Törvénysértés nélkül (No Legal Offence, 1988), Málenkij robot (Malenki Robot, 1989) by Gyula Gulyás and János Gulyás; Statárium (Martial Law 1988) by András Sipos. Judit Ember used methods reminiscent of thrillers in Let Kutrutz Talk! when she grouped conflicting statements together in a documentary lasting several hours. The Central Film Agency banned some of these documentaries because of their subject matter and they were not shown until the social changes in 1989 (it was a typical kind of paradox that they allowed these films to be made, then banned them). Banned documentaries included Pócspetri by Judit Ember and Let Kutrutz Talk! as well as Bebukottak (The Fallen, 1985) by András M. Monori in which, for the first time and without any attempts at concealment, the audience was taken into a jail for minors.
By the turn of the 80s and 90s this almost obsessive, passionate research into the past was more or less over, the task fulfilled. It had reclaimed as much as possible from fading memory.
Still, Péter Forgács continued this tradition in the early 90s, following in the footsteps of Gábor Bódy and Péter Tímár. He started to collect, restore and show amateur films made between the 20s and the 70s, the most eventful (and tragic) period of the century, producing a kind of "private history". The 12 parts of Privát Magyarország (Private Hungary) began with the Bartos-család (Family Bartos, 1988), went on with Dusi és Jenő (Dusi and Jenő, 1989) and finished with Csermanek csókja (Kádár’s Kiss, 1997). These films portrayed a strictly private world of families with their rituals and intimate actions, in their real environment, in a spontaneous and natural way (maybe there was a bit of "acting" for the camera, which was treated as a family member). History was only hinted at in the background.
At the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s the time was ripe for documentary filmmakers to turn to the present. There was an exciting challenge for them: the effects of the economic changes of the 80s started to become visible. The new market economy greatly influenced large groups of society, and the research of this transformation, just like the research of the past, needed obsessed people. The Gulyás brothers started to make their films back in 1981 (Ne sápadj! - Don’t Look Pale), Pál Schiffer also decided to stick to documentaries as early as the 70s (Fekete vonat - Black Train 1970, Cséplő Gyuri - Gyuri, 1977, A pártfogolt - The Protégé 1981, Földi Paradicsom - Heaven on Earth 1983, Kovbojok - Cowboys 1985, Dunánál - By the Danube 1987). In the 90s Schiffer became the chronicler of a small town factory, the basis of Hungary’s information industry, and its thousands of workers (Videoton-sztori - Videoton-Story 1993, Törésvonalak - Breaking Point, 1998). Tamás Almási, who had started off wanting to make fiction films (Ballagás - Graduation 1980) also turned towards documentaries and became the historian of the biggest steel plant in the country, which, by today has shrunk to almost nothing. The first film about the plant’s deterioration was called Szorításban (Tight Hold 1987) the last: Tehetetlenül (Helpless 1988).
Documentary style in feature films
A number of feauture films made use of the social realism and authenticity of documentaries and simply added psychologically true characters.
Ferenc Kósa’s A mérkőzés (The Match, 1981) was based on a real event when people were killed because someone broke the law. Kósa turned the story into a fiction film. In his two-part feature A másik ember (The Other Person, 1987) he dealt with real historical events (the Second World War, the ’56 revolution) but his human destinies were stylised in an almost biblical and deeply patriotic way. Sándor Sára followed a similar road in the 80s (Tüske a köröm alatt - A Thorn under the Fingernail 1987). The two of them were the most important representatives of a special type of fiction film, in which patriotic literary traditions were recreated in images.
Márta Mészáros set her three part Diary (Naplógyermekeimnek - Diary for My Children, Napló Apámnak, Anyámnak - Diary for My Father and Mother, Napló Szerelmeimnek - Diary for My Loves) against the backdrop of real historical events. The "Diaries" like all her other films told the story of a woman whose situation and story were unique, while her destiny was metaphorical. The trilogy managed to explain a historical paradox: how during the years of the ‘personality cult’ (Stalinism) it was possible for the leading élite and other intellectual groups - the "deviates" - to find a way to approach each other. The common ground could be some "popular front" for example. Several puzzling questions were answered in this way, throwing light on the specific nature of the evolution of post-war Hungarian intelligentsia.
Pál Erdőss was a student of the founders of the Budapest School. Yet his first film (Adj király katonát - The Princess, 1982) was a revelation, mostly due to the talent of Erika Ozsda, his discovery. The story led the audience into a world they had never seen before: a young girl’s foster parents die; she is brought up in an institution; she goes to the capital to find work; and as many others she ends up in a textile mill. She is pushed about by life and is lonely but then begins to fight back.
The "educational" films of the 80s should be mentioned here too. Unlike the educational films of the 50s, they were not made in order to teach people how to live up to the demands of some perfect future community. Young people’s lives were in turmoil because of the changing social scene and they had to find their own ways to educate themselves to deal with the situation.
The fate of institution-children, who were thrown in at the deep end without a family background, became a kind of model in the 80s. The egoism, hypocrisy and insensitivity of society were unveiled through them. It was also proved that those institutions were incapable of bringing up children. (Vasárnapi szülők - Sunday Daughters 1979, Kabala - Mascot 1981, directed by János Rózsa). Certain basic human rights were missing and the existing institutional forms became empty, as Gyula Gazdag’s film Hol volt hol nem volt… (A Hungarian Fairy Tale, 1986) stated. The film of course, had to have a miraculous fairytale ending. In this black and white film an orphaned teenaged boy tries to escape from being placed in an institution, a nurse has a breakdown because of the conditions in her hospital and a civil servant rebels against the impersonal attitude of his office. The three of them meet and find a real family in each other.
The move towards a consumer society became stronger in the 80s. Many people managed to get rich by legal or illegal means and the number of criminals grew. At the same time, many people were finding it increasingly hard to get a flat or a job. Feature films dealt with these problems by consciously using the traditions of documentaries. New social phenomena were portrayed with traditional professionalism, but marked by more sensitivity and empathy (László Lugosy: Köszönöm, megvagyunk - We’re Getting Along 1980, Pál Erdőss: Visszaszámlálás - Countdown 1985, Gondviselés - Tolerance 1986; Lajos Fazekas: Haladék - Not Yet the Day, 1980). Zsolt Kézdi-Kovács made an ironic film called A kedves szomszéd (A Nice Neighbour, 1979) about a former cheap hotel turned into flats, where the inhabitants battled for each square metre and engaged in daily plotting trying to get another flat. The film presented a perfect cross-section of one particular social class in the 70s. Szívzűr (Heart Tremors, 1981) by Géza Böszörményi was about a young doctor trying to fit in with the life of the village where he’s beginning his medical career. It contained documentary elements yet it was a playful and ironic story. Rezső Szörény was a master of combining documentary techniques and improvisation. After Buék (A Happy New Year) he directed Boldog születésnapot, Mariyn! (Happy Birthday, Marilyn! 1980) a story about a country actress, whose private life and career almost end in disaster.
The 80s began in 1979, in literature as well as in film. This is when the first feature films based on documentary material (real events and characters) appeared. Unexpectedly these subject matters and characters came to represent a whole era of the social regime. They were sad and objective stories about how individuals (or sometimes whole groups within the social structure), were forced to live in a permanent state of crisis and had to suffer the loss of human values.
The first feature made by András Jeles, A kis Valentinó (The First Fling, 1979) was an "anthropological disaster film". In this seemingly insignificant story, performed by amateurs in an everyday milieu, a 20 year old man - an untrained security-guard - wanders around with a pile of money he is supposed to be keeping safe. He’s seen getting in and out of taxis, spending money like water and doing things he couldn’t normally afford to do. And yet he takes no pleasure in anything, he forms no ties with anyone. This film by Jeles was the first warning that because the majority of society had no proper past and background, they had no chance to get anywhere in the future either.
Péter Gothár’s film, Ajándék ez a nap (A Priceless Day, 1979) was another feature which was made using documentary methods. The film showed up the era for what it really was - the quality of life very far removed from the officially accepted fantasy. But at least there were two women in the story who could tell their problems to each other. They could drink all night and talk about how baffling it was not being able to solve the problems in their lives.
In both films the camera seems to move at random, circling the characters, observing them. It is as if the person observing them was also confused, being part of the events and yet watching them from strange angles, from afar, as an outsider. This was something new - a spontaneous portrayal of aimless wanderings and psychological and emotional chaos which, in reality, was not spontaneous at all but very precise and credible, and visually relevant.
Élve vagy halva (Dead or Alive, 1979) by Tamás Rényi and Szirmok, virágok, koszorúk (Flowers of Reverie, 1984) by László Lugossy were shocking reminders that the events of 1956 could be forgotten, that the majority of society had adapted to the new conditions and that people were trying to build their own lives whilst not risking anything for the sake of any ideal. While Rényi and Lugossy hid their message in romantic, historical stories, Károly Makk told a dramatic story of a lesbian love affair. It was about the downfall of those few who dared to call others to account, who wanted to know about unfulfilled promises and the obliteration of their the future (Egymásra nézve - Another Way, 1982).
Gothár’s Megáll az idő (Time Stands Still, 1981) was a film which became symbolic of the 80s: a cathartic story of Hungarian society, which had turned into a backwater. The film began with black-and-white documentary-like footage, showing a father, who left his family in 1956 and escaped to the West. Cut to 1963: a 15-year-old schoolboy starting to get to know the world and realising how his whole environment is totally incapable of communication. With an increasing sense of disappointment, he begins to understand how people lie and make compromises to be able to survive and, all the time, almost unconsciously, they get stuck in a sticky motionless state. The strong story and wonderful visual world created by Lajos Koltai turned the film into an internationally recognised work. Péter Gothár in his later films - of various genres - continued to examine the tragic conflict of people who are unable to adapt to circumstances, incapable of accepting the world around them, not just here, at home, but in a world that is becoming more global (Idő van - Time 1985, Tiszta Amerika - Just Like America 1987, Melodrama 1990).
Béla Tarr - like András Jeles, Gábor Bódy and others - recognised and portrayed the processes, which started around the turn of the 70s and 80s and led to the downfall of large social groups and the disappearance of certain values, like solidarity. Szabadgyalog (The Outsider, 1980) was a pseudo- documentary with amateur actors. It told the story of a young man who was born on the margins of society, had no family, no safe background but was blessed with great musical talent and sensitivity. His efforts to find his place turn into a series of dismal failures. Panelkapcsolat (The Prefab People, 1982) was based on imagined situations, often found in documentaries, but using professional actors. Using long takes Tarr presented a grotesque picture of life in the pre-fabricated blocks, the financial and spiritual poverty hiding behind a giant poster which advertises social wealth, about the decay and disappearance of human relationships. Őszi almanach (Almanac of Fall, 1984), another film made with professional actors in improvised situations, portrayed human behaviour and interaction; it was about the psychological warfare of five people shut into the same place.
In Kárhozat (Damnation, 1987) Tarr perfected his new approach towards narration. (He had, of course, experimented in his previous films, including a Macbeth, done in one 60-minute take). In this film everything "is over", everything has gone to pieces. In a black and white, rainy, barren landscape the camera moves in seemingly endless takes and shows how Breznyk, an aimless, idle man who is only moved by sex and crime, is totally dehumanised. The "end of the world" atmosphere is strengthened by the image of the (broken) neon sign of the Titanic Nightclub. This sign was also a reminder of the last sentence in Jeles’ film, The First Fling: "the orchestra on the sinking Titanic was playing until the last moment…" There was not a single pitiable or sympathetic character in Damnation. Or perhaps there was - as the camera moves along an endless wall and every now and then, in a passage, one gets a glimpse of a group of poor people with closed faces and empty eyes. Tarr’s next film, also based on László Krasznahorkai’s writings, was the seven and a half hour long Sátántangó (Satantango 1994) in which film-time began to have an independent mythical life - was almost the same as real time - which determined the length and intensity of spending time in space. The almost motionless moving picture established the definitive style of the film. Beyond the unusual treatment of time and space, the film used names which were almost Biblical (Irimias - Jeremiah, Petrina - Peter) and almost Biblical events, like the death of Estike and her (invisible) ascent to heaven. There were other archaic elements (like the bell-ringer, left here from the time of the Turkish occupation, who rings the bells from time to time). Through these motifs the documentary-like story of the doomed people of the community became universal.
While Béla Tarr wanted to show us how people lived on the margins of society, György Fehér - whilst treating time and space in a similar way - led the viewer into the human soul and the processes taking place there. In Szürkület (Twilight, 1989) two different types of investigation collided, in Szenvedély (Passion) three people were engaged in an erotic battle.
Some filmmakers of the 90s with their metaphysical attitude and spectacular visual world were following in the footsteps of Béla Tarr and György Fehér - who in turn were close to Jeles and his film The First Fling. Attila Janisch in his Árnyék a havon (Shadow on the Snow, 1991) tells the story of a father who accidentally commits a crime and has to flee with his daughter from punishment. After her first film, Hótreál (Damn Real 1987) about a sub-cultural milieu, Ildikó Szabó made Gyerekgyilkosságok (Child Murders 1992) and told the story of a parentless teenager’s few tragic months which finally ended in murder. Woyzeck by János Szász (1993) was a modernised version of Georg Büchner’s drama. An ordinary man can only prove his freedom in one way: by taking revenge on his unfaithful love. For those who live on the margins of society, committing a crime is often accidental but in a way it is also unavoidably linked to their environment and circumstances. The objectively presented grey milieu (block of flats, riverbank, bridge, station, barren forest, winter hills) seemed to be at once a motif and an explanation of their deeds.
András Jeles in his Álombrigád (Dream Brigade, 1983) demolished the official image and all the assertions and declarations concerning the working class; in a way he destroyed the phoney self-portrait of a whole regime. The film was banned because it was impossible to edit or re-write any part of it. The authorities found the whole film intolerable. It was first shown openly in Hungary in 1989. In the story a "factory brigade" represents the working class, the ideological "ruling class" of a so called socialist state. But, in actual fact, what is shown is a bunch of workers intellectually undemanding, spiritually confused and without any aspirations to any kind of a future. They can hardly communicate, speaking in fragmented sentences. Instead they drink and sing pop-songs and sentimental snatches from operetta. A very cruel and typical scene was one in which every time Lenin leaves the factory a guard checks his attaché case.
Jeles did more than demolish the socialists’ image of workers in every Hungarian film. He destroyed all the usual forms of story-telling, even the story itself and gave a new meaning to the visual spectacle. In his next film, Angyali üdvözlet (The Annunciation, 1983) he had children cast in a 19th century classic Hungarian drama and used the structure and visual appearance to express the hopelessness of this century. His view was considered pessimistic for its own sake and created quite a scandal. For years he steered clear of filmmaking and experimented instead in alternative theatre. Senkiföldje (Why Wasn’t He There? 1993) was a painful, self-torturing confrontation with the holocaust based on the diary of a teenage girl who had lived in a small town in Transylvania.
The director, György Szomjas, and his partner, cinematographer Ferenc Grunwalsky, also found their voices in the 80s, armed by their former experiments (Vörös Rekviem - Requiem for a Revolutionary 1975, Talpuk alatt fütyül a szél - The Wind is Whistling under Their Feet 1976, Rosszemberek - Wrong-Doers 1978, Kopaszkutya - Bald-Dog-Rock 1981). Typical characters and stories were portrayed in a Budapest inner city district, in a decayed building of flats situated around an open courtyard and the nearby pubs. The director and cinematographer had actors and amateurs play out grotesque, episodic stories, so there were extreme documentary-like elements counterbalanced or questioned by experimental effects (changes in colour, subtitles, fragments of reportage, repetition of scenes, editing, clips). They even used deliberately badly composed and photographed sequences typical of non-professional filmmaking. The series begins with György Szomjas’s Könnyű testi sértés (Light Physical Injuries, 1983), followed by Falfúró (The Wall Driller, 1985), Könnyű Vér (Fast and Loose, 1989) Roncsfilm (Junk Movie, 1992), Csókkal és körömmel (Kisses and Scratches, 1994). It was to be expected that Szomjas and András Szőke, who was always experimenting, befriended each other at the end of the 80s. Szőke told stories of ordinary little people, the stories turned into absurd, surreal burlesques because of his special amateur-like charm (Vattatyúk - Cotton Chicken 1989, Európa kemping - Europa Camping 1990, Kiss Vakond - The Little Mole 1993.)
Ferenc Grunwalsky collaborated with Szomjas, but he made his own mark in the history of Hungarian film with a couple of special works. His films were based on super close-ups, aggressive and specially lit, so the viewer was forced almost violently into a relationship with the human face, its parts, and mainly the human eye. With his camera he tried to reach people who lived in the depths of society (Egy teljes nap - A Full Day 1988, Kicsi, de nagyon erős - Little But Tough 1989) or he investigated the very soul of unbalanced people who had lost their footing and tried to understand them (Utolsó előtti ítélet - Last Judgement But One 1979, Goldberg Variációk - Goldberg Variations 1991).
Péter Tímár started his filmmaking career in the Béla Balázs Studio, where he made short films and did some editing as well. His first feature, Egészséges erotika (Sound Eroticism, 1985) made him immediately well known. The film’s trick was shooting scenes with actors moving backwards and thus creating a burlesque-like style - rather in the manner of Milos Forman’s film, Fireman’s Holiday. The story was about a fire in a box-factory, caused by the greedy and destructive management.
Gábor Bódy’s trend-setting film, Kutya éji dala (Dog’s Night Song, 1983) is a powerful work even by today’s standards. There were invisible threads connecting people, they all wanted something from one another, something different from what the other wanted. They gathered courage then retreated, and stepped forward again and again - just like the ball in the opening sequence of the film: it was rolling down a hill, stopped by the uneven earth, rolling down again. In Bódy’s film, set in a godforsaken mountain village where no one is what they seem, nothing happens in the way it might have been expected. The world is inexplicable and incomprehensible, the phoney could be real and vice versa. The strange intertwining story of the fake priest, astronomer, artillery officer, wife and former mayor was full of unexpected gags and tragedies. János Xantus in his film Eszkimó asszony fázik (Eskimo Woman Feels Cold, 1983) used a new kind of structure to tell the story of the love triangle between a deaf-and-dumb animal carer, a successful piano player and a strange woman who wants to be a pop star. The filmmakers who followed in the footsteps of Bódy - like János Xantus, Zoltán Kamondi, Sándor Sőth, Can Togay, András M. Monori - did not believe that it was possible to comprehend, save or change the world. On the contrary, they knew that the world was utterly ruined. And yet they approached people in an emotional, even romantic way. They noticed if there was anything sympathetic, anything loveable about them. A few examples: the episode about an old man crouching on his stool, watching the moon (Togay’s A nyaraló - The Summer Guest, 1991); the acceptance and respect felt for the lifestyle of others (A szárnyas ügynök - Peter in Wunderland by Sándor Sőth, 1987); the relationship of the meteorologist with his computer and with the blushing erotic assistant (Meteo by András M. Monori, 1989); the magical, sensitive, odd secretary, Ilona’s mission and sacrifice (Halálutak és angyalok - Paths of Death and Angels, 1991 by Zoltán Kamondi).
Ildikó Enyedi’s first feature Az én xx. századom (My 20th Century, 1988) was a story told in a personal way yet it was all about collective feelings. It was brimming with a love of life, the world and living beings and it managed to convey the impression that in a cosmic universe everything existed at the same time both in the micro- and in the macro-world. After the opening sequence, a tragi-comic vision of humanity ending its own life (a scene from a Buster Keaton movie) the 20th century was presented to the audience. Scientific experiments, feminism, terrorism, suffragettes and coquettes, electricity, the miracle of the moving picture: everything that ever made the 20th century so colourful and promising. Edison sent his famous cable only at the end of the film: "The world is wonderful..." We could still start afresh. Bűvös vadász (Magic Hunter, 1994) was a mystery play with a complicated structure. It declared simply that there was only one medicine against devilish practices: a pure heart and love. Her latest film, Simon Mágus (Magician Simon, 1998) takes place in Paris, but is a mystical, wise Central European tale about inner harmony and the power of love.
The major male stars of the 80s, those who appeared most frequently in films, were György Cserhalmi, Péter Andorai, Károly Eperjes, Dezső Garas. New faces were to be seen in interesting character parts: Andor Lukáts, Miklós B. Székely. The top list in the 90s remains the same (Cserhalmi, Andorai, Eperjes) with Gábor Máté and Róbert Koltai joining them. There are other interesting actors: János Derzsi, Dénes Ujlaki, Péter Rudolf and - occasionally - Tamás Cseh, the composer. The Polish Jan Nowicki and the Yugoslav Djoko Rosic were often given parts in Hungarian films. Amongst the women, Cecilia Esztergályos was the star of the 80s and in both decades the leading stars were Dorottya Udvaros, Ildikó Bánsági and Enikő Eszenyi.
In the 80s there appeared a new generation of cinematographers to follow on from the internationally famous ones, people like Lajos Koltai, Elemér Ragályi, János Kende. Tibor Máthé was a master of composition and picturesque presentation. Sándor Kardos was a virtuoso with the hand-held camera and also a master at creating unusual light and colour effects. Gábor Medvigy was a real partner for Béla Tarr in creating the visual world of his films. And then the pupils arrived: Francisco Gózon with his sensitive style, Tibor Klöpfler who worked on creating images with a scientific precision. They were a definitive influence on the high professionalism of films in the 90s.
In the 80s there was a resurgence of popular, entertaining films which became very successful. Kojak Budapesten (Kojak in Budapest 1980, directed by Sándor Szalkai) was a satirical story about dysfunctional objects and thus a dysfunctional socialist regime. A series of Hungarian films, known as the "Piedone films", definitely reveal a Hungarian speciality: the struggle between a detective and his boss. The detective, Csöpi Ötvös (played by István Bujtor), is always passed over for promotion, but is professionally much needed; his boss, Dr. Kardos (played by András Kern) is always promoted and rewarded but is utterly useless. The "Piedone films" were: Pogány Madonna - Pagan Madonna 1980, director Gyula Mészáros; Csak semmi pánik - Don’t Panic, Please! 1982, director Sándor G. Szőnyi; Az elvarázsolt dollár - The Enchanted Dollars 1985, director István Bujtor; Hamis a baba - False Dolls 1991, director István Bujtor.
György Palásthy directed two family entertainment films, Szeleburdi család (A Harum-Scarum Family 1981) and Szeleburdi vakáció (A Harum-Scarum Vacation, 1987) - both were fun, everyone got what they expected. György Dobray followed the example of the French director Pinoteau and his film Party and made a couple of extremely successful films for teenagers (Szerelem első vérig - Love Till First Blood 1985, Szerelem második vérig - Love Till Second Blood 1987).
Péter Bacsó’s Te rongyos élet (Oh, Bloody Life, 1983) was the first popular and entertaining film dealing with the 50s which used comedy as a genre and operetta as a milieu. This film started another age of "looking-back-to-the-past-films", or "retro-films". Róbert Koltai’s first feature film, a comedy full of autobiographical elements, Sose halunk meg (We Never Die, 1992) became hugely successful. The story took place in 1959, the protagonist was a coat-hanger salesman who loved life and women. One of the film’s songs reached the charts. At the end of the 90s another "retro-film" became the biggest box office success: Csinibaba (Dollybirds, 1997) by Péter Tímár. The story takes place in 1960, it was full of trick-shots and sounds, unusual filmic elements, which recreate the atmosphere of the times in a dreamlike, slowed-down way and with many period pop-songs. Judit Elek made a film about a 19th century scandal and infamous trial, Tutajosok (Memoirs of a River, 1989) and followed it up with Ébredés (Awakening 1994) another film about the 50s, the story of a teenage girl growing up.
What was the secret of the "retro-film", what kept them alive? Nostalgia and escape into the past. But the only ones which were really successful were those which did not try to pass judgement on the past. That way people could find in them whatever interested them about the past.
The apocalyptic vision of the 80s seemed to be in some respect justified by history (Az új földesúr - The New Landlord by András Lányi, 1988) while other films seemed to be a bit late. Péter Gothár was allowed to shoot A részleg - The Outpost in the 90s (1994) and, using Lev Gordon’s memoirs Haggyállógva Vászka (Letgohang Vaska, 1995), both films were East-European concentration camp stories. The Outpost was a two character drama set against a background of destroyed villages and snowy mountains, the depressing atmosphere was somewhat lightened by the inner strength of the female character. Letgohang Vaska, a surreal and absurd story set in a real concentration camp, was lightened by the wise and poetic wisdom of folk-tales.
János Rózsa reacted quickly to the big social changes of 1989. His 1/2 álom (Brats, 1990) was a story about the simultaneous social changes in Hungary and Romania. Péter Vajda in Itt a szabadság (Voila la liberté! 1990) portrayed the "big, feverish shopping spree in Vienna", András Salamon in Zsötem (Je t’aime, 1991) made a film about the peep-show business, depicting the tragi-comic and grotesque consequences of freedom arriving too quickly. Gyula Maár in Hoppá (Whoops, 1992) had an elderly couple getting into a bitter conflict with the "change of the regime". Ibolya Fekete in her first feature, Bolse Vita (1995), portrayed the first euphoric moments of the great social change of the East-European regimes. Zsuzsa Böszörményi’s Vörös colibri (Red Colibri, 1995) was already touching upon the problem of the global victory of the underworld and the sad phenomenon of talented people, unable to solve their conflicts or settle at home, moving to Western countries.
After the collapse of the East European socialist regimes (1989) few films were made which took it upon themselves to criticise the previous regime, or films which properly analysed and explained the events of the 1956 revolution. A few films did show the heroic pathos of the ’56 revolution (Károly Makk: Magyar rekviem - Hungarian Requiem 1990; A halálraítélt - On Death Row by János Zsombolyai 1990). There were no surprising stories told in unexpected new ways about the dictatorship of the 40s and 50s either. Sándor Sára did make a couple of films with the intention of warning his contemporaries of the dangers of despotism: Vigyázók (The Watchers, 1993); A vád (The Prosecution, 1996). Other films proclaimed that even under the pressure of history, even in a small place, people were capable of finding happiness (Franciska vasárnapjai - Every Sunday, 1996 by Sándor Simó). A világ legkisebb alapítványa (The Smallest Foundation of the World, 1997) by Ferenc Kardos was a bitter and melancholic story about the guilt that the hypocritical "soft dictatorship" felt towards the families and relatives of the politicians who had been executed. Péter Tímár’s 6:3 (1998) was a sad and beautiful story, a journey into the past where one could set things right and form relationships one had neglected to form at the time. Géza Böszörményi and Livia Gyarmathy had already commemorated life at Recsk, the labour camp (Recsk, 1989) and Livia Gyarmathy made a feature based upon the same subject in 1995 called Szökés (Escape). Pannon töredék (Pannon Fragment, 1997) by András Sólyom told the story of a short period of love and freedom during the ’56 revolution and the dire, long years of retribution which followed.
Contemporary subjects like the conflicts and tragedies caused by the market economy and out of control capitalism only appeared in a few films. István Szabó reacted quickly to the doomed conflict of fragile personality and history in the story of two Russian language teachers (Édes Emma, drága Böbe - Dear Emma Sweet Böbe 1991). Films like A Csalás gyönyöre (The Rapture of Deceit, Livia Gyarmathy, 1992), Balekok és banditák (Gulls and Gangsters, Péter Bacsó, 1997), Gyilkos kedv (Last Seen Wearing a Blue Skirt…, Pál Erdőss 1996) Törvénytelen (Bastard, Ferenc András, 1994), Mindenki fél a törpétől (Everybody is Afraid of the Dwarf, József Czencz, 1996) put some particular phenomenon under the microscope, but none of them tried to show and explain connections. As the power of the underworld grew and Balkan-like conditions began to take over, the middle-aged generation began to speak up, especially those who had always been driven by a feeling of responsibility towards society. György Szomjas made Gengszterfilm (Gangstermovie 1997), Ferenc Grunwalsky followed up Little But Tough with Visszatérés (Return, 1998), both of them trying to show the specifics and motivation of violence.
Some filmmakers were not motivated by actual events. Attila Janisch in Hosszú alkony (Long Dusk, 1997) filmed a female archaeologist’s last journey. A similar journey made by a famous writer is given in a parallel story about teenage experiences in József Pacskovszky’s film Esti Kornél csodálatos utazása (The Wonderous Voyage of Esti Kornél, 1994). A Witman fiúk (Witman Boys, János Szász, 1997) was a dramatic story about two teenage boys who escape from a soulless, rigid family atmosphere into the "loving" arms of a prostitute, a film with an exceptional visual world.
Miklós Jancsó, after many years’ of silence and a few documentaries, reacted to the events of the recent past with a tetralogy. A zsarnok szíve vagy boccaccio magyarországon (The Tyrant’s Heart, 1981) could be regarded as the prologue to the tetralogy made at the end of the 80s and beginning of 90s. Szörnyek évadja (Season of Monsters, 1986), Jézus Krisztus horoszkópja (Jesus Christ’s Horoscope, 1988) Isten hátrafelé megy (God Walks Backwards, 1990) and Kék Duna keringő (Blue Danube Waltz, 1991) all take place in confined and obscure spaces, impersonal cars circle, trapping people, rain falls, parachutes erase memories, lovers and spouses become traitors, homes and friends disappear, friends deny friends, anybody can be shot anywhere and some people can rise from the dead. Jancsó, apart from his usual methods, began to use video-monitors, showing events leading up to the scene, sometimes continuing it, sometimes showing another aspect of it. One never knew what was real, the scene on the screen or on the monitor. At the end of The Tyrant’s Heart the characters were shot by invisible snipers. In the later films the director and writer, Jancsó and Gyula Hernádi were also shot. After A nagy agyhalál (The Great Hungarian Brain Death, 1996), a wild and cynical mystery play, Jancsó broke with the allegorical way of story-telling. His most recent film, Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr pesten (The Lord Gave Me a Lamp in Budapest 1998) takes place in a cemetery, over the Danube, in Budapest streets, and in an old palace. The episodes are realistic and rough contemporary improvisations: anecdotes about getting ahead and falling back in the course of life, about the way everything is always for sale, about the underworld, the Balkanisation of the country - and about the peace of death.
Tibor Klöpfler’s first film A lakatlan ember (The Man Without an Abode, 1992) used an individual voice for a story which takes place in a sub-cultural milieu. Miklós Ács turned amateur filmmaking methods into professional filmmaking (Éljen anyád - Your Mother Is Free! 1991). András Szirtes, the forever-young experimentalist, told the story of the Marquis of Sade (Sade márki élete). In this full-length feature, (1992) which looks like a damaged video tape from the 18th century, Sade speaks about his adventures and reads from his memoirs about his ideals of freedom - all from within the framework of a police interrogation. Júlia Szederkényi in her first feature Paramicha (Paramicha, or Glonczi the Rememberer, 1993) deliberately used amateur-film methods, clumsily following the poetic and grotesque plot. Péter Reich’s Rám csaj még nem volt ilyen hatással (No Girl Ever Has this Effect on Me, 1993) was about the emotional poverty of a generation of intellectuals who had no ties with anything or anyone. Tamás Sas in his first feature, Pesszó (Café 1997) presented a trivial story of three young women, competing in love, which ends in blood. The whole story was set in the corner of a café, the camera never moved.
Lately the number of short films seems to be growing. Generally young filmmakers turn towards this cheaper way of filmmaking, which, at the same time, can be professionally very challenging. Zsuzsa Böszörményi won a Junior Oscar with her graduation film, Egyszer volt hol nem volt… (Once Upon a Time… 1991). Marcell Iványi’s few minute long etude, a moving picture based on a Lucien Hervé photo, Szél (Wind) was awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1996. András Fésős made his name with short films recently, both at home and abroad, at various festivals (Az eltűnt mozi - The Lost Cinema, 1993). Others were also successful: Attila Mispál (Altamira, 1997), Szabolcs Hajdu (Necropolis 1997) Csaba Bollók (Észak, Észak - North, North 1998).
The annual Hungarian Film Festival has, since 1965, enabled filmmakers to show the films which they’ve made in the preceding year. Since 1989, documentaries have been included in the Festival.
The transformation of filmmaking and distribution has been going on for years, but as yet, no film-law has been passed. Hungarian film is searching for its place, looking for new ways of expression and opportunities in changed circumstances and within new social conditions. Hungarian films are presented at festivals abroad, get awards, and allow the world to know about the society, reality and culture of which they are a part.
Narcissus and Psyche, 1980,
Patricia Adriani and Udo Kier
Gyula Gulyás-János Gulyás:
Don't Look Pale
on the cover of Metropolis
Let me Rest in Peace, 1982
Diary for My Loves, 1987
A Hungarian Fairy Tale, 1986
The First Fling, 1979
A Priceless Day, 1979
György Fehér: Passion, 1995-98
Long Dusk, 1997,
A Full Day, 1988,
Eskimo Woman Feels Cold, 1983,
Marietta Méhes and Andor Lukáts
Paths of Death and Angels, 1991,
My 20th Century, 1988,
Oh, Bloody Life, 1983,
We Never Die,1992,
Róbert Koltai and Mihály Szabados
Dolly Birds, 1997,
Witman Boys, 1997,
Alpár Fogarasi and Szabolcs Gergely
The Tyrant's Heart, 1981