This title was screened in the Berlinale Classics programme and marked the return of a film that was the Golden Bear winner in 1975. It was also the film that established its director, Márta Mészáros, as a internationally recognised film-maker.
A widowed working woman in her early forties would like to escape the emptiness that surrounds her by having a child with her married lover, to whom she is attached only as a matter of habit. . . . One day, a girl who has run away from a home seeks shelter with her.”
The home is a state orphanage. The girl, Anna (Gyöngyvér Vigh), is in her late teens and already involved in a sexual relationship. The older woman, Kata (Katalin Berek), works in a factory but also has an interest in wood work, which she does in a small workshop at home. Her home is near a small town but separated from other houses and Kata is also separate from the other residents. The orphanage is very free in its control of the young people. This seems to be, in part, because it is under-resourced. But the manager does seem fairly sympathetic. This culture enables the young inmates to indulge in activities outside the home, so Anna regularly meets her boyfriend, Sanyi (Péter Fried) who lives and works in a nearby city and travels down to meet Anna.
The films gives a sense of these characters and the operation of the home when we see Kata, returning from work. Anna, in a group of teenage girls, teasingly confronting Kata begging cigarettes. And we also get a sense of Kara’s relationship with Jóska (László Szabó) at a tryst, he is clearly less involved than Kata. In a later scene in a park he is definitely troubled when Kata raises the issue of children. Even later he takes Kata home on the pretext of her being a colleague from work. His wife seems unsuspecting whilst there is also a young child in the family. Jóska is obviously a male chauvinist and that is his role in the narrative. But the much younger Sanyi displays a strong affection and responsibility for Anna. Whilst the manager at the home is seen later showing both sympathy and practical assistance to Kata and Anna.
We only get a representation of the Hungarian state at this time at a remove, but the sense is of a rather underfunded and inadequate bureaucracy rather than the stereotypical representation found in western films at the period.
The film has fine black and white cinematography by Lajos Koltai. Mészáros uses frequent long takes, not just for action but also for contemplation. Several times we see Kata at her work table and the sense of her ruminations on her situation. The film editing by Éva Kármentõ carefully juxtaposes the several repeated settings; Kara’s house, the orphanage and the places where Kata and Jósha have their trysts. There is much location work but production design by Tamás Banovich marries studio set-ups with the natural settings. And by the end of the film we see a traditional celebration with a convincing sense of ordinary people enjoying an occasion. The film sound and music by György Kovács fits in with a general naturalistic feel.
Mészáros scripted the film with two colleagues, Ferenc Grunwalsky and Gyula Hernádi. The writing both presents characterisations that seem taken from life; that are unconventional in terms of the European cinema of the time; and which develop with a real sympathy for ordinary people and everyday life.
In 1975 the ‘Berliner Morgen post’ commented;
The Hungarian director, a woman, has come up, not with a drama but a low-key reticent everyday story that is full of tenderness and hope. In a succession of filmed-to-the-life occasions, Kati Berek makes her mark as a sort of Budapest Annie Giradot. Quiet, strong and true.” (Giradot is a fine French actress who at this stage of her career had graced Rocco and his Brothers (Rocco e i suoi fratelli, 1960) with an outstanding performance).
The paper’s note of the director being a ‘woman’, picked up on the Mészáros being the first woman director to win a Golden Bear Award. And she and the film won a number of other awards as well. Márta Mészáros was there to introduce the film. She spoke with emotion of her memories of the visit to the Berlinale, she was then an unknown in western Europe and this her first experience of a major festival and major awards.
There was also a staff member of the Hungarian Film Fund Film Archive who have produced the digital restoration of the film onto a 4K DCP, with English subtitles. The restoration was based on the original camera negative and a magnetic tape of sound. This was supervised by the original cinematographer, Lajos Koltai. The restoration differs in an important manner from the original 35mm. Mészáros had wanted to shoot the film in a scope format but was unable to do so and the film used the academy ratio. This restored version has been produced in 1.85:1; closer to the desired scope format. In other ways it reproduces the original. The change of ratio is unusual. The Berlinale staff were unsure but thought the version at the Festival might have been in 1.85:1 as well. This presumably would have involved plates or masks in the projector. I think when I saw the film, long ago, it was in academy. I have to say that in 1.85:1 there was no obvious cropping of the image. We did not hear the technical description of how the reframing was achieved.
The archive have actually restored ten other titles directed by Mészáros between 1969 and 1999, including the famous ‘Diary’ series. They have all been restored digitally at 4K and will be available this year and in 2020. Given Mészáros’ status,
together with her contemporaries Agnès Varda, Larissa Shepitko and Vera Chytilova, she ranks as one of the most significant female authors in the world.” (Restored Films of Márta Mészáros, Hungarian Film Fund).
We should expect this title and the other titles that follow to get a British release. This film was a deserved winner of the Golden Bear in 1975 and has maintained its quality and relevance; Mészáros’ other films equally offer both quality and satisfaction.
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.
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.
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’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?
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.
The films of Márta Mészáros tend not to be released in the UK, so I was pleased to take this opportunity to see one of her recent productions. I don’t think I’ve seen one before, only knowing Mészáros as one of the East European directors that I should have been watching in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact she has been involved in filmmaking for over 50 years, documentaries first after film school in Moscow and later fiction features. Coming to the fore in Hungary (and also in Romania and Poland) in this period represented a double success – as a woman making films in an intensely patriarchical society and as a Hungarian socialist attempting to make radical films under the heavy weight of Soviet influence. In 1960 she married Miklós Jancsó, arguably the highest profile Hungarian director of the period and the one most associated with exploring Hungarian history since 1914. The marriage lasted until 1973 but Jancsó’s two children from an earlier marriage have both worked with her on films. Nyika Jancsó photographed The Unburied Man and Katalin Jancsó was costume designer. Mészáros herself had been taken by her parents to the Soviet Union in 1936 – a trip that would later turn out to be a tragic mistake. (See the interview in Senses of Cinema.) There is clearly a great deal about her story that hasn’t been properly explored in the West except in a handful of books of film scholarship – kudos then to the Kolkata International Film Festival for making her one of its ‘honoured’ directors and screening eight of her films. Unfortunately because of my difficulties in registering I wasn’t able to see any of the other seven films or to attend her Q&A session. I’m stuck with a response to The Unburied Man and I feel inadequate in dealing with a film that is both an important statement about Hungarian history and a deeply personal film.
The ‘unburied man’ of the title is Imre Nagy, the figurehead of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Nagy had been Hungarian premier from 1953-55 and he was called back in the brief moment of freedom before the Russian tanks rolled into Budapest. He had been captured by the Russians in the First World War and had joined the Red Army. He lived in the Soviet Union from 1929-44 and returned to Hungary with the Russian occupation. During the 10 days that he led ‘free Hungary’ he appealed to the West for support but was then forced to trust the Russians to respect his democratic ideals. After sheltering in the Yugoslav Embassy he was handed over to those Hungarian politicians who were prepared to work with the Russians. He was then separated (with his wife) from his family and his colleagues, detained in a Romanian farmhouse and eventually returned to Hungary for trial. He refused to confess to his ‘crimes’ and was executed in 1958.
I have to say that Variety‘s review from 2005 is spot on. The film falls between several stools. It is generally very well made and elicits the necessary emotional response with a strong central performance by the Polish actor Jan Noweki (also married to Mészáros at the time of this film). However, there is some suggestion that the script changes some of the facts in order to represent the story of a man who was literally ‘unburied’ for thirty years until he could be officially re-instated as a Prime Minister who should be publicly recognised. More problematic, I think, is the lack of contextualising material referring to Hungarian history generally and to the other two men also executed at the same time who were also part of the revolutionary government. It isn’t a dull or heavy biographical piece and there are some interesting stylistic flourishes plus a clever montage representing the events of 1956, but I don’t think that the narrative escapes from the familiar story of the man who stood up for his ideals in the face of Cold War realpolitik. I remembered a now largely forgotten film by Costa-Gavras, L’Aveu (France-Italy 1970) with Yves Montand in a role based on the real-life memoir of Czech politician Artur London who was arrested and eventually forced to confess (l’aveu = the confession) to disloyalty to the Party in 1951 – a falsity conjured up by the Russians to keep the Czech leadership in line. London was not executed but his memoir was one of the most successful in telling such stories about life under Russian domination. Many others have followed and the story of Imre Nagy is in one sense just another: terrible and tragic and important in Hungarian history (and to Mészáros personally) though it was, I think the film needs something else to attract a wider audience. Nevertheless, I’m glad I saw it and I will now look out for the earlier Márta Mészáros film, Diary For My Children (Hungary 1982) which has now been released on DVD in the UK.
Hungarian distributor website (in Hungarian and English) for The Unburied Man.