This is the first article in a new series in which I explore my favourite examples from Hungarian cinema. I have chosen ten films from my collection but like all such lists, it is harder to decide what to leave out than which films to include. There are just so many fine Hungarian films to choose from. So I had to decide on some criteria to select the top 10. First of all, and this may sound obvious, but I chose the films for this series that are personal favourites of mine and are not necessarily the best 10 Hungarian films of all time. There are way more Hungarian films than I could possibly ever watch so I am not really qualified to judge which are the best of the entire history of Hungarian cinema. Still, I like to think that my favourites are quality film and that some of the ten would make a list of the best.
Secondly, I limited myself to one film from a particular director. For example directors such as István Szabó, Miklós Janscó, Márta Mézsáros or Béla Tarr all have a large body of films of which I have enjoyed many examples. I have my favourite directors and it would be possible to include 4 or 5 films from any of these directors. So in order to give the list variety there is only one from each director. No duplicates allowed.
All of the films in my list are commercially available and all have English sub-titles. This again narrows the list somewhat as there are without question masterpieces of Hungarian cinema that are simply not available to non-Hungarian speakers.
Lastly, and yet again I am perhaps stating the obvious, all films were filmed in Hungary in the Hungarian language. However this does exclude some films made by directors such as Szabó and Tarr that were made as international productions and not necessarily in Hungarian. Such films as Mephisto and The Man From London, fall into this category.
The films presented in this series are not in any particular order. While some are special favourites and therefore may rank higher, the prospect of assigning a rank to each of the top ten seemed rather pointless in the end. They are all my favourites, each with their own special qualities and their own special story. It is those aspects of the films that I wish to present in these articles.
The first film I have chosen to write about is Merry-Go-Round (Körhinta), directed by Zoltán Fábri and released in 1956. Set in the rural Hungary in the early 1950’s, the film tells the story two young lovers, Mari, played by Mari Törőcsik in her first film, and Máté, played by Imre Soós. Inevitably the path of true love does not run smooth: Mari’s father, István, is a farmer who favours private holdings, while Máté is a proud and articulate member of the local collective. Mari’s father attempts to marry his daughter off to the son of another private landowner, Sándor Farkas, played by Ádám Szirtes. However Mari rebels against this forced marriage, and the climax of the film is a confrontation at a wedding where she dances with Máté in front of her now betrothed Sándor. Her father finally relents and allows her and Máté to be together and start a new life. In many ways it is a simple love story about how love conquers all, despite the objections of others.
But there is an underlying theme of land and how the peasantry was responding to collectivisation. It is too simple to say that Máté represents the new, Socialist, collectivist Hungary of that time, and István the old, land-owning peasantry. At one point István quotes the old Hungarian peasant proverb, “Land marries land” (”A főd, a fődhó házasodik„), meaning that of course one should marry not for love, but for land. However, Mari and Máté see it differently and it is this tension that is at the heart of the movie. In a sense the optimism for the future that is implicit in their relationship represented the optimism that things could get better in Hungary in the year or so leading up the 1956 revolution.
The acting of Mari Törőcsik is really what makes the love story work so well. Beautiful to a fault she manages to portray the innocence yet determination of an 18 year-old whose heart is full of love and has the strength of character to purse her love for Máté. As Byron once said, “Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart; ’tis woman’s whole existence”; Törőcsik makes this part her own and you can see why: in this, her first film, she shone with the qualities that would make her the leading Hungarian film actress of the past 50 years.
The film features perhaps the most iconic scene of all Hungarian cinema. Mari and Máté are riding on the merry-go-round at a local fair but the view is from one of the chairs of the merry-go-round. We see the young couple swirling around, happy, carefree and in love, from the position of the merry-go-round itself. The swirling, carnival atmosphere has never been so dramatically captured. The cinematographer responsible for this shot, Barnabás Hegyi, took three days to get the scene just right using a hand-held camera while sitting on a platform attached to the merry-go-round. Many technical difficulties had to be overcome, such as where to set the lighting, but the result is visually stunning and ranks among best in the world.
The theme of swirling, with its qualities of carefree innocence and passion for life, and love, is reprised in the climatic scene at the wedding. As Mari and Máté dance, the camera follows them as they swirl and swirl in ever faster circles. The music plays louder and faster and the two lovers dance in front of the increasing disconcerted wedding guests. But they only have eyes for each other, oblivious to their surroundings. Fábri makes this merry-go-round theme explicit by cutting back to the original merry-go-round scene at the beginning of the film.
The film was initially released in time for the Cannes film festival and was Hungary’s principle entry. It created a sensation and was hailed as a breakthrough film showing that countries from the behind the Iron Curtain could in fact produce original and compelling cinema, rather than the dirge of socialist realism all too common at that time. In many ways Hungarian cinema was “discovered” in 1956 with Merry-Go-Round. Despite its critical acclaim at Cannes, it did not win the prestigious Palme d’or prize. That went instead to a French film, The Silent World, directed by Louis Malle and Jacques Cousteau. Fabri maintained the life-long view that this was a decision based on politics and not the artistic merits of the respective films. A young Francis Truffatt, then a film critic agreed as did the audience who whistled derisively when The Silent World was announced as the winning film. Fifty-odd years later, a Hungarian film has yet to win this coveted pinnacle of cinema excellence.
Zoltán Fábri continued to direct films into the 1960s including classics as as Dear Anna (Édes Anna), The Boys of Paul Street (A Pál utcai fiuk) and Professor Hannibal (Hannibál tanár úr). He was much in favour with the regime at that time, perhaps because he was more conventional in this approach than the new wave of Hungarian directors such as Miklós Janscó, whom we will meet later in this series. In later life he struggled to achieve the success of his earlier years and many of his screenplays never made it onto the screen. As I mentioned above, Törőcsik went on to great heights. Sadly, and it wouldn’t be a Hungarian story if there wasn’t some tragedy involved, Soós’s next film, The Empire Gone With a Sneeze, (Az eltüsszentett birodalom) was banned before screening and Soós became depressed, a situation made worse by his drinking and the poor parts he was offered. He committed suicide in June 1957, just days before his 27th birthday. Life may indeed be a merry-go-round, but clearly, not always.