Presented in Association with The Center for Slavic and East European Studies
Hungary, from the start, seems to have had a special relationship with cinema. Through a series of migrations, the old Austro-Hungarian Empire prodigally supplied film artists to the film industries of the whole world. Hollywood history for instance abounds with Hungarian names - Zukor, Cukor, Curtiz, the Kordas, the Gabors, Lugosi, Varkonyi, Szakall and scores of others. The very air of Budapest indeed seems peculiarly favourable to the formation of film makers: despite the decades of exportations between the world wars, cinema art has - allowing for the inevitable ups and downs of film history - flourished. Since the Second World War, Hungarian films have the most consistent record of quality production of any European socialist country. In particular the last fifteen years have seen the appearance of a generation of film makers who boast both a coherence and an individuality hardly equalled anywhere in the world.
If in the English-speaking countries we are not as aware of the new generations as we should be, it is perhaps because we have been dazzled by the unique personality of Hungary's most prestigious film maker, Miklos Jancso. The present selection of films for screening in North America includes work by Jancso and his contemporaries (Jancso is represented by his latest interpretation of twentieth-century history, the virtuoso Allegro Barbaro): it also reveals how two whole waves of new film makers have already developed since Jancso's first impact on the international scene.
To appreciate Hungarian cinema it is helpful to be aware of some perennial and dominant characteristics: a traditionally literary disposition; a special concern and relationship with history; a remarkable capacity for constant revival.
The literary tradition goes back to the very origins of Hungarian cinema. Compared with other European countries, Hungary was a late-comer to films and so her cinema managed to avoid the stage of social disreputability which dogged other cinemas of the world. This meant that the beset actors and writers of Budapest were not ashamed to work for films as early as the second decade of the century; and a literate, middle-class audience was not ashamed to go and see them. The resulting urge to adapt to the cinema the best literature still leaves its mark: the dilemma between the literary scenario and the impulse to break away from the domination of the script is a constant and stimulating tension in Hungarian production. Hungarians use the term film d'auteur in a subtly different sense from the rest of the world: for them it means, precisely, a film with an original script, written by the director himself.
Another significant factor in Hungarian cinema is its concern with history. Hungarians live closer to their history than most nations; and in the twentieth century the country has experienced history in a concentration that is bewildering to us in the English-speaking countries. It is hardly surprising that so many of the films deal with Hungary's recent past. Janos Rozsa's Dreaming Youth reflects the era of the childhood of Hungary's great film theorist Bela Balazs. Ferenc Grunwalsky's A Requiem for a Revolutionary and Pal Sandor's A Strange Role both deal with the fateful year of 1919; Allegro Barbaro with the period between two World Wars; Sandor's Deliver Us from Evil with the Second World War itself; Ferenc Kosa's Snowfall with the immediate aftermath; Sandor Simo's My Father's Happy Years and Andras Kovacs' Stud Farm with the years of socialization. In 25 Firemen Street, Istvan Szabo offers, in his singular poetic style, a whole impressionistic panorama of forty years of Budapest history.
This sense of history and of our own place in it has as a corollary a heightened sense of the present, and a readiness to deal with daily life as part of the historical continuum. This too foes back to the earliest days of Hungarian film; as Graham Petrie writes in his recent study of Hungarian films, “History Must Answer to Man.” “Hungary has a long tradition of making films designed to reveal and explore social conflicts and even before the nationalisation of the film industry in 1948 the best Hungarian films had almost always chosen to tackle rather than ignore social and political problems.”
The capacity for renewal is remarkable. There was renewal after the Second World War, with now classic films like Istvan Szot's Song of the Cornfields and Geza Radvanyi's Somewhere in Europe; renewal after nationalisation, with Frigyes Ban's The Soil Under Your Feet, Imre Jeney's A Woman Makes a New Start and Feliz Mariassy's Anna Szabo; a notable renewal again, with the end of the grim Rakosi years, with the revelation of Zoltan Fabri (Merry-Go-Round, Professor Hannibal), Imre Feher (A Sunday Romance), Karoly Makk (Liliomfi) and a whole new generation, many of them still active today. The events of 1956 produced an inevitable hiatus; but the establishment of a second feature studio in 1957 made possible a sharp increase in production and greater variety of approach.