This past weekend saw the Chicago release of Sunset, László Nemes’s first feature since his widely debated debut, Son of Saul. Regardless of how one feels about these films (which have inspired strong reactions both pro and con), their prominence in film discourse confirms that Nemes is the most internationally visible Hungarian filmmaker since Béla Tarr—which is to say he’s one of the few internationally visible Hungarian filmmakers working today, period. The cinema of Hungary may not receive a lot of attention stateside, but its history is nearly as old and as varied as that of cinema itself, making it an area worthy of investigation by film lovers everywhere.
The first Hungarian film was made around the turn of the 20th century; by the time of the First World War, the country was home to several production companies and a vibrant moviegoing culture. The world wars dramatically impacted that culture as well as Hungary’s film industry, but both were reborn in the 1950s when new voices, working (of course) under communist state supervision, began to craft and promote an art cinema unique to the nation. Hungarian films would receive their greatest period of international recognition in the 60s, with the emergence of such great artists as Miklos Jancsó and István Szabó, but the country has produced other major figures since then, notably Márta Mészáros, Tarr, Ildikó Enyedi, and György Pálfi.
The Reader has provided space for the discussion of Hungarian films throughout our history. That discussion has not always been positive (Dave Kehr, for instance, was one of the few major American critics to respond coolly to Szabó’s international smash Mephisto), though Jonathan Rosenbaum’s praise for the work of Jancsó and Tarr played an important role in cementing those directors’ American reputations. Below are five capsule reviews from the Reader archives of key films from the past half-century or so of Hungarian cinema.
The Red and the White This 1967 feature was one of the first by Hungarian filmmaker Miklos Jancsó to have some impact in the U.S., and the stylistic virtuosity, ritualistic power, and sheer beauty of his work are already fully apparent. In this black-and-white pageant, set during the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the reds are the revolutionaries and the whites are the government forces ordered to crush them. Working in elaborately choreographed long takes with often-spectacular vistas, Jancsó invites us to study the mechanisms of power almost abstractly, with a cold eroticism that may suggest some of the subsequent work of Stanley Kubrick. If you’ve never encountered Jancsó’s work, you shouldn’t miss this. He may well be the key Hungarian filmmaker of the sound era, and certain later figures such as Béla Tarr would be inconceivable without him. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Confidence István Szabó’s Hungarian film (1979) is a perfect example of an intensely subjective cinema realized without a single overtly subjective shot. In a story of two wary individuals who are forced to live together in hiding during the Nazi occupation of Budapest, Szabó deftly weaves two disparate points of view into a seamlessly expressive whole. The film is romantic, erotic, and disturbing: though it is on the side of intimacy, it maintains a strict sense of the limits to human feeling. With Ildikó Bansagi (exquisite and subtle in a role that requires her to change her appearance as her character grows) and Peter Andorai. —Dave Kehr
Diary for All My Children An autobiographical film (1984) by Hungarian director Márta Mészáros (Nine Months). At the close of World War II a young orphaned girl—her mother had died in the war; her father had been arrested and vanished—returns home to communist Hungary from Moscow. She’s assigned to the care of a stern aunt—a former resistance fighter, and now a high-ranking member of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Mészáros brings some provocative variations to the state/family metaphor: it is now the evil mother who embodies the repressive force of the totalitarian society, while the fathers—the girl’s real parent and the substitute she finds in the gentle father of a friend (both are played by the same actor)—are its passive, impotent victims. The girl’s coming of age is a discovery of both sexual and political power. But though the ideas are intriguing, I have always been allergic to Mészáros’s painfully exaggerated realism: the drab settings, the understated acting, the bleak cinematography (by Mészáros’s son, Miklos Jancsó Jr.) radiate authenticity but lack the pleasurable spark of true artistic re-creation. —Dave Kehr
Damnation One of Susan Sontag’s favorite films, and it’s easy to see why (1987). People who don’t have much use for the existential gloom of Antonioni and Tarkovsky are advised to stay away, because many of the hallmarks of their relentless black-and-white style and vision—lots of rain, fog, and stray dogs; murky and decaying bars; artfully composed long takes made up of very slow and almost continuous camera movements; offscreen mechanical noises—are so forcefully present that the gloom almost seems like a fetish. The rather bare story line in the middle of this—a reclusive loner (Miklós Székely) is hopelessly in love with a cabaret singer (Vali Kerekes), hopes to find salvation in her, and gets her husband involved in a smuggling scheme so he can spend some time with her—seems almost secondary to the formal beauty of Béla Tarr’s spellbinding arabesques spun around the dingiest of all possible industrial outposts. The near-miracle is that something so compulsively watchable can be made out of a setting and society that seem so depressive and petrified. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Hukkle György Pálfi’s oddball first feature (2002) combines the bucolic black humor of Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry and the pastoral lyricism of the classic French documentary Farrebique. A symphony of rural sights and sounds—including the hukkle, or hiccup, of the title—provides the oblique framework for the investigation of a series of mysterious deaths in a sleepy Hungarian village. While the enigmatic narrative hints at retribution for sins committed against nature and womankind, Pálfi’s unfettered, omniscient camera slices across walls, soars across the sky for bird’s-eye views, and dives underground to discover an ill-fated mole waddling through its tunnel. Told almost entirely without words and composed largely of detail shots, this doesn’t quite transcend the gimmickry of its concept, but it succeeds as a bravura technical exercise with some truly amazing images. —Martin Rubin v