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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.