Even out of context, The Tragedy of Man, a Hungarian animated epic opening tonight at Facets Multimedia, is pretty stunning. In my short review, I compare it to such cult classics as Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet and Ralph Bakshi’s Heavy Traffic; and like those films, it marries artisanal, hand-drawn animation with heady, adult ideas. (If it weren’t nearly three hours long, it would make a great midnight movie.) Yet it’s also a personal adaptation (by veteran animator Marcell Jankovics) of one of the most famous works in Hungarian literature. So it helps to know a bit of history before going in.
The author of Tragedy of Man, Imre Madach, was better known in his lifetime as a lawyer and politician than as a writer. Born in 1823 to a wealthy family, he finished law school in his early 20s and was elected to a minor public office shortly thereafter. In the late 1840s, he supported the liberal movement that had spread throughout the territories of the Austrian Empire and culminated in the numerous failed revolutions of 1848. He provided sanctuary to the secretary of Lajos Kossuth, one of the leaders of Hungary’s failed War of Independence; Austrian authorities arrested him for this and imprisoned him for a year. Madach embarked on his most serious writing after his release, though he returned to politics in the early 1860s. He was elected to the Hungarian Parliament in 1861—the same year he wrote Tragedy of Man—and died in office three years later. He didn’t live long enough to witness the publication of his most famous work (in fact, he shared it only with colleagues during his lifetime). The first public performance didn’t occur for almost two decades after his death.