103 minutes. Colour, With English subtitles.
Director: Márta Mészáros.
Meszaros has had a long career in the Hungarian film industry. She started working on documentary in the 1950s and moved to features in 1968. She has made over two dozen features; though many have not been seen in the UK. Her film about Imre Nagy, A temetetlen halott (The Unburied Man (2004, reviewed elsewhere in this blog) has yet to receive a screening in the UK. Earlier films have won prizes at the Berlin and Cannes Film Festivals. She deals very powerfully with issues affecting women, but also shows a recurring concern with the troubled history of her country in the C20th. A series of semi-autobiographical films focused on the tragedy of the 1956 uprising. This new feature deals in part with that story.
The film combines characters from recent history in a partly fictional story. But the story itself includes flashbacks and inserted footage of historical events. The film opens with a dedication to Anna Kéthly. She was a member of the Social Democratic Party and the first woman to be elected to the Hungarian Parliament in the 1930s. Her life was a struggle, first against the fascist government of the 1930s: then against the German occupation: and finally against the Soviet occupation from 1945. In 1956 she was a member of Imre Nagy’s short-lived nationalist government and then went into exile after the suppression of the rebellion. In exile she continued to campaign and oppose the Soviet occupation. (The character in the film is played by Enikö Eszeyi).
Mészáros film imagines an episode late in her life of exile when the Hungarian government attempts to lure her back to her native country. This plot hinges on Péter (Ernie Ferkete), a younger university lecturer in Literature, who is also the nephew of Anna’s past love, Faragó (György Cserhalmi), who remains in Hungary. Péter’s unlikely Ph.D. study is Walloon Troubadours. This provides for the ploy for him to attend an academic event in Brussels where Anna remains in exile.
Mészáros increases the complex of associations by opening the film with Péter confessing his clandestine past to his younger brother. It is now 1992 and as he begins his story we see the coverage of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary covered on the television news. The film ranges widely in time and space. Flashbacks, including newsreel, take us back to the 1930s, the 1940s and the fateful year of 1956. And the characters move between the capital of Hungary Budapest and the western capital of Brussels.
We learn not only about Anna’s political career but also her personal involvement with Faragó (the younger version is played by Ernie Ferkete), who belongs to the Communist Party. One of the props of their relationship is a small book of poetry. The poems figure large in the film, and I think the poet was probably a real writer and most likely carries strong connotations for Hungarians.
Whilst part so the film carry the almost noir atmosphere associated with surveillance and the secret police, [for example in Margaret von Trotta’s The Promise/Das Versprechen, 1994) there are also fairly sardonic episodes. Péter’s ‘handler’ in Brussels is a strong and attractive woman bureaucrat. At one point, after wine and a party, she leads him away by his tie – we are able to imagine what occurs in the ellipsis.
Unfortunately instead of a 35mm print we viewed a version on Digibeta. The image quality was not particularly good and also variable in clarity: meanwhile the aspect ration, probably 1.78:1 showed signs of cropping and squeezing, [possibly down from 1.85:1:] this was especially noticeable in the frequent large close-ups. This rather limited my appreciation of what appeared to be some extremely well crafted sequences. The newsreels and the sequences with recreations are generally very well handled. I did think some of the Budapest reconstructions seemed the wrong period? And the personal drama uses setting and landscape to good effect. When Péter arrives in Brussels we follow him as he strolls through a park: the sun is out, the park is green and a group of young hippies smile benevolently at him. As his assignment develops there are increasing days of rain. Several shot of Anna use the flowers in her house and in her garden as placements. The last shot of her in the film racks to soft focus as she pushes through close-knit bushes and trees. A sort of visual equivalent to some of the lines in the poems.
The importance of Péter’s work is emphasised by the status conferred on Anna as an émigré. Late in the film she celebrates a birthday and among the many telegrams is one from the King of the Belgiums. At another point a friend with an embassy car visits her. This is Golda Meir, a real-life friend of Anna. Given the role of the Suez invasion in forestalling any action over the invasion of Hungary, I found this a little odd. The explanation is presented when Anna tells Golda that, ‘I have lost a country, you have gained one’. This sense of loss as an exile is an important theme in the film.
However, there is also a concentration on the personal at the expense of the political. This is a common trait in Mészáros’s films. However, it leaves a certain lacunae for the viewers. So the political distinction between Social Democrat and Communist is never developed. Neither are the politics of the Soviet Union or of their puppet government in Hungary. And at one point Péter’s handler tells him that the CIA funds Anna’s group, but we hear no further about his.
The film’s focus is very much on the effect of events on Anna and Faragó. But it also draws parallels with the new generation. So Péter’s young wife, Kati (Gabriella Hámori). also benefits from his work for the Security Services and is able to join him in Brussels. But she is then appalled when she realises the work that he is involved in. And as we hear the story through Péter’s confession to his younger brother we also become aware of the cost to himself and those about him of his actions.
The fact that the story concerns the efforts of a man to inveigle a woman is not accidental. Gender is key focus in Mészáros’s films. And intriguingly the central plot device echoes Margaret von Trotta’s The Promise. In both films it is the woman who escapes to the west whilst it is the man who stays behind, caught up in the State repression dramatised by the films. In The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, 2006), with its male director, one of the male protagonist finally makes it in a unified Germany whilst the female protagonist dies.