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Roma: A Hard Life.

In January 2013 I posted this post on Metafilter, It generated some interesting discussion, as always on Metafilter.

The status of Roma in Hungary has been brought into sharp focus with a controversial article [link in Hungarian] by prominent ruling-party FIDESZ member, Zsolt Bayer, in which he says, “a significant part of the Roma are unfit for co-existence. They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals and they behave like animals.” The Guardian reports on the growing anger at the article, The Hungarian Spectrum, and well-known poet and translator of Hungarian literature George Szirtes weigh in with English translations of some of Bayer’s article. Many leading Hungarian politicians condemn the article.

Nonetheless, discrimination against Roma is widespread and pervasive. Myths persist about the life of Roma. Violent attacks [PDF] against Roma have taken place and the far-right Jobbik party actively espouses an anti-Roma platform. In response many Roma have sought asylum in Canada.

For those wanting a sensitive, and accurate, account of life as a Roma in Hungary the prize-winning film, Just The Wind/Csak a szél, which has been nominated (unsuccessfully) as Hungary’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars, is highly recommended.

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My Ten Favourite Hungarian Films – Family Nest (Családi tűzfészek) by Béla Tarr

Photo of Family Nest - DVD

Family Nest – DVD

One of the nice things about this series for me is choosing to write about my favourite Hungarian films, rather than writing about the best Hungarian films. Selecting those films which I consider my favourites is naturally more subjective, than choosing those films that meet more objective criteria, and it allows me free reign to write about films that, for whatever reason, mean something personal to me. I would hope that there is some overlap between the two categories and in many cases there are. Of the five films I have discussed already as being among my favourite Hungarian films,The Witness (A Tanú) and Merry-go-Round (Körhinta) would easily make just about everybody’s list of best examples of Hungarian cinema. The film I will discuss in this article, Family Nest (Családi tűzfészek), by the great Hungarian director, Béla Tarr, would, however, be unlikely to make many critics’ lists of the best Hungarian films by whatever standards you choose. It is nonetheless one of my favourites.

So, why is this film a favourite? In part it has to do with one of my self-imposed restrictions in selecting my ten favourite Hungarian films, and that is that only one film from a particular director is allowed onto the list. Why this restriction? Mostly because the list would otherwise be almost completely dominated by two directors: Béla Tarr being one of them and István Szabó the other. Between these two I could choose more than a dozen favourite films they have directed. Their output (in particular Szabó’s) has been of such a high standard over a long period of time that it would be impossible not to include both Szabó’s and Tarr’s many masterpieces in my list of 10 favourite Hungarian films – hence the self-imposed restriction of one per director in my list.

Photo of Béla Tarr

Béla Tarr

Béla Tarr is undoubtedly one of the giants of Hungarian cinema over the past 30-odd years. His highly individual style is characterised by extraordinarily long takes, his movies nearly always being filmed in black and white, with a grim and dense atmosphere that draws the viewer into a world that becomes extraordinary. Over the years his films have become grimmer and bleaker; their outlook on life is the antithesis of the Hollywood happy ending approach, where stories follow a predicable path to resolution, completeness and moving forward. Tarr’s films are not like that at all, quite the reverse.

His latest and last film, The Turin Horse (A torinói ló) for example follows a peasant and his daughter over six days as their world gradually dims to darkness. Almost the six days of creation in reverse. And let’s not forget his six and half hour epic film, Satantango (Sátántangó), which follows the lives of a crumbling, mud-caked, rain-sodden Hungarian village and its inhabitants and their equally crumbling lives. Cheery stuff? Absolutely not! But so beautiful and powerfully shot that it leaves you gasping for air at its power – well, me at least! There are other equally powerful films with the same insistent long takes and depressing stories and atmosphere to choose from among his work.

As I said at the beginning, this series is, however, about my favourite films, not necessarily the best Hungarian films. Family Nest is one of my favourite Hungarian films although not Tarr’s best film by any criteria. It was among the very first Béla Tarr films that I watched and that goes a long way to explaining its status as one of my favourites. We had recently returned from living in Hungary, including six months living in a small apartment in a housing estate in one of the poorer parts of Budapest. Family Nest takes place in just such an apartment and so there was a strong sense of familiarity that attracted me to this film.

The story is relatively straightforward: a husband (Laci) and wife (Irén) and their young daughter are forced to live with Laci’s parents in a small one-bedroom apartment, while they wait – hopelessly – for an apartment of their own. As three generations live cheek-by-jowl in such a confined space, tension is inevitable and much of the film is about the arguments and disputes they endure. Laci’s father, like his mother, (their names are never mentioned in the film), constantly criticises Irén and seeks to undermine her worthiness as Laci’s wife. The conflicts, constant pressure and back-biting lead to the marriage breaking up under the weight and pressure of their living conditions. In the end both are left, separate and in tears, yearning for the happy family life they cannot have.

On one level the film is a damning indictment of the Hungarian housing situation of the 1970s when due to bureaucratic bungle, apartments remained empty while thousands of couples waited for their turn to be allocated a place of their own. It was not uncommon for children to live with their parents long after their wedding. In one scene, Irén pleads with housing official to be allocated an apartment. She implores, “All I am asking, is for you to try and understand what it means, not to be able to sleep when you want, eat when you want.” He replies coldly, “I am not paid to put myself in your place.”

Trying to fix a broken system.

Trying to fix a broken system.

But the film’s implicit criticism of Hungary in the 1970s is made explicit in a scene where Laci’s father and Irén attempt to mend a framed picture of the communist coat of arms that her daughter has broken at school and has brought home to be mended. As the two work to glue the picture back together, the metaphor couldn’t clearer. The system is broken and while the cracks can be papered over, it is broken nonetheless.

But there is an even more damning indictment of Hungarian society in general, including its inherent prejudice towards Roma, coupled with male power. One of Irén’s friends is a Roma. During a family game of cards, Laci’s mother says “What do you say? Your daughter-in-law. Bringing that dirty gypsy girl. She stuffs her with food, with coffee, with cigarettes.” Laci agrees by claiming Roma are all thieves. Certainly that attitude was prevalent then, as it is still today. Shortly afterwards there is an unpleasant scene where Gábor, Laci’s brother, after drinking heavily, is shown raping Irén’s Roma friend while Laci watches on. Roma’s lowly place in Hungarian society is laid bare. Of course, nothing happens to the men and the rape is unreported.

The hypocrisy of male sexual relations is further explored to devastating effect. Laci’s father continues to imply that Irén was “loose” while Laci was away in the army. However, the film reveals that Laci’s father is having an affair. He proclaims his love, or rather his desire for his mistress, in a rough, drunken manner while they are having a drink at a local pub. His mistress rejects him, leaves, and Laci’s father drowns his sorrows further while softly singing a sad old Hungarian song about how hard life is. He is a thoroughly unsympathetic character and Tarr is both perceptive and brave in revealing the underlying sexism of Hungarian society. The film is often seen and admired for its trenchant portrayal of the social ills of a communist society, but to my mind it is equally devastating commentary on the nature of personal relationships, especially between men and women.

Photo of Laci's Father, played by Gábor Kun

Laci’s Father, played by Gábor Kun.

The film was made in 1978, at the same time as the satirical The Witness was being made. On one level it is surprising to me that Family Nest was nonetheless released in Hungarian cinemas the following year. However, it does illustrate that Hungarian film-makers had a remarkable degree of freedom during the Kádár years – provided there was no direct criticism of the Communist Party or the events of 1956. If film-makers and other artists avoided these issues, they were largely left alone. What sort of reaction Family Nest received upon release is unknown and while its social criticism would no doubt have been well received, I like to imagine many Hungarian middle-aged males found it uncomfortable viewing. But who knows, perhaps not…

The film itself was shot over six days, using a mixture of professional and non-professional actors, the latter being characteristic of Tarr throughout his directorial career. This, combined with the extensive use of hand-held cameras, necessitated by the cramped real-life apartment in which the film is shot, gives the film a decidedly documentary feel. There are many close-ups contributing to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the whole film, especially as it was shot in a slightly grainy black-and-white. The fast-panning of the camera, unusual in later Tarr films, also contributes to the roughness and grimness of life in a crowded Hungarian apartment of the 1970s.

Only in the last two shots do we see Tarr’s future penchant for long takes, when both Laci and Irén are shown, in separate full close-ups, confronting separation and expressing their disappointment, while gently weeping, that if only they had had their own apartment they could have worked things out and saved their marriage. They are separated from each other and facing a bleak future where hope does not play a role at all. It is quite heartbreaking.

While the themes explored in Family Nest are universal, the film itself is firmly rooted in Hungarian society. Whether it is the apartment’s furnishings, the language, the incidental music, or the TV programmes that play in the background, the setting and tone of the film are unmistakably Hungarian.

photo of Typical Housing Estate in 1970s Hungary

Typical Housing Estate in 1970s Hungary

If this sounds depressing it is; but the skill with which Tarr shows his characters and their situation is effective and compelling and makes for a worthwhile cinematic experience. Tarr would later say that in his early days he wanted to change the world with his films and you can sense the rage of an angry young man in this film. Tarr’s next two films, The Outsider (Szabadgyalog), and The Prefab People (Panelkapcsolat) continued to explore the themes of societal and personal alienation, and decay with a similar sense of anger.

In the end it is the intensity and searing manner in which Tarr portrays the lives of this family in their “fire nest” (a literal translation of tűzfészek) that makes this one of my favourite Hungarian films. Tarr has made better films, but this portrayal of family life in 1970s Hungary will remain with me always.

Family Nest, (1979), screenplay by Béla Tarr; directed by Béla Tarr. Starring Laszlone Horvath, László Horváth and Gábor Kun. Running time: 108 minutes.

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Father: (Apa) by István Szabó.

Photo of DVD cover of Father

DVD Cover – Father

István Szabó is perhaps the most internationally recognised Hungarian film director. An Oscar winner with Mephisto in 1982, he has been making films since the 1960s, and he is still producing films of outstanding quality. His most recent film, The Door (Az ajtó), was released in 2012. With nearly 50 years of film-making it was always going to be hard for me to pick my favourite film by him – especially if I am to stick to my self-imposed restriction of selecting only one director for each of my ten favourite films. Indeed, with his output it would be quite easy to select ten favourite films from Szabó alone. In addition to the two other films already mentioned, such gems as Colonel Redl, Rokonok (Relatives), Being Julia, Édes Emma, drága Böbe (Sweet Emma, Dear Böbe) and the magnificent Sunshine would easily make such a list. So why did I choose Father from such a large and worthy body or work?

Firstly, Father is a distinctly Hungarian film in its tone, feel and texture. Many of Szabó’s films have been international productions, and while many of these, for example, Sunshine, and The Door, deal with either Hungarian history, as in the case of the former, or Hungarian literature, as in the latter, the use of English-speaking actors and consequently English dialogue, mean these films have less of a Hungarian feel about them. There are scenes in Father that can only be understood in a Hungarian context, even though, as I detail below, the theme of the film is much more universal.

Secondly, and this may sound like a contradiction of the reason above, Father deals with the universal theme of “the-boy-becoming-the-man” by dealing with the idealised image of his father. I found this was dealt with in a very satisfying way: honest, loving, somewhat sentimental, but never maudlin or cloying. It is ultimately an enjoyable film, one that leaves a pleasing sense of satisfaction and memory at the end. And you cannot always say that about much of Hungarian cinema!

Thirdly, and this is perhaps a rather indulgent reason, the air of nostalgia evident while watching this film 50 years after its making is palpable . Shot in black and white it feels like Hungary in the 1960′s even though the film concerns events several years earlier. Yes, I know those times were not quite what they seem today, there were still secret police and Hungary was ultimately a communist dictatorship and people suffered because of this. Nonetheless from the vantage point of the early 21st century, Father conveys a sense of longing for times past when times were simpler, if not necessarily better. As I said, this is rather self-indulgent, but there you go.

Lastly you can see in Father the emerging talent displayed by Szabó. It was only his second feature-length film, but you can clearly see Szabó’s film-making abilities and talents in this early work, not to mention his script-writing prowess. It is rather like recognising raw talent in a sportsperson, knowing that one day they will perform at the highest level. Szabó’s later films would inevitably become more technically assured, with higher production values and with more nuanced approaches. On display in this film is a delightful youthfulness with the promise of so much more to come.

Photo of A young Bence, played by Dániel Erdély

A young Bence, played by Dániel Erdély.

So, to the film itself. It concerns Bence Takó, a boy whose father, a doctor, is killed in World War II. Played by an impressive Dániel Erdély, Bence idealises his father and imagines all sorts of heroic deeds being performed by his father. He recalls his father as an underground hero, as a great doctor, as a great outdoors man. He even visualizes his father as a great statesman, receiving the homage of the nation. The image of his father is what sustains the young Bence through the difficult days of boyhood. The scenes where Bence imagines his father performing such great deeds are shown in a realistic, yet nostalgic style, with charm and humour.

The focus of the film though is very much of looking back of the image and memory of his father. After the early boyhood days, we see Bence, now a young adult, played by the always impressive András Bálint, begin to confront the truth of his father. It turns out that his father was a rather mild-mannered, somewhat ordinary man. There is no great revelation in this in one sense: the tone of the film is realistic in the way it portrays the idealised father and never paints him as super-human. On the eve of the 1956 revolution, Bence falls in love. The object of his affection is a Jewish girl, Anni, played by Kati Sólyom, and in falling in love, Bence decides to confront who he is and who his father really was. There is a sense that by being in love with someone, he has to deal with who he really is so that he can truly love someone else.

As a counter-point to Bence’s idealised view of his father, Anni’s family history is infinitely more tragic. Like so many Jewish Hungarians at this time, her parents died in the concentration camps and Anni is left feeling uncertain as to who she is. She wishes to escape from the tragedy of the past but does not know who she really is. She says, “I’m a Hungarian, right? Simply a Hungarian. I’ve decided a hundred times there’s no past… nothing. But then something happens and I want to be one of them again. I want people to know the reason my parents had to die.”

Photo from Father of Anni and Bence.

Anni (Kati Sólyom) and Bence (András Bálint).

I think Szabó was courageous to address the experience of Jewish Hungarians in this way as the topic has always been a sensitive one for many Hungarians. To strengthen this point, there is a powerful scene in which Bence and Anni sign up as extras in a film that portrays the rounding up of Jewish Hungarians in Budapest during World War II. Initially he is cast as one of those being rounded-up, wearing the yellow star, and herded across the Chain Bridge in Budapest, side by side with Anni. Then, part way through, the director decides he needs more guards in the scene. He re-casts Bence as one of the guards doing the herding. In a highly symbolic scene, Bence removes his yellow star and replaces it with an armband of the Arrow Cross. Instead of walking beside Anni, he is now shown pushing and shoving her and the crowd…

We follow Bence as he goes back to the village where his father worked as a doctor and asks those who knew him what sort of man he was. “He was a nice guy with glasses”, one replies. “A very kind man with smiling eyes”, another says. So, he was an ordinary, kind man, who did his best to help others, well remembered by others… Just like most of us“.

And now Bence has the courage to be honest with himself, and with Anni, about his father. He confesses to her that the stories he has told her about his father are untrue and it is time for him to find his own way in life. He tells her, “I have to do something on my own, with my own strength. Something that requires courage and persistence… I must swim across [The Danube] alone… and not just tell others that Father used to do it… as if it had been my achievement. Only weaklings keep making up stories.” The boy has become a man in his own right.

Photo of István Szabó

István Szabó

Father received critical acclaim on its release including winning the then prestigious Grand Prize at the Moscow Film Festival, as well being nominated for an Oscar as the Best Foreign Language Film. (Szabó would claim this Oscar in 1982 for his Mephisto.) Perhaps more importantly, Father was chosen as one of the 12 best Hungarian films of all time by Hungarian film critics in 2000.

The full title of the film in Hungarian is, Apa: Egy hit naplója. This has been erroneously translated in some English DVDs as Father: A diary of a week. A more accurate translation would be Father: Diary of a Belief or perhaps Diary of a Faith. I suspect “hit” has been misread as “hét”, meaning “week” or “seven”. Sloppy nonetheless.

The father-son relationship, like any parent-child relationship, is complex – fraught with ambitions and illusions. Each of us as we emerge into adulthood need to put distance between ourselves and our parents so that we can truly grow up as fully fledged adults. It is a necessary task. Szabó’s Father is one of the finest examples in cinema of this journey, told with honesty, humour and love, which is how all such journeys should be.

Father, (1966), screenplay by István Szabó and János Herskó; directed by István Szabó. Starring Miklós Gábor, Klári Tolnay, András Balint, Dani Erdélyi, Kati Sólyom. Running time: 95 minutes.

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My Favourite Hungarian Films – Hyppolit, the Butler (Hyppolit, a lakáj)

Hyppolit, the Butler (DVD Cover)

If ever there was a comedic cult classic in Hungarian cinema, then Hyppolit, the Butler is it. Originally released in 1931, it is as popular today, some 80-odd years later, as it was then. Some have argued that the film plays a similar role in Hungarian cinema as Casablanca does in the broader European cinema. Romance, wit, and music are key ingredients in the film and these coupled with the film’s underlying parody of upper-class culture and mores, along with genuine comedy are some of the reasons for the enduring success of Hyppolit.

The plot of the film is straightforward: Mátyás Schneider, owner of a shipping firm, leads a good and prosperous life. When his snobbish wife hires a butler, Schneider’s life is turned upside down. She hires Hyppolit who has served a count for 27 years. He immediately sets about establishing a new regime concerning etiquette, manners and furnishing. The Schneiders are newly wealthy, but used to ordinary middle-class manners. Now they have to put on evening-dress when having supper, Mrs Schneider has to undergo a rigorous diet, and Mátyás isn’t allowed to eat his favourite dishes any more. Much of the humour in the film concerns Hyppolit’s efforts to “re-educate” his employers in the ways and manners of the nobility.

The romantic subplot concerns the Schneiders’ daughter, Terka. Like all good nouveau riche mothers, Mrs Schneider wants her daughter to marry for money and status. In this case it is Makács who has important connections which will help the Schneiders’ growing business interests. But the path of true love is never smooth and Terka’s heart belongs to the manager of her father’s firm, István Benedek. No guesses as to how their romance works out at the end of the film!

And let’s not forget the music. The film features the wonderful, Köszönöm, hogy imádott, (Thank You for Adoring Me), which is arguably the most popular song of any Hungarian film. Hyppolit also features another well known tune, Pá, kis aranyom pá (Bye, Sweetie, Bye) sung by Mimi, a “chorus girl” who seduces Mátyás in another of those loose subplots that make up the film.

But at heart the film is really a satire on the manners of the nouveau riche and their desire to mimic the habits and mores of a lost and dying aristocratic way of life. Mátyás reluctantly goes along with the anachronistic regime imposed by Hyppolit, but finds it more and more suffocating and in the end rebels and confronts Hyppolit telling him to “get lost”. The old order is restored and true love reigns as Terka and Benedek are engaged. Cue, “The End”!

And I'll eat onions with my goose. With everything. I'll eat onions with onions

And I’ll eat onions with my goose. With everything. I’ll eat onions with onions

To my mind the real star of the film is not Gyula Csortos, who plays, Hyppolit but Gyula Kabos who plays the long-suffering Mátyás. He is genuinely funny and he delivers his lines with a dryness and wit that can still make you laugh out loud. For example, in the final scene when he tells Hyppolit he has had enough and will live as he chooses, Mátyás declares, “And I’ll eat onions with my goose. With everything. I’ll eat onions with onions. And I’ll eat fish with a knife. Two knives. ” Comedic gold!

The film was produced in the early days of “talkies”, that is, films with sound. Produced only 5 years after the first full-length film to feature sound, Hyppolit was only the second fully-fledged talkie to reach Hungarian audiences. Interestingly, at that time there was a trend towards Hungarian-German co-productions and a German language version of Hyppolit was made at the same time as the Hungarian version. Known as Er und Sein Diener (He and His Servant), it was not a success.

Thank you, sir, for loving me / Köszönöm, hogy imádott

Thank you, sir, for loving me / Köszönöm, hogy imádott

Hyppolit has been released many times since it was first shown, including in July 1945, October 1956 (to commemorate 25 years of sound in Hungarian cinema), and again in June 1971, when it attracted some 1 million film-goers. The current release has been restored and digitalised to near perfection by the Hungarian Film Archive and the Hungarian Film Laboratory. Like all films of that time it was originally produced on highly unstable and combustible nitrate film stock. Somehow a copy survived and this formed the basis for the restoration, which is now available on DVD and in Blu-ray formats. It is a joy to watch in such high quality format.

It may sound strange to say, but of all of the films in this series of articles, Hyppolit is the least Hungarian in nature. By that I mean it doesn’t really deal with specifically Hungarian topics or issues. The themes are universal: class, romance, music and being true to one’s origins, and told in a humorous manner. There is more than a touch of the PG Wodehouse, the English humorist who dealt with similar issues in an English context. Perhaps that is one reason why Hyppolit has been so enduring. Hungarians of every generation can enjoy this film without necessarily being attuned to the issues of the day at the time.

The lives of those involved in Hyppolit reveal much of Hungary’s history in the twentieth century. Éva Fenyvessy, who plays the delightful and beautiful Terka (it is she who sings Köszönöm, hogy imádott in Hyppolit), continued in films before moving into another successful career in Hungarian operetta, retiring in 1979 – forty years before passing away in 2009, at the glorious age of 98!

Gyula Csortos, who plays Hyppolit, had a successful career in film and theatre during the 1930s. He was, however, plagued by ill-health and a “self-destructive” lifestyle, according to one commentator. He died in August 1945 awaiting life-saving penicillin, another victim, ultimately, of the siege of Budapest. He is buried in Budapest’s Kerepesi Cemetery.

Pál Jávor

The handsome Pál Jávor.

Pál Jávor, who plays Terka’s suitor, István Benedek, became perhaps the most important and sought after male film star of the 1930s. His good looks, easy and charming manner made him a natural for staple romantic lead roles. But fame did not rest easy with him and alcohol played an all too prominent part in his life. He was also very outspoken and repeatedly clashed with his superiors. He suffered greatly during World War II, having been arrested by the Arrow Cross and spent time in prison in both Hungary and Germany. Eventually released after the war, he went to the United States but found little or no work and much bitterness. He yearned to return to Hungary and eventually did so in 1957. He found some work but his career never reached the dizzy heights of the 1930s. Health issues got the better of him and he died shortly after, in 1959, aged 57. Such was his popularity that tens of thousands attended his burial at the Farkasréti Cemetery.

The director István Székely had a long career in film and television. He left for the United States at the onset of World War II in 1939 and went on to produce mainly B-grade films such as the cult classic, The Day of the Triffids. He often changed his name and in the multitude of films and TV shows that he directed, he was variously known as Székely István, S.K. Seeley, Steve Sekely, Stefan Szekely, István Székely, Stefan Székely, Stephan Székely and Stefan Székély. Pleasingly, his last film, Lila ákác (The Girl Who Liked Purple Flowers), was filmed in Hungary in 1973 and starred Judit Halász and Bálint András (who featured in Apa (Father), the subject of another article in this series). Székely passed away in 1979, aged 80, no doubt having enjoyed a well-deserved and content retirement in Palm Springs.

Grave of Gyula Kabos

The saddest story of them all is that of Gyula Kabos. His career during the 1930s was prolific, to say the least. He is credited with starring in a staggering fifteen films during 1937 alone. While you can say this is a case of quantity over quality, he was nonetheless a highly successful comedic actor in Hungary during the 1930s. But history intervened in an all too familiar tragic manner. He left Hungary because of Nazism and arrived in the US in 1939. He hoped to emulate his success in Hungary but was ignored, much to his bitter disappointment. So much so, he committed suicide in 1941. But his memory is still revered among those in the grand tradition of Hungarian comedic theatre and cabaret. The well-known exponent of this tradition in post World War II Hungary, László Kabos, took his stage name in his honour. His body was eventually returned to Hungary and he is now buried in the Farkasréti Cemetery.

I plan to visit Gyula Kabos’s grave when I next visit Budapest, as well as that of Pál Jávor, and quietly hum, in their honour, Köszönöm, hogy imádott.

Hyppolit, the Butler, (1931), screenplay by Károly Nóti and István Zágon; directed by István Székely (Steve Sekely). Starring Gyula Csortos, Gyula Kabos and Mici Haraszti. Running time: 72 minutes.

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My Ten Favourite Hungarian Films – Fateless (Sorstalanság)

I remember waking up one morning in October 2002 and hearing on the radio that the Hungarian writer, Imre Kértesz, had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. “Who’s he?” I asked K. “Never heard of him”, she said. “Nor have I”, I echoed. He was at that time a novelist relatively unknown in Hungary and almost completely unread outside of his homeland. But since winning the world’s most prestigious literary prize he and his works have been propelled firmly into the limelight. Since then many, but but not all, of his works have been translated in other languages such as German and English and are now widely available.

Movie poster for FatelessHis most famous novel, specifically cited in the Nobel Prize Committee’s recommendation, is Fateless (Sorstalanság). It tells the semi-autobiographical story of György “Gyuri” Köves, a young Jewish Hungarian teenager who in 1944, like so many of his contemporaries, was rounded up by the Nazi’s and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. The bulk of novel tells the story of his survival in the camps, and it ends as he returns home to Budapest. Like so much of Holocaust literature, Kertész seeks to answer the question, Why?. Why did this terrible tragedy occur. His answer is that there was no answer, there was just the experiences of the camp in all their horror. The camps and his experiences simply happened, without any sense of ‘fate’. The tone of the novel is almost matter-of-fact as Kértesz observes the evil around him. Yet there are also moments of happiness amongst all the sufferings and tribulations and there is no hate to those who made him suffer so much.

To make this novel into a film worthy of its many qualities was no small task. Lajos Koltai, a renowned Hungarian cinematographer, who has worked extensively with the great Hungarian director István Szabó, made his directorial debut with Fateless. It is a magnificent film that stays remarkable true to both the content and spirit of the novel. This was aided in no small measure by the screenplay written by Kértesz himself. The history of novels being turned successfully into films is littered with failures and success is rare. Happily this is not the case.

Gyuri

The film follows the novel faithfully but as a film it stands on its own merits. It follows the same linear time frame of the novel, there are no flashbacks, no archival footage. The film, like the novel, follows Gyuri as his family begins to understand the tragedy unfolding, to Gyuri being taken off a bus on his way to work and then sent to Auschwitz and then his time in the camps until his eventual return to Budapest. The story unfolds through the eyes of a 14-year old teenager in an surprisingly unsentimental manner. We are taken on his journey from a healthy teenager beginning to experience his sexuality to the cold camps where he suffers deprivations and near-death.

Given Koltai’s background, it is no surprise the film is visually stunning. (The actual cinemetographer is Gyula Pardos, a student of another great Hungarian cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond who has such films as Deer Hunter, Deliverance and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to his credit. With such a rich tradition of great Hungarian cinematographers behind the film, the quality of the film is surely no surprise.) For example the initial scenes, that take place in Budapest before Gyuri is sent to the camps, are full of warm, melancholy colours. Yet when he reaches the camps, the light is drained out the scenes with a grey, bluish overlay that captures the dreariness and awfulness perfectly. We see the light again as the camps are liberated.

The star of the film is of course Gyuri, brilliantly played by Marcell Nagy. Koltai auditioned 1,000 boys and studied 3,000 photographs before selecting Nagy. He was chosen, Koltai said, because “He has a clear, beautiful face.” Indeed the face shows the transition from innocence to wisdom essential to the story. And in a strange twist of fate, the Nagy matures in front of us. Koltai had insisted on filming chronologically but at one stage money for the film dried up and shooting was stopped for four months. By the time they resumed Nagy had in fact grown 10 centimetres! So the Gyuri who returns to Budapest has truly been transformed from innocence to someone wiser.

The film’s strength is that it shows the terribleness of Gyuri’s experience in the camp with this lack of sentimentality and anger. For example in one scene we see Gyuri lying his bunk, near death with a badly injured knee, next to a fellow inmate who has died. Gyuri says nothing so he can receive an extra piece of rotting bread of his dead companion. This act is simply a question of survival, rather than morality or ethics.

Photo of Imre Kértesz

The author of Fateless, Imre Kértesz

One scene in particular is worthy of mention: the inmates are lined up in the cold, drak early hours of the morning and forced to stand for hours. After a while they begin to gently sway and the camera soars above them showing the almost hynoptic movement of the inmates. It is cinema of the highest order.

Mention must also be made of the music score by Oscar-winning Ennio Morricone. It is superb and as haunting as befits the story.

The film was the most expense Hungarian film ever made costing some NZD14 million and had 144 named roles and as many as 500 extras. It was a critical success both in Hungary and outside and was nominated as the Hungarian entry for best foreign language film at the 2006 Academy Awards. As I mentioned above, money did however dry up during the filming and it was only government intervention and funding that finally secured the film’s completion. While most of the actors are Hungarian, Daniel Craig of James Bond fame, plays a small part as a American soldier who wants to help Gyuri find a new life in America. (This scene is not in the novel itself. One imagines the executive producers wanted a hook for a more global audience.)

Screenshot showing Gyuri after he has returned to Budapest

Gyuri returns to Budapest

The film ends with Gyuri returning to Budapest and faced with a mixture of disbelief and discomfort from his fellow citizens – and his remaining family. An uncle describes the camps as hell. Gyuri disagrees saying “Hell doesn’t exist, but the camps do”.

In the final scene, Gyuri’s narration describes something that is quite shocking: happiness. “There’s nothing too unimaginable to endure. And in my own way I already know that, lying in wait for me like some unavoidable trap, is happiness. Even beside the chimneys in the pause between torments there was something similar to happiness. People only ask about the horrors, whereas I should talk about the happiness of the camps next time, if they ask. If they ask at all. And if I don’t forget myself.”

The author himself said of this, “I took the word out of its everyday context and made it seem scandalous It was an act of rebellion against the role of victim which society had assigned me. It was a way of assuming responsibility, of defining my own fate.”

This wonderful film shows us the true meaning of fate.

Fateless, (2005), screenplay by Imre Kertész; directed by Lajos Koltai. Starring Marcell Nagy, Béla Dóra,Bálint Péntek and Daniel Craig. Running time: 140 minutes.

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