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.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.”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.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.