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.


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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My Ten Favourite Hungarian Films – Adoption (Örökbefogadás)

There have been few female artists of note in Hungary: the writer Magda Szabó certainly, the poet Ágnes Nemes of course, and without doubt the film director Márta Mészáros. Indeed there is a case to be made that she is one of the greatest female film directors of all time. Although most well-known for her ‘Diary’ films, Adoption (Örökbefogadás) is a perfectly formed example of her craft.

DVD Cover for Adoption

Adoption: DVD Cover

It tells the story of Kata, a women in early forties and her desire to have a child, or more broadly, to experience love and motherhood. Kata, who lives in a village by the Danube, is having an affair with a married man, Joska. She wants to have a child with Joska, but he refuses saying, “It would mess up everything.” Kata befriends Anna, a rebellious teenager from a local state institution for girls. Anna wants to use Kata’s place for clandestine meetings with her boyfriend, Sanyi. Kata and Anna develop the sort of friendship that only a mother and daughter can have. So much so, that Kata intercedes with Anna’s family, who appear to have abandoned her, or at least, shown her no love or affection, so she can marry Sanyi. Kata continues to pursue her desire to have a child and ends up adopting. In the final scene, she is shown, baby her in arms, rushing to catch a bus. Time is running out, the film seems to say, but the image of a mother clutching her new baby suggests there is hope indeed.

This is very much a film about women, their feelings and their strength of character. Kata and Anna are shown as strong characters, or at least as individuals with a sense of purpose, a need to love and be loved, but without any sense of perfection. They are, as it were, multi-dimensional. Conversely the men in the film, Joska, Anna’s boyfriend Sanyi, the men who try to chat up Kata and Anna at a restaurant, are portrayed almost in caricature: selfish, unloving and predatory. I do not mean to imply that Mészáros portrays them in a judgemental way, they simply seem to exist on a different level.

Anna and Kata

Anna and Kata

In one pivotal scene Anna and Sanyi are shown dancing at their wedding reception. There is no dialgue, just the music playing. The camera shows Anna and her friends from the Institute, Anna appears to be comforting them, as if saying goodbye to them. We see them talking, wordlessly, as only the music soundtrack can be heard. Sanyi is shown trying to kiss Anna, as if jealous of her deep affection for her friends; she resists and pushes him away, and, in rather typical male fashion, storms out. The camera lingers on Anna, her eyes downcast, her face sad and reflective. It is almost the moment she falls out of being ‘in love’ and now confronts the choice is she has made: the institution of marriage.

Implicit in Mészáros’ portrayal of men is a critique of male-dominated Hungarian society and indeed of the instituions of contemporary, mid-1970’s Communist Hungary. Indeed, the film is surprisingly subversive for its time. But like many film-makers of that era Mészáros knows the limits of what is acceptable; all the criticisms are implied an shown on a human level, in everyday life of individuals struggling with their lives.

In many ways, this is a small film. By that I mean, there are no grand scenes, no great issues debated by the characters, no purpose-built sets, no soaring panoramic shots, no artifice, if you will. Shot in black and white it is very much in the ‘naturalist’ tradition of Hungarian film-making. The village where most of the film takes place, could be anywhere in Hungary and the interiors any house or apartment in the 1970s Hungary. Most of the actors seem non-professional. All of this lends the film an intimate, everyday feel, as if one really is observing the lives of everyday people. ‘Real’ is an overused term, but this film does indeed come across as being ‘real’ and that is a great part of its strength and quality. Like all good films, you do end up sympathising and caring what happens to the main characters – or at least the female ones!

Adoption went on to win critical acclaim beyond Hungary, winning awards at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival in 1975. Mészáros went on the make her ‘Diary’ films, only one of which, Napló gyermekeimnek (Diary for My Children, 1982), is available with English sub-titles. It is crying shame that the other two, Napló szerelmeimnek (Diary for my Loves, 1987) and Napló apámnak, anyámnak (Diary for my Father and Mother, 1990), are not (yet?) similarly available to a wider audience.

As an aside, the cinematography of Adoption was shared between Mészáros and Lajos Kolati, who directed Fateless.

Márta Mészáros

Márta Mészáros

The life story of Mészáros is itself worthy of a film: Born in 1931 she moved to Russia a few later with her family who were, in the parlance of the time, “fellow-travellers”. However like so many others found the experience anything other than a socialist paradise. Forced to move to Central Asian republic of Kyrsyzstan, the family endured much hardship; her mother died in childbirth and her father disappeared into the gulag. It would be over sixty years later in 1999 that awful truth was confirmed and Mészáros learnt that her father had been executed. She turned this experience into a film when she returned to Kyrsyzstan in 2000 and made Kisvilma – Az utolsó napló (Little Vilma – The Last Diary).

Mészáros continues to work even today. Like all great artists, working in film is her life and when asked when she would retire from film-making, she replied, raising her hands in the air, “All depends on God”. We can be thankful that this great Hungarian female artist continues to practice her craft.

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My Ten Favourite Hungarian Films – Merry-Go-Round (Körhinta)

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.


Körhinta Movie Poster

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.

Mari Törőcsik

Mari Törőcsik in Merry-Go-Round

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.


Mari Törőcsik and Imre Soós.

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.

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Revisiting The Past: Melbourne and ‘Blood in The Water’.

On a recent visit to Melbourne, a colleague casually pointed out a sports stadium, saying that it was the only building left of the 1956 Olympics held in that city. It was the swimming arena, she said. I was momentarily stunned – even though I had been to Melbourne several times before, including on holiday, I had never thought to see if the venue of the greatest water polo ever, still existed. And apparently it was still there, the sole remaining venue of those Olympics 54 years ago.

Ervin Zádor

Ervin Zádor and the 'Blood in the Water' match.

Anyone with a Hungarian connection will understand the significance of the venue: it was the scene of the so-called ‘Blood in the Water’ match in which Hungary defeated the Soviet Union in the semi-finals of water polo.  The clue to all this is the date: the match took place on 6 December 1956, a month after the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian revolution. It is not hard to imagine the atmosphere that must surrounded the event, with the Hungarians,  far away from their home, which was been torn apart by the Soviets. The crowd that day was decidedly partisan, there many local Hungarians present, plus, Americans and Australians who had no love for the Soviet Union. It was a rough affair from the start but when the Hungarian player, Ervin Zádor was punched in the eye by a member of the Soviet team and emerged from the water with blood streaming down his face, the crowd erupted. Officials fared the worst and called the match off with Hungary leading 4-0. The headlines the next day read, ‘Blood in the Water’, and the legend was born. Hungary went on to win the gold medal, beating Yugoslavia 2-1.

Westpac Centre, Melbourne

The Westpac Centre, July 2010.

The match has recently been captured in two films: ‘Children of Glory’, includes a re-enactment of the ‘blood in the water’ match whilst a documentary ‘Freedom’s Fury’ reunites players from both sides who tell the story of the ‘bloodiest game in Olympic history’.

Today the venue is known as the Westpac Centre and is the home of the Collingwood Football Club and the Victorian Institute of Sport. It was closed when I made the trek there but I am not sure it is open to the public as such. However as you can clearly see, the glass facade with its distinctive vertical panes in the background of the photo of Zádor, are clearly visible today. The original pool itself is gone, judging by photos of the inside. I hope there is a plaque somewhere in the building commemorating the events of 6 December all those years ago.

As I stood opposite the stadium, taking the photo above, and thinking of that match, and those young men so far from home, an unmistakable sound caught my ear. Two young mothers, their young children in strollers, walked passed me, talking to each other. At that moment, I caught the oh so familiar sound of Hungarian being spoken. A chill went up my spine and I smiled. Hungarians, you just can’t get away from them.  Then, something must have got into my eye I guess, as I couldn’t see quite so clearly.

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