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Stalinism on Screen: How Rákosi’s Rule is Depicted in Hungarian Cinema Under Kádár 1956-1989

21 Jun

Protagonist József Pelikán in 'A Tanú'

An analysis over 5,000 words of three Hungarian films released during the Kádár era of Hungarian Communism, and how they reflect on the period of 1948-1954~. Originally written April 2011.

Introduction

 

The cinema of Hungary, like other Central European states, is recognised as carrying a strong tradition of both realism and social commentary. This has been shaped by the political events which swept the country after the Second World War: the authoritarian state led by Mátyás Rákosi and the Hungarian Communist Party and the struggle for liberation in 1956, which still plays a large part in the Hungarian identity today. The early years of the People’s Republic of Hungary (1949-1989) were categorised by widespread oppression, show trials and politically-motivated purging of numerous institutions; and this has been a topic of exploration for a multitude of directors in the years following the revolution. This strength of this theme can be seen in the release of films on the subject well after it had passed, and into features released after the transition to democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Indeed, films reflecting on this period of history have become revered both in the national context and abroad, winning prizes on the international circuit and achieving cult status amongst sections of the population.

This report will be focusing on this particular point, to investigate a number of questions relating to freedoms of expression in the cinema of Hungary and wider society. In order to do this, several films dealing with the Stalinist period of Hungarian history will be examined and critiqued, supplemented by available English language literature; both reflecting on the films themselves, and also in the historical context. The aims of the study are as follows:

  • To identify why Stalinism has been a key cinematic subject: what events and occurrances under Rákosi made this such a crucial subject?
  • The role of censorship in Hungary after the revolutionary period, and the leadership of Hungary under Kádár: what made these films possible to be shown?
  • A content analysis: why are such scenes depicted, and what are they meant to communicate to the viewer?

Films for Consideration

 

The films which will be analysed in this report are:

 

  • Diary for my Children (Napló gyermekeimnek, Mészáros 1984)
  • Love (Szerelem, Makk 1971)
  • The Witness (A tanú, Bacsó 1969)

 

Rationale

 

There a several reasons as to why this investigation is valuable. Firstly, it aims to provide an in-depth analysis into an aspect of Hungarian cinema which is accessible due to it being written in English. Unfortunately, much cinematic writing on Hungary is marginalised to scholars who do not have a working knowledge of the language, and thus this report is necessary to deepen understandings of Hungarian film and to provide a resource. As Central European cinema does not and should not exist in isolation (recognising that there has historically been an influence from outside factors), there is space to broaden out the debate from merely an internal, Hungarian viewpoint; and of course provides a template to study similar themes and patterns which may exist in the cinema of the region.  In addition, academics and writers who possess a knowledge of Hungarian can play a positive contribution into the expansion of this project, to cover any gaps which may exist because of omissions of sources.

Considerations

 

With an investigation of this magnitude and scope, it is inevitable that there are some concerns which may impact on the report in a negative way. The lack of Hungarian-language sources is a problem in that it may lessen the scope of investigation. In order to overcome this, reading of English sources will be broad and diverse, and although this does not remedy the problem entirely, it gives space for a future study incorporating the research work evidenced here and coupling it with Hungarian sources.

Rákosi’s Hungary and Stalinism in Effect 1948-1956

 

In order to examine the importance of Stalinism in Hungarian cinema, one needs to assess the political and social affairs of Hungary under the General Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party, Mátyás Rákosi, from 1948 until the Revolution of 1956. During this time, the Party was able to consolidate its power in the postwar climate, and entrench itself by following one of the most aggressive forms of loyalty to Stalin’s USSR, and employing its tactics of terror and oppression in order to keep itself in power.

Firstly, attention should be paid to how the Hungarian Communist Party was able to establish itself. In the aftermath of the occupation of Hungary during the Second World War, Hungarian communists supported the line of the Provisional Government, with the belief that “the population would reward them at the polls for their apparent commitment to pluralism in general and to the cause of reconstruction in particular” (Gati 1994:371). This was not to be the case, with the Smallholder’s Party garnering an overall majority of 57%; with both the Communists and Social Democrats on 17% each. However, the subsequent government which was formed allowed the Communist Party four ministerial seats (plus one for the National Peasant Party, which can be seen as allies to the HCP), and for achieving a majority, the Smallholders only receiving half of the posts available. This coalition allowed for the generation of what was known as “salami tactics”: the procedure of removal of opposition and implementation of policy ‘slice by slice’; which continued to the fraudulent 1947 election where Communists achieved a higher share of the vote and eventually outright power through an organisation which “excelled not only in intimidation, but also at organising demonstrations” (Molnár 2001:299).

At this period, Kadarkay comments that “Rakosi (sic), Stalin’s most faithful East European viceroy, did his zealous best to give credence to the haunting lines of the Hungarian poet laureate, Endre Ady: ‘Nothing proves better our beautifully sad primitiveness than the fact that we have to extract from literature life and death’” (1973:280). The AVO and AVH, Hungary’s political police outfits, were ruthless in the internal and external purges of society in the late 1940s onward.  Molnár comments that “in the political sphere, the transition to brutality affected everyone: there were mass dismissals in the ministries, municipalities, army and publishing houses”, and that “the number of political executions and political prisoners incarcerated, beaten and tortured is not known” (2001:302-304). Of course, similar to events in the Soviet Union, there were investigations and purges into the Party itself, mostly around the divisions between ‘Muscovite’ party members, who spent the war in Russia, and communists, who had either stayed in Hungary or emigrated abroad and then returned. László Rajk, former Interior Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, who didn’t emigrate to Moscow, was one such victim; being submitted to a show-trial and sentenced to death on grounds of being a ‘Titoist spy’ who wished to reinstate capitalism. In the clergy, Cardinal József Mindszenty was also tried, and after “having been drugged and tortured by the AVO, the Cardinal confessed to “anti-state” conspiracy and received a sentence of life imprisonment” (Gati 1994:373).

The film industry, at this time, was what one could expect under such a climate. Decimated during the wars, Hungary was only able to produce and release approximately three films a year in the period immediately after 1945. Like the press, creative artistry and expression was stifled by the new regime, where the industry had to “submit to Zdanov’s (sic) principles, which stood diometrically opposed to the efforts of neorealism” (Liehm and Liehm 1977:147) – highlighting not only the influence of Soviet political figures such as Andrei Zhdanov on Hungarian affairs, but also the curtailment of the realism movement which was sweeping European film and its incompatability with the doctrine of socialist realism. This would change after the Revolution of 1956, in which Rákosi would be forced to resign, ushering in a new era of Hungarian Communism, as well as a marked change to the shape of Hungarian cinema.

Kádár and Liberalisation

 

The turmoil and tragedy of Hungary’s 1956 revolution, although brutally suppressed by Soviet tanks, created a symbolic and long-lasting break from the Stalinism of Rákosi and eventually a liberalisation of the country. Coming in as General Secretary in October 1956 under the new party guise of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party, János Kádár, backed by the Soviet Union, moved to “restore order and extinguish the dying flames of revolution” and “inaugurated two years of systematic repression and revenge” after the events which had unfolded (Cartledge 2006:488). Although this second wave of purges and imprisonments were not as arbitrary and random as what was seen in previous years, there were still three hundred executions, including that of popular leaders such as Imre Nagy.

However, Kádár’s rule in the decades following can rightfully be seen as a turning point in the Hungarian context. Infamously implementing an economic system of reforms which lead to growth, known as “goulash communism”, there were also liberalising tendencies with regards to deviation and basic freedoms of speech – which is important to consider when discussing films which depicted Stalinism on screen. In contrast to the doctrine of “he who is not with us is against us” under Rákosi, the new slogan for reform was “he who is not against us is with us”. Kontler describes the subsequent regime as:

That fluid and indefinite amalgam of the absence of liberty in general but access to some liberties; of the mitigation of repression and a limited autonomy of the economic and cultural spheres; of lip service paid to strong political consciousness and a de-politicisation of everyday life (relieving and annoying at the same time); above all, the trimming of the wilder branches of the command economy and the endeavour to satisfy the demand for consumerism (2002:434)

These changes had reverberations on the cinema industry. For the first time since the openness generated around the events of 1956 (which, of course, were extremely short-lived), “the government [has] encouraged a modest degree of critical reporting by the press and an ever-expanding latitude for cultural intellectuals…the result has been a lively activity within the cultural community, with literature and film profiting especially from the relaxed political environment” (Paul, in Goulding (ed) 1989:178). This factor did not, of course, allow for a full-blown attack or critique; as despite liberalising tendencies the system “was still believed to have had the most sophisticated and elusive censorship mechanisms in place” (Iordanova, in Cornis-Pope and Neubauer (eds) 2004:531); yet this still allowed for the opening up of what was once a closed topic of investigation. From this, a new realism movement in Hungarian cinema was fostered, using depictions of Stalinism as an enforcing factor. On the other hand, the political climate still forbade any direct references to the 1956 uprising: thus pushing the subject of life under Rákosi back to being a legitimate yet daring subject. This should also reflect on the denunciations of Stalin by the political elite, notably Khrushchev, which paved the way for Kádár’s style of governance in the first place.

Therefore, the economic revitalisation and freer (but not completely free) society that Hungarian people experienced during the Kádár years placed a resurgent cinema industry in the position to embrace not only new artistic styles, but new content analysis. At this time, directors and auteurs could make mention of parts of history that reflected on the trials and imprisonments that communities experienced in the aftermath of the Second World War and the establishment of the People’s Republic of Hungary. This was communicated in numerous ways by film, with differing intentions, and is necessary to examine in order to establish the bigger picture of life and society during the post-1956 period.

Károly Makk’s Szerelem

 

It may be, on the surface, unusual to analyse a film released in 1970, Makk’s Szerelem (Love); before going on to examine a film from the year before. Yet the script and ideas that resulted in one of Makk’s most noted films was a working project for nearly half a decade before its cinematic debut. Based on two short stories by the writer Tibor Déry, it tells the tale of an old woman, her daughter-in-law Luca, and the husband János. Bedridden and sick, the woman anxiously waits day-by-day for the return of her son, receiving letters telling of his successes as a director in the United States. The twist here is that these letters are in fact written by Luca, who knows that her husband has been imprisoned for political crimes. Szerelem touchingly portrays the increasing senility of the old woman, her death, and János’ eventual release against a backdrop of the last days of Stalinism.

The film employs a number of techniques to communicate both the events that many dissidents, or so-called dissidents, suffered; and the paranoia which existed throughout the 1950s. This is one of the main reasons in itself why this subject has been a central theme to cinema of the liberalisation period: that “problems of the 1950s as an historical (sic) object stemmed at least in part from a controlled absence of relevant historical documentation” (Aczel 1998:152) and therefore depictions on screen became an effort to communicate some sort of historical or anecdotal record to this particularly brutal regime. In other words, the films provide a comment which the state could not make. As Déry and Ivan Darvas (János) had both served time in Hungarian prisons, this consciously reflects real experiences, which is also a part in reflecting Hungarian neo-realism which was developing at the time. The film does not shy away from shots that leave no doubt as to the political situation – the prison cell, for instance, is captured, as are the shaved heads of the prisoners; inferring the possibility of execution rather than release, adding to the overall atmosphere.

It is this sense of paranoia throughout Szerelem that makes for captivating viewing. As Liehm and Liehm note, the director “succeeds in capturing the atmosphere of uncertainty and fear in which friendship, faith, and fidelity somehow collapse and turn into the exact opposites” (1977:392-393). Luca’s role as a school teacher plays into this perfectly. When she is suddenly dismissed from her job and loses her home the viewer is in no doubt that this is politically motivated; similarly when she is meeting friends, the mysterious men from the “telephone exchange” are almost certainly spies who are planting surveillance equipment. Indeed, these “friends” are also lost, due to the association with her husband.  The strength of these images often lies in delivery and technique: Makk does not need to make the telephone bugging, or motivations for Luca’s dismissal, completely overt in the dialogue, precisely because the subject is one which is familiar to the Hungarian audience. Furthermore, there is a powerful contrast that is made. Whereas “the old woman “sees” flash frames of yesteryear, gallant men on horseback and ladies with parasols photographed with the slight distortion of a wide-angle lens…Luca sees crisp images of her own era with its crumbling plaster and shortages of food” (Paul in Goulding (ed) 1989:190).

The visions and recollections, one of the stand-out techniques in the film, also construe “visions of imperial elegance that blend into her fantasies of János’ transatlantic adventures” (Robinson in Hames (ed) 2004:176). The old woman appears to be intelligent despite her condition, so these moments ask the question as to whether or not she is in denial. If there is doubt that János is likely to be in prison, then this is an indication of the coping mechanisms which some used to counter the oppressive environment of Rákosi’s state. Perhaps the outrageous story of her son’s supposed life in America is indicative of the closed nature of Hungarian society in the 1950s, that the image of America here can at least be perceived as credible. The doubt in the viewer’s mind on interpretations of these motifs mirrors the paranoia which lingers throughout the film. Ultimately, Makk has been able to direct a film in which the protagonists “encapsulate the national trauma of Hungary in the years of Stalinist oppression and its lingering and pervasive heritage” (2004:173).

Iordanova argues that the films of Károly Makk, amongst others, helped to “form(ed) the backbone of the strong tradition in socially critical film-making” in Central Europe (2003:38); and from Szerelem this can be seen clearly. The director has incorporated cinematic technique and motif in a neo-realist style, which produces a film that is rife with tension and paranoia. As has been mentioned, the intention here is to provide an analysis of the Stalinist years without being as direct to create a historical text or documentary, in order to strike a balance between real experiences and the state-legitimised view of happenings. The fact that it is based on genuine experiences only adds to the strength, and these anecdotes are ones which appear in other films of the era; where auteurs create features that are entrenched with an autobiographical perspective.

A Tanú (The Witness)

 

The cult status around Péter Bacsó’s feature film A Tanú (1969) lies not only on merit as a comedy set during the years of political trials and purges, but also it being one of the most notable shelved films in Hungarian cinematic history. As the film was “considered too critical to be shown at the time of its completion (not long after the Prague spring)” (Aczel 1998:154), audiences would have to wait nine years before receiving it to mass acclaim. Set, for the most part, in rural Hungary, it is a film about József Pelikán; a dam-keeper, and his experiences with the Communist Party in its early years of power. In multiple absurd circumstances, he is appointed multiple party positions, despite being generally disinterested in political organisation; and in-and-out of prison due to a series of unfortunate mishaps. When an old friend and comrade, Zoltán Dániel, is arrested in true show trial fashion, Pelikán is appointed as the ‘star witness’ in order to condemn him. Refusing to lie about Dániel, he is subsequently convicted and condemned to death. However, at the gallows, Pelikán is informed at the last minute he has been rehabilitated, and he is released back into society, at a time which the viewer understands as being many years later. Returning to his old life, the now free protagonist goes back to his village and to dam-keeping duties.

With regards to the banning of the film, it is important to remember that although the post-1956 environment was vastly different from that of the Rákosi period, it was by no means a free society. That “the people in power could and would, still use that power if they felt threatened” (Cunningham 2004:114) is indicative of this, yet the phenomenon of shelving completed films was far more overt in other Communist countries such as Czechoslovakia and Poland. The fact that A Tanú was indeed shelved is representative of the level of political satire featured: the film makes this directly part of the storyline, and is unreserved at painting a picture depicting the Party as being bureaucratic and incompetent. This is made clear both in actions and in dialogue. When given charge of a local swimming pool, Pelikán fails to recognise leading member Comrade Bástya (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Rákosi) swimming, and opens up the pool to the public. Speaking of the incident, the protagonist apologises as he “didn’t know the party line”, reflecting the far-reaching bureaucracy of even simple functions in Hungarian society. This is coupled with the delusion of the high-ranking officials, Bástya and Virág, served by the constant repetition throughout of tired political clichés that appear to be related to all sections of life (“the international situation is intensifying”). The absurdism is also reflected in the banners, with slogans mirroring socialist realism at every turn; the pinnacle of this is witnessed in the heralding of the Hungarian Orange, which is then portrayed as a glorious victory against the imperialist West.

Dániel’s trial, “which some commentators saw as having parallels with the Lásló Rajk case” (Cunningham 2004:115) is towards the end of the film, but is certainly one of the most fascinating to evaluate. As one would expect from any show-trial the script is written in advance (at one point Virág mistakenly hands over the sentence to Pelikán while the court is in session); and the protagonist is made to go through a ridiculous procedure of speech therapies and examinations before being brought in as the main witness. Accusations held up against ‘Dániel and his group’ fit in with the historical context – the usual charges of fascist espionage and the like – yet these are interspersed with bizarre claims such as hiding secret messages in tin cans covered with gopher skins, and conversing underwater with frogmen. Aczel argues that by this scene “the historical perversity of the show trial is rewritten in the “innocent” terms of dizzy fantasy; the tragedy of the absurd is rerun as the farce of the impossible, or fictional, finally liberated from the awkward history of which the film itself is a problematic representation” (1998:155). The satire here cannot be taken seriously, but this is the point: to demonstrate the incongruity and irrationality of the charges which were brought against many during the 1950s. To an extent, ironically, it also reflects the absurdity of communist control over all spheres of influence – of which art is one – and the removal of A Tanú from the cinemas.

Bacsó has been careful to create a film which does not downplay the tragedies of the past, but is also not afraid to highlight the grotesque and comedic aspects of the regime; generating a piece which “teeters between humour and horror” (Paul in Goulding (ed) 1989:196). It cannot be helped to laugh at the bureaucracy of the state faced with Hungarian oranges and ‘Socialist Ghost Trains’, but at the same time the very real situation is kept close at hand. All in all, it symbolises a complete cross between historical realism and comedy which still appeals to younger generations in Hungary today; and in a way highlights the spirit of a nation who could not be beaten or held back by the overshadowing of the Communist Party.

Márta Mészáros and Autobiographical Film

 

Perhaps Hungary’s most renowned female auteur is Márta Mészáros, who has been active in the domestic and international cinema community for more than forty years; and a key component in the analysis of cinematic developments of the Kádárist years. Her Diary trilogy, of which the first, Diary for My Children (Napló gyermekeimnek, 1984) will be discussed here, should be considered as necessary viewing for any academic engagement with Stalinism and cinema in the Central European context.

In order to thoroughly examine Napló gyermekeimnek, it is essential to understand Mészáros’ personal background and how it relates to the story that is being told. The daughter of a sculptor, Mészáros emigrated with her parents to the Soviet Union, where her father was imprisoned (and subsequently disappeared, and her mother died when she was young. Subsequently, she moved back to Hungary in 1946, before relocating again to Russia to study at the Moscow Film Academy. The main protagonist in the Diary trilogy, Juli, is therefore autobiographical in nature. Juli will further mirror parts of the director’s life in future features, but in Napló gyermekeimnek the viewer sees her arrive back in Hungary at around the same period, with a family situation that is practically identical. Upon returning to Hungary, Juli is cared for by Magda, a staunch communist, representative of the Stalinist camp. Based right in the middle of the internal politics of the organisation, Juli witnesses “the intensifying conditions of fear and deception upon which Magda’s career seems to thrive” (Aczel 1998:172) which enforces itself by disappearances, forced confessions and imprisonment. Despite the advantages she receives, and close connections within the Party, Juli is able to resist the attempts made for her to conform and instead focuses priority on finding her father, though of course his relocation and background are not talked about as a so-called ‘enemy’ of the people.

Mészáros creates an atmospheric and gripping film with a bold remit, which arguably goes further than other contemporaries in the field. What Napló gyermekeimnek excels at is highlighting the divides that still exist in the society that Juli finds herself in. The birthday party which she is invited to exposes the luxury that high-ranking Communists enjoy, almost suggesting that a new class has been forged in a society that strives to be classless; and the divisions between home communists and Muscovites is played out in detail – argued out through the dialogue between protagonists. Radio broadcasts and political rallies make overt the “Titoite” trials and the case of Lásló Rajk. Furthermore, the implications of the factionalist purges and the realism of the situation are supplemented by close-up shots intended to capture emotion. The director also includes documentary footage and a fragmented style of chronological events which create “a paradigm of groundbreaking visual strategies used to serve the filmmaker’s long-censored story of familial loss, intergenerational tension and the struggle for artistic and personal identity” (Portuges, in Hames (ed) 2004:193). Much like Szerelem, film has again been used as a platform to contribute to the history of the Hungarian state under Rákosi, in this case the personal story of the director.

Despite this being the most well-received film of the Diary trilogy domestically, “twice as many people went to see Oh Bloody Life, and four times as many saw István the King, the film version of a rock opera set in the eleventh century” (Aczel 1998:175): in other words, films geared towards mass appeal rather than historical drama were more favoured. Cunningham points out that “Hungarian audiences tended to become bored with the films revisiting the 1950s” (2004:138), and despite the liberal regime at this point, may be another reason why Napló gyermekeimnek could go far in its criticism of Hungarian Stalinism. However, the content and artistic quality provoked both discussion and praise. As Portuges highlights, it is “a recreation of historical events and a re-reading of official versions of history. As such, though far from merely didactic, they [the Diary trilogy] propose interpretations that conform neither to the prevailing ideologies of the time in which they were made nor to those of the period they propose to represent” ( 1993:86). Thus this film also serves a purpose of opening up a wider dialogue, frank and overt, as to the happenings of 1940s and 1950s Hungary to compensate for the lack of official discussion and documentation.

By completing Napló gyermekeimnek, Márta Mészáros has made a highly stylistic and personal film, which has historical as well as cultural usage. The definition of Stalinist Hungary that is exhibited is different from that of Makk and Bascó in the sense that it is more of a direct challenge to held beliefs, and by highlighting the divisive and classist nature of the Hungarian Communist Party, indirectly questions the rationale and existence of the Hungarian state itself. These themes would inevitably be built upon in the continuation of the trilogy, yet even as a stand-alone work Napló gyermekeimnek has achieved in creating an argument that is steeped in personal experience and realism.

Conclusions

 

From this investigation, a number of conclusions can be made attaining to the role of Stalinist depictions in Kádár-era Hungarian film. Although this rule lasted from 1956 to 1989, spanning thirty-three years, a general pattern has still emerged despite the length of time.

Although Kádár’s initial approach to governance in the aftermath of the 1956 revolution amounted to a de-liberalisation of society, with reprisals aimed at stabilising the country, this soon changed to one which allowed more openness than experienced before in the Communist context. From such a development, the realism style of cinema could be adopted to a greater extent by Hungarian filmmakers, and historical depictions was a key, but not exclusive, component of this. Due to the doctrine of “he who is not against us is with us”, more criticism could be levelled at the political nature of Hungary, and as discussions of 1956 were more or less off-limits, the rule of Rákosi became a well-explored topic.

Károly Makk’s Szerelem from 1970 is an early example of the realist practice coupled with historical recollection, being based on two short stories by an author who was imprisoned under the regime. The film is a well-crafted balance of content and technique, with the style reflecting the paranoia and uncertainty of the years documented. It can be used as a pivotal example of a reclamation of history, in that it aims to forge a realistic picture of the times as a method of countering the lack of recorded evidence which was available. Fourteen years later, Márta Mészarós would also employ such a combination, however it would go further. Indicative of both the continued liberalisation and also the development of artistry in Hungarian film, Napló gyermekeimnek exhibits a much more damning critique, which attacks not only mainstream interpretation and oppositions to Stalinism, but the intentions of the Party and system itself. At a time when disinterest in historical realism was affecting the national audience, the director was able to open up the space for another deep discussion into the country’s past.

Despite the examples set by the films above, the realist style is by no means a prerequisite for a critical examination of the postwar regime. This has been shown by Péter Bascó in his film A Tanú, a comedy which both satirises the Communists but also displays a chilling undercurrent. It perfectly points out the inconsistencies and the absurdities of Stalinist society without downplaying the brutality of it: a pitfall which would be easy to step into. Although unintentional on the part of the director, it also highlights the inconsistencies of the state at the time of release – openness, but not too much openness – the result of which saw this cult film shelved for a number of years and only adding to its appeal.

Therefore, the depictions of Rákosi’s Hungary became a theme for three main reasons: the slight freedoms emerging through the installation of János Kádár as General Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party; the characteristics which permitted it to become a vehicle for a realist movement in cinema; and a desire for documenting and opening up the history of the regime. Depictions on screen were further aided by a cinematic technique which intention was to create both an atmosphere reminiscent of the time, and to highlight particular tenants of Stalinist rule. The fact that these films are still enjoyed today by both a Hungarian and international audience is testament to both the stylistic tendencies of the films of this era, and the very serious role they had to play.

Bibliography

 

Books (Authored)

Cartledge, B. (2006) The Will to Survive: A History of Hungary, London: Timewell Press

Cunningham, J. (2004) Hungarian Cinema: From Coffee House to Multiplex, London: Wallflower Press

Iordanova, D. (2003) Cinema of the Other Europe: The Industry and Artistry of East Central European Film, London: Wallflower Press

Kontler, L. (2002) A History of Hungary, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Liehm, M. and Liehm, A. (1977) The Most Important Art: Eastern European Film after 1945, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press

Molnár, M. (2001) A Concise History of Hungary, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Portuges, C. (1993) Screen Memories: The Hungarian Cinema of Márta Mészarós, Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Books (Edited)

Gati, C. (1994) “From Liberation to Revolution, 1945-1956”; in Sugar, P., Hanák, P. and Frank, T. (eds) A History of Hungary, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp.368-383

Iordanova, D. (2004) “East-Central European Cinema and Literary History”, in Cornis-Pope and Neubauer (eds) History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe: Junctures and Disjunctures in the 19th and 20th Centuries Volume 1, Amsterdam: John Benjamins pp.524-541

Paul, D. (1989) “Hungary: The Magyar on the Bridge” in Goulding, D. (ed) Post New Wave Cinema in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press pp.172-214

Portuges, C. (2004) “Napló gyermekeimnek/Diary for My Children”, in Hames, P. (ed) The Cinema of Central Europe, London: Wallflower Press pp.191-202

Robinson, D. (2004) “Szerelem/Love”, in Hames, P. (ed) The Cinema of Central Europe, London: Wallflower Press pp.173-180

Journal Articles

Aczel, R. (1998) “”The Day Before Yesterday”: The Representation of the 1950s in Hungarian Cinema in the 1980s”, Hungarian Studies, 13(2), pp.151-178

Kadarkay, A. (1973) “Hungary: An Experiment in Communism”, The Western Political Quarterly, 26(2), pp.280-301

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Hunky Blues – The American Dream (Film Festival Review, Part One)

11 Apr

This is the first installment of a series dedicated to reviewing the films of Glasgow’s Hungarian Film Festival.

 

The first film of the Hungarian Film Festival was a documentary in nature, namely Péter Forgács’s Hunky Blues – The American Dream. The documentary deals with early waves of emigration to the United States by Hungarians in the early parts of the 20th century, encorporating footage shot from that time with interviews and recordings. At times light-hearted, other times mired in the social and political wedge these new immigrants find themselves in, the director has produced a credible and factual image of the situation in which thousands of Hungarians made the long voyage overseas.

 

Hunky Blues’ strength lies in the fact that it emphasises the personal stories, and is not guilty of homogenising the Hungarian people and viewpoint. Anecdotes are varied, at times even including the source on screen, and this adds to the academic strength if employed as part of a serious investigation. The drawback of this in the documentary is that the viewer tends to skim over or forget the statistical evidence which at times appears: the tales of the interviewees are much more fascinating. When coupled with period song recordings – at points just a woman singing over limited instrumentation in Hungarian – adding a sense of atmosphere and further retrospect to the inclusions within.

 

However, this is not to say that Hunky Blues does not have its problems. At times certain points are emphasised on screen when they simply do not need to be. The fade-in of “he was killed by a train” is bizarre and out of place. If the stories being recited are strong and telling, why does there need to be an emphasis here? By this Forgács appears to be straining to ensure that the viewer identifies with the severity of the plight many immigrants faced, or to feel a sense of sympathy – and it is debatable whether or not that should be part of the remit of a documentary. That is not to say that a documentary cannot occupy the space of cinema as a medium of communicating emotions, but at times one feels there is a line that has ever so slightly been crossed from the objective aspect of the feature. There has been wide discussion in the directing and production community on aspects of how a documentary film should be presented, and the director in this case has opted for third-person narration to compliment the footage. Perhaps there would be more resonance to the, often gripping and fascinating, tales if this was omitted; but it should be recognised that in this case a lot has to do with personal preference.

 

As a co-operation with Hungarian Television, there are several parts which a Hungarian audience, or someone with an interest in Hungarian affairs, will have more of an idea in the grounds of context and politics of situation in this part of history. Many parts dealing with immigration and Hungary’s part of Austria-Hungary have been generalised, and coupled with the long running time, may drag on for some viewers who are watching the film from an outsider’s (or merely cursory knowledge) perspective. The danger of generalising is that it tarnishes the extent of how informative certain parts are, and indeed makes some of the footage less relevant than it actually is.

 

Nevertheless, this is a credible effort and a fitting start to a film festival which will be dealing with the subject of immigration and displacement. Forgács has found some success in directing a piece that puts real-life stories first and foremost, and to their credit, this is what carries Hunky Blues along: the sheer number of immigrants yielded a rich cultural tradition which has been captured on the footage extremely well. The question that keeps arising, nonetheless, is whether or not the platform itself could have been worked upon.

http://www.hunkyblues.com

Check the Gate – Hungarian Film Festival

9 Apr

Scene from István Szabó's 1966 film 'Apa' (Father, not being shown at the festival)

 

This week saw the beginning of the Hungarian Film Festival, being shown at the Glasgow Film Theatre. The title of the festival, ‘Check the Gate’, reflects the remit of what is being shown this year: all films on the subject of displacement, immigration and exile throughout years of Hungarian history.

The festival will be showing these features:

Hunky Blues – The American Dream (Az amerikai álom): Péter Forgács, 2009 (5th of April, review to appear soon)

Somewhere in Europe (Valahol Európában): Géza Radványi, 1947 (12th April, 18:00)

Daniel Takes a Train (Szerencsés Dániel): Pál Sándor, 1983 (17th April, 17:15)

American Torso (Amerikai anziz): Gábor Bódy, 1975 (19th April, 18:30)

The Last Report on Anna (Utolsó jelentés Annáról): Márta Mészáros, 2009 (24th April, 14:45)

For more information, visit http://www.glasgowfilm.org/theatre/whats_on/season:hungarian_film_festival

kinokinomozi will be attending all films at the Hungarian festival (with, unfortunately the exception of American Torso at this point), and will be publishing them in review in due course. Tuesday’s Hunky Blues review will be uploaded in the near future. For any cinema lovers in Glasgow or nearby this provides a rare opportunity for ‘big screen’ showings of Hungarian movies, which are often difficult or impossible to find on DVD in this country. Four tickets can be bought at a special price of £22 or £18 concession, and based on Tuesday’s showing it sets out to be a highly promising festival which will cause a high level of debate on not only the issues featured, but on the cinematography of Hungary itself.