Tagged: Hungarian Cinema

Sunset (Napszállta, Hungary-France 2018)

Juli Jakab as Írisz Leiter, bravely taking on Budapest

Sunset won the Critics’ Prize at Venice in 2018. László Nemes, the writer-director, won both the Cannes Grand Prix and the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for his previous film Son of Saul (2015). (He has two co-writers on Sunset.) However, the two films have been received differently by some reviewers and some audiences. I haven’t seen Son of Saul but I know it offers a narrative about the experience of a Jewish-Hungarian man in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. I suspect that whereas most audiences would at least recognise that story, the world of Sunset must be unknown to many modern audiences. I doubt many mainstream audiences in the UK or US would be able to tell you much about the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 1913. The elderly couple sat next to us in the cinema, were, I think Hungarian and they would know, but not perhaps one of the reviewers in Britain’s leading film journal Sight and Sound who is completely dismissive of the film. But the culture of pre-1914 Central Europe is very difficult to grasp and Nemes refuses to use  conventional approaches to presenting it. This Milan Kundera quote from 1984 is used in the introduction to one book on Central European Cinema:

Central Europe is not a state: it is a culture or a fate. Its borders are imaginary . . . (quoted in The Cinema of Central Europe, Peter Hames (ed) 2004)

For those of us in the UK and North America, the history and culture of the former ‘Holy Roman Empire’ seems so alien because we haven’t experienced such a shifting sense of identity within territories that experienced occupations and changing borders over decades and over centuries. In 1913 when Sunset is set, the three connected kingdoms/territories of Austria, Hungary and Croatia-Bosnia, the remnants of the former empire after 1867, still constituted a powerful economic and military force and a highly-developed and sophisticated culture in Vienna, Budapest and Prague, but its citizens did not share an identity, a language or a religious identity. This multinational, multi-ethnic conglomeration would be torn apart after 1918 and the repercussions of the ‘end of empire’ are still being felt in the ‘New Europe’ of today. The original Hungarian title of the film is translated by Google as ‘eventide’ which seems more poetic and perhaps hints at foreboding. The film narrative offers a metaphor for the collapse of empire. This is hinted at in the opening titles but not made explicit. In the Press Pack, Nemes reveals the influence of F. W. Murnau:

This film is my personal testimony to the love of cinema, almost a century after the hopefulness of Sunrise by Murnau – a movie to which we pay homage. I hope that Sunset carries in itself something of the interrogations embodied by Murnau’s film.

What plot there is in Sunset focuses on a woman in her twenties who turns up at the most fashionable milliner’s emporium in Budapest (extravagant hats for women are the ultimate status symbol in the society). She is quickly revealed to be Írisz Leiter, the daughter of the founders of the Leiter brand who set up the shop. We learn that the parents died and that the infant Írisz was sent to Trieste where she eventually became an apprentice milliner. Now she is back, to the consternation of the current owner of the business Oszkár Brill. What does she want? What should he do with her? In the next few days the Leiter brand is celebrating 30 years in business with parties and dancing and visits by royalty and local aristocracy. Brill attempts to send her back to Trieste but Írisz is stubborn and will not be deflected from her mysterious purpose, especially when she discovers that she has a brother who is notorious and lives outside ‘society’ in Budapest. The more Írisz is refused answers or told to keep out of something the more she ploughs on. Is she some kind of angel figure? Or is she a ‘monstrous’ woman – the original meaning of monster being derived from ‘warning’. This extraordinary character, at once beautiful and resolute but also confused, requires a strong performance and Juli Jakab certainly provides it. Her ‘journey’ through the world of Budapest is presented by Nemes and his cinematographer Mátyás Erdély in long, carefully choreographed tracking shots with the camera often focused on the back of Írisz’s neck and with the city environment blurring through pulled focus (the lack of focus increases towards the narrative climax). This technique, which I understand worked well in Son of Saul, seems to have irritated quite a few commentators this time round.

Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov) tries hard to return Írisz to Trieste – but then bows to the inevitable

Budapest is a bustling city and the aesthetic choices that Nemes makes help to give a us a sense of the contradictions. Vlad Ivanov gives an impressive performance as Brill and in one sense he seems to represent a multi-lingual élite who are in confident control of the city. But the empire is vulnerable, it may have modern technologies, arts and music but it also has ‘darkness’ and various dissident groups of socialists, anarchists and nationalists. The blurred backgrounds and different voices and sounds emphasise how disturbing it must be for Írisz. The empire has religious differences, persecuted minorities and traditional ideas. There are hints about the development of psycho-analysis. Írisz steps down from an electric tram but it looks like Nemes was unable to represent the Budapest underground railway, the second oldest in the world after London, opened in 1896.

Irisz steps down into the darkness at the end of the tramline and into a disturbing Budapest ‘underworld’

Another criticism of the film is that it is too long at 142 minutes. I found it a riveting watch and it didn’t seem a minute too long, though because of the unusual approach to narrative, I sometimes did wonder whether a resolution would be signalled and when finally it came I was relieved to find it that it made sense and confirmed what I though the film had been ‘about’. That doesn’t mean that I understood everything. Far from it, but at least I felt I had a purchase on it, however tenuous. Reading the detailed director’s statement in the Press Pack has been very helpful. I should re-watch Murnau’s Sunrise and think about the other films that popped into my head during the screening. The film’s aesthetics require more study too. My viewing companion pointed out the fantastic sound design which I’d noticed but not thought about as there was so much going on with the camerawork, set design (physical sets built in Budapest), music and performances. We watched the film in one of HOME Manchester’s smaller auditoria (but with a big screen and excellent sound) and you should seek out the biggest cinema screen you can find. This won’t be easy in the UK since this is a Curzon release and it looks like it isn’t playing at Picturehouse venues which sometimes have larger screens because of the dispute over closing distribution ‘windows’. This does mean it is also available on Curzon’s VOD service, but you’ll need a quality home cinema system to do it justice. The film did tour various independent venues in May with both 35mm screenings and a Q&A with the director. It is showing at The Hyde Park in Leeds today and again on July 14. It is also showing at the Showroom in Sheffield and still on at HOME. Don’t miss it. The trailer doesn’t give away spoilers but it shows some of the sumptuous camerawork.

Diary for My Children (Napló gyermekeimnek, Hungary 1982/4)

Juli (Zsuzsa Czinkóczi) is shown her new room in Budapest by Magda (Anna Polony)

This was my fourth selection from my MUBI free trial and I realised that I’ve been waiting to see it since my first encounter with Mészáros Márta’s films in Kolkata in 2009. Mészáros, born in 1931, is one of global film’s major directors of documentaries and fiction features but it is difficult to see her films in UK cinemas. (Second Run, the East European specialist DVD label in the UK, do have this Mészáros film on offer, but none of the director’s other films.) Diary For My Children is an important film for several reasons. According to John Cunningham in his Hungarian Cinema book (Wallflower 2004) it was the director’s most popular film in her home market. It was also very controversial with its release delayed by two years because of problems with the Hungarian censors (because it portrays the ‘Stalinisation’ of Hungary in the late 1940s?). Mészáros had always been more popular in the international market up to this point and the film did win the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1984. It was also an important personal statement for the director as a semi-autobiographical film and the first of a four-part series of films over the next 15 years.

The central character is Juli, a teenage young woman flying back to Budapest in 1947 from the Soviet Union. Like Mészáros herself, Juli was born in Hungary and then taken to the Soviet Union as a child. Her mother is dead and she doesn’t know what has happened to her father. She is accompanied by an older couple who were friends of her parents and in Budapest she will be fostered by Magda, someone else who knew her parents and who is now in a senior position in the Hungarian Communist Party.

Bunking off to watch Garbo in the cinema.

I enjoyed the film very much. Juli is played by Zsuzsa Czinkóczi. She had been a child star and had appeared in three films for Mészáros and two for Márta’s former husband Jancsó Miklós. Czinkóczi was 15 when Diary was completed. In the narrative she ages from 15 to 21. It is an extraordinary performance and it is because of her performance that I sometimes felt that I was watching a 1960s New Wave film. Juli has that mixture of vitality and confidence mixed with moments of immaturity and vulnerability that I associate with the young women of 1960s films. She finds herself living in the midst of Party privilege in a large house taken from the bourgeoisie. She is enrolled in the top school in Budapest. But she doesn’t want either of these privileges. Instead she wants to find out what has happened to her father and her other relatives. Magda keeps her on a very tight rein and she has to ‘borrow’ Magda’s pass to indulge her only vice – bunking off school to go to the cinema. Meanwhile, around her, the Stalinists increase their control over Budapest. I felt at a disadvantage because of my limited knowledge of Hungarian politics in 1947-49. At one point, Magda is firm in condemning Tito, the communist leader of Yugoslavia who broke away from the USSR, leading to banishment from the Cominform – the association of socialist states. Magda preaches the Stalinist line promoted by Rákosi Mátyás, the Hungarian leader whose image is central to government events in Budapest alongside those of Lenin and Stalin.

Juli and her mother in the USSR when the heavily pregnant woman reaches the village hospital

As the film’s title suggests, it is like a personal diary. Juli’s ideas, her fears and her desires are central and we see the political environment in the background. It isn’t until she begins digging that she uncovers clues to what happened to her parents. She has her own intimate memories which Mészáros inserts into the narrative without any warnings or clues. These are scenes that Juli is remembering or daydreaming about when she sees her father in a quarry selecting stone and working on a sculpture or when she accompanies her pregnant mother to the hospital. These are personal memories for Mészáros and she emphasises this by casting the Polish actor Jan Nowicki as both Juli’s father during the dream/memory sequences and János, her father’s friend who escaped to France in the 1930s but returned to Hungary after 1945. Mészáros later married Nowicki. Diary was photographed by Jancsó Miklós Jr., her son from her second marriage to the director Jancsó Miklós, perhaps the best-known Hungarian filmmaker of the period.

Little sense of Hungary as a defeated Axis supporter came across to me, but perhaps that is the point – everyone has to survive in the new system and the past is quickly forgotten if bringing it up would mean criticising the Russians. János does talk about the war and the (British?) air raids which killed his wife and disabled his son. He will become the character through whom Juli learns about the past. Juli’s ‘adopted’ grandparents are an odd couple. The man does provide Juli with some clues about the past, but the woman is a very sketchily-presented figure.

Juli (centre) tries to leave Budapest but the police search for her with orders from Magda

Juli’s story is in one sense a ‘coming of age’ story, though some of the most common elements of that genre are not followed up and the story is complicated by the political struggle. Juli changes when the evidence of how the system really works is brought home to her. At other times she does the kinds of things teenagers do. She has a boyfriend who she met at school, but she tells him from the start that she doesn’t love him. What she wants at this time is a friend of her own age. Mészáros Márta is an immensely important female filmmaker but there have been debates about the extent to which Diary for My Children is a feminist film. In one sense, simply making the film in the patriarchal Hungarian system, which still seems to have prevailed in the 1980s, is a feminist statement. In the next film in the series, Diary For My Lovers (1987) Juli travels to Russia to go to the Moscow Film School because the film schools in Hungary don’t admit women. This is again an autobiographical statement. Here is an extract from an essay by Catherine Portuges on the Second Run website (the full essay comes with the DVD):

 . . . the film is neither purely fictional nor entirely autobiographical, nor, for that matter, strictly speaking a product of what has been called ‘women’s cinema’. Rather, by maintaining an intricate balance between personal exploration on the one hand and historical investigation on the other, Mészáros’ cinematic method transforms and expands its autobiographical dimension by alternating sequences in which the historical context, marked by the use of archival footage, is dominant. This structure positions the viewer in a way that avoids both the more complete distancing of documentary and the more individually-motivated conventions of autobiographical cinema. . . . Diary for My Children transcends traditional categories of genre, yet it functions as a kind of history . . . in which different angles of vision operate to analyse micro-history in order to generate ideas about a larger, macro-historical vision – a private message, in other words, which, in the public mind, becomes a collective one. (Catherine Portuges is the author of Screen Memories: The Hungarian Cinema of Marta Meszaros (Women Artists in Film), John Wiley and Sons, 1993

This is quite a persuasive argument, though for me the archival footage wasn’t so noticeable until towards the end of the film, by which time Juli is ‘aware’. In fact, I identified with Juli so strongly that the division didn’t really bother me. Juli stretches Magda’s patience and won’t listen to the older woman’s justifications – or at least her behaviour means Magda thinks that she just won’t listen. (It is this refusal to engage with Magda’s perspective which is perhaps the disadvantage of the ‘diary’ narrative. I was strongly reminded of a similar narrative in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013). Ida is set in the 1960s and an 18 year-old young woman leaves a convent to meet her aunt who has been a judge in communist Poland. Juli could easily be in that 1960s-set film. I’d like to see what happens to her in the other three films, but availability looks a real problem. Perhaps MUBI can find them as well?

The Round Up (Szegénylegények, Hungary 1966)

Imprisonment and torture

dir: Miklós Jancsó, Hungary 1966. Black and White, Agascope 2.35:1, with subtitles.

Screened at the Leeds International Film Festival

The film is set in Hungary in 1869. Events have followed on from the failed revolution of 1848 and there have been bands of rebellious peasants in the countryside. Part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the revolts are both about nationalism and about class. A new noble minister for law and order is determined to stamp out resistance, using whatever means is necessary.

The credits are shown over a series of graphic images: factories, mansions, prisons, and implements of torture whilst a voice over comments on the ‘enrichment of the bourgeoisie’. Then the film opens with a long sequence shot showing the actual round up of the title. Horsemen gallop across the flat, almost featureless plains, chase down peasants and herd them together. The action then moves to an enclosure and nearby buildings, predominately in white. The peasants are confined in an enclosure, Individuals are taken away to be pressurised or tortured. The latter includes a set of narrow and constricting cabins in which men are locked.

Women bring food and necessities to the imprisoned men. They are herded and attacked by the military. Their (presumed) husbands throw themselves from the walls of the enclosure. A woman is stripped and forced to run a gauntlet of flailing soldiers.

One peasant confesses to a two killing. He is then threatened with hanging unless he discovers a perpetrator who has killed more people. He is only partially successful when he finds a ‘victim’ he can only identify three of the names of the claimed victims. There is an execution.

The informer tries again. But locked in a cabin at night, he is found strangled next morning. Three men finally confess to arranging his death. The authorities questioning of the imprisoned suspects focuses on one of their leaders, Sandor.

Late in the film the remaining imprisoned peasants are forcibly enrolled in the army. Two claim to have riding experience with the rebel groups. They demonstrate their prowess. They are then allowed to select comrades from the ranks for a mounted battalion. Once gathered together they sing a song from their rebel days. But their enthusiasm is misplaced and they face punishment rather than service.

Jancsó’s films are strongly allegorical. Whilst individuals come to the fore for particular scenes, the characters are not psychologically drawn: they are symbolic of their class and their social position. The settings and the landscape are very important and add to the sense of parables about society and social relations. Stylistically he uses long shots, long takes and sequence shots, (though not to the degree found in later films like Red Psalm). He frequently places simultaneous action in different planes within the image. There is a strong emphasis on the framing and the camera movements: editing is simple though cuts are often abrupt.

Graham Petrie interviewed the director and commented on his approach to filming: “During filming, Jancsó’s major concern is with the use of space and, as Madaras suggests, with the rhythmic utilisation of that space through the moving camera. According to [János] Kende, the lengthy sequence shots which characterise his films are all worked out on location; cast and crew arrive knowing only the equipment and props (candles, rain-making machines and so on) that they are likely to need. The total space of the day’s shooting is laid out with tracks, and a starting-point for each shot – usually a close-up, of a face, a hand or a weapon – is established. The movements of the main actors, and much of their dialogue, are then built up, together with the appropriate camera movements, and finally the often numerous extras are integrated into the total pattern. With a particularly complicated shot, this can take up most of the day. As all the sound is post-synchronised, Jancsó may well still be shouting instructions to the cast and crew during the actual shooting. The first take, Kende says, is usually discarded, as there are still too many errors; by the third or fourth take, things have become too mechanically perfect. The second take, therefore, is usually the one used.” (In Red Psalm, Flicks Books, 1998).

By the 1960s the conventions of socialist realism were disappearing, though they still exercised some influence in Eastern European cinemas. At one level The Round Up offers a historical example of the ruling classes’ suppression of the resistance of the ordinary working people. However, there is less about the politics of the revolution than in, say, the later Red Psalm. Petrie comments “Neither side was completely pure or innocent; the victims could be manipulated into betraying or deserting their comrades, and former victims were perfectly capable of committing atrocities . . . the possibility of achieving social and political justice seemed extremely problematic.” It would seem that Jancsó’s films needs to be interpreted in the light of the concept of hegemony. Hence the importance of the opening titles where the power of the bourgeoisie is seen as embodied in the instrument of production and of torture, seeping into the social relations of all, even the oppressed.

We had a short introduction before the screening. The speaker emphasised the allegorical aspect of the film, which was made only eight years after the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He stressed, as do a number of writers, that the thematic centre of Jancsó’s films is the question of power: who controls it and how they use it. From this perspective The Round Up offers forensic study of a particular historical instance where the ruling class exercise power in an extreme fashion. But the generalised presentation of this encourages audiences to consider parallels with their own world – with obvious examples now in 2011.

Miklos Jancso’s later film, Red Psalm (1971), was also screened during the festival, but unfortunately not in a 35mm print due to the poor state of the existing copy.

The Turin Horse (A torinói ió, Hungary/Fra/Ger/Switz/US 2011)

The daughter going to the well.

Director: Béla Tarr. Screenplay: László Krasznahorkai, Béla Tarr. Cinematography: Fred Kelemen. Music: Mihály Vig. Black and white, with English subtitles, approximately 150 minutes.

Screened at Leeds International Film Festival.

Béla Tarr has achieved a high reputation among European art film directors in recent years: though I could not find a profile of him in any of my biographical and encyclopaedic books.

His preoccupations are fairly distinctive, but at the same time there are strong parallels with the films of other Hungarian directors, especially Miklós Jancsó. The characters are almost symbolic, the narratives clearly allegorical, whilst the black and white cinematography is luminous and full of striking sequence shots. This is in contrast to the story world, which is grim and fatalistic. The Turin Horse fits the pattern, though (sadly) it is also likely to be the last of these features.

The title and the film’s opening present a narrative voice recounting an episode from the life of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche against a black screen. Nietzsche sees a cabman flogging an exhausted horse in a Turin street. The philosopher flings his arms around the horse and then passes out. So begins his final days of mental breakdown. Finally the voice asks “what happened to the horse?”.

The rest of the film presents a tale involving a farmer and his horse. Not, I think, the same ones as in the Turin episode, minor details don’t fit and the setting is the countryside familiar from Tarr’s other films set in Hungary. It does seem, though, that it is set in 1899. The farmer, who has an incapacitated hand, lives with his daughter in a rude and fairly primitive farmhouse. It is set in a desolate and windy vale. There is a well and a stables where the old, worn out horse is kept. The film covers six days and nights, during which time a very strong gale blows but finally subsides. In the course of the film the horse becomes ill, a neighbour visits to buy a bottle of Pálinka {a locally brewed hooch): a band of gypsies stop at the well for water: and the well suddenly dries up. And the narrative voice returns several times to comment on events, at one point picking up a reading from a religious book by the daughter. The final comment from the voice occurs at the film’s end, as darkness increases, and offers the audience little but ambiguity.

What the farmer actually grows or produces is not clear: the basic diet of father and daughter is potatoes. I noted that they do not eat the skins, whereas, given their limited diet, this would have seemed to be a good idea. The daughter has to dress and undress the father due to his disabled hand: though this is resolutely non-sexual. As noted at one point she reads from a book, given to her by the passing gypsies. I was a little surprised that she was not illiterate, though her reading is halting and laboured. Much of the time is taken up with routine tasks or activities.

Tarr has offered a partial explanation of the film:

The Turin Horse is about the heaviness of human existence. How it’s difficult to live your daily life, and the monotony of life. We didn’t want to talk about mortality or any such general thing. We just wanted to see how difficult and terrible it is when every day you go to the well and bring the water, in summer, in winter …All the time. The daily repetition of the same routine make it possible to show that something is wrong with their world. It’s very simple and pure.” (Bela Tarr)

This is certainly one aspect of the film. But I think audiences will actually consider such general things as mortality during or after the film. There is a narrative development on the screen, and it is a relentless closing in: a sense of a fate that encloses the character as the darkness of night encloses us all at one time or another.

Co-incidentally I listened to a recording of a programme chaired by Melvyn Bragg this week on The Frankfurt School. One contributor suggested that Theodore Arno (in particular) held to the view that ‘happy, conformist’ mass culture blinded ordinary people to the reality of life. He believed that progressive art should actually expose them to the reality of the miserable oppression that is the actual world. I would think that these philosophers would find Tarr’s films exemplary in this respect. The problem aspect with both thinkers and filmmakers is that there is the risk that this doomed existence seems inescapable.

But if Tarr’s films seem to lack a way out of hell, they are impressive in their depiction of such situations. The black and white images at time offer an evocation of an action or setting, as in the superb opening tracking shot, which follows the farmer, horse, and cart as they ascend, with difficulty, a hilly path. It would seem that Tarr and Kelemen used a Steadicam for most of these impressive sequence shots. At other points in the film a long take provides a simple shot that contemplates a character, in particular a beautiful framing of the daughter as she gazes out of the window in the farmhouse. The sound is partly naturalistic, with the incessant wind preying on both characters and audience. But there is also a recurring musical sequence, ominous but repetitious. And the performers (including the horse) are at one with the landscape and the elements. This is a film which is a pleasure to watch, and which is immensely stimulating. Despite its running time of two and half-hours it did not seem long, nor did it become monotonous.

Artificial Eye will be releasing the film in the UK.