Kolkata IFF screening 7: The Unburied Man (A temetetlen halott) Hungary/Poland/Slovakia 2004

Imre Nagy and his wife are ‘taken away’ by soldiers in Romania loyal to the Soviet Union

The films of Márta Mészáros tend not to be released in the UK, so I was pleased to take this opportunity to see one of her recent productions. I don’t think I’ve seen one before, only knowing Mészáros as one of the East European directors that I should have been watching in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact she has been involved in filmmaking for over 50 years, documentaries first after film school in Moscow and later fiction features. Coming to the fore in Hungary (and also in Romania and Poland) in this period represented a double success – as a woman making films in an intensely patriarchical society and as a Hungarian socialist attempting to make radical films under the heavy weight of Soviet influence. In 1960 she married Miklós Jancsó, arguably the highest profile Hungarian director of the period and the one most associated with exploring Hungarian history since 1914. The marriage lasted until 1973 but Jancsó’s two children from an earlier marriage have both worked with her on films. Nyika Jancsó photographed The Unburied Man and Katalin Jancsó was costume designer. Mészáros herself had been taken by her parents to the Soviet Union in 1936 – a trip that would later turn out to be a tragic mistake. (See the interview in Senses of Cinema.) There is clearly a great deal about her story that hasn’t been properly explored in the West except in a handful of books of film scholarship – kudos then to the Kolkata International Film Festival for making her one of its ‘honoured’ directors and screening eight of her films. Unfortunately because of my difficulties in registering I wasn’t able to see any of the other seven films or to attend her Q&A session. I’m stuck with a response to The Unburied Man and I feel inadequate in dealing with a film that is both an important statement about Hungarian history and a deeply personal film.

The ‘unburied man’ of the title is Imre Nagy, the figurehead of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Nagy had been Hungarian premier from 1953-55 and he was called back in the brief moment of freedom before the Russian tanks rolled into Budapest. He had been captured by the Russians in the First World War and had joined the Red Army. He lived in the Soviet Union from 1929-44 and returned to Hungary with the Russian occupation. During the 10 days that he led ‘free Hungary’ he appealed to the West for support but was then forced to trust the Russians to respect his democratic ideals. After sheltering in the Yugoslav Embassy he was handed over to those Hungarian politicians who were prepared to work with the Russians. He was then separated (with his wife) from his family and his colleagues, detained in a Romanian farmhouse and eventually returned to Hungary for trial. He refused to confess to his ‘crimes’ and was executed in 1958.

I have to say that Variety‘s review from 2005 is spot on. The film falls between several stools. It is generally very well made and elicits the necessary emotional response with a strong central performance by the Polish actor Jan Noweki (also married to Mészáros at the time of this film). However, there is some suggestion that the script changes some of the facts in order to represent the story of a man who was literally ‘unburied’ for thirty years until he could be officially re-instated as a Prime Minister who should be publicly recognised. More problematic, I think, is the lack of contextualising material referring to Hungarian history generally and to the other two men also executed at the same time who were also part of the revolutionary government. It isn’t a dull or heavy biographical piece and there are some interesting stylistic flourishes plus a clever montage representing the events of 1956, but I don’t think that the narrative escapes from the familiar story of the man who stood up for his ideals in the face of Cold War realpolitik. I remembered a now largely forgotten film by Costa-Gavras, L’Aveu (France-Italy 1970) with Yves Montand in a role based on the real-life memoir of Czech politician Artur London who was arrested and eventually forced to confess (l’aveu = the confession) to disloyalty to the Party in 1951 – a falsity conjured up by the Russians to keep the Czech leadership in line. London was not executed but his memoir was one of the most successful in telling such stories about life under Russian domination. Many others have followed and the story of Imre Nagy is in one sense just another: terrible and tragic and important in Hungarian history (and to Mészáros personally) though it was, I think the film needs something else to attract a wider audience. Nevertheless, I’m glad I saw it and I will now look out for the earlier Márta Mészáros film, Diary For My Children (Hungary 1982) which has now been released on DVD in the UK.

Hungarian distributor website (in Hungarian and English) for The Unburied Man.

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