Tagged: Hungarian Cinema

Diary for My Children (Napló gyermekeimnek, Hungary 1982/4)

Juli (Zsuzsa Czinkóczi) is shown her new room in Budapest by Magda (Anna Polony)

This was my fourth selection from my MUBI free trial and I realised that I’ve been waiting to see it since my first encounter with Mészáros Márta’s films in Kolkata in 2009. Mészáros, born in 1931, is one of global film’s major directors of documentaries and fiction features but it is difficult to see her films in UK cinemas. (Second Run, the East European specialist DVD label in the UK, do have this Mészáros film on offer, but none of the director’s other films.) Diary For My Children is an important film for several reasons. According to John Cunningham in his Hungarian Cinema book (Wallflower 2004) it was the director’s most popular film in her home market. It was also very controversial with its release delayed by two years because of problems with the Hungarian censors (because it portrays the ‘Stalinisation’ of Hungary in the late 1940s?). Mészáros had always been more popular in the international market up to this point and the film did win the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1984. It was also an important personal statement for the director as a semi-autobiographical film and the first of a four-part series of films over the next 15 years.

The central character is Juli, a teenage young woman flying back to Budapest in 1947 from the Soviet Union. Like Mészáros herself, Juli was born in Hungary and then taken to the Soviet Union as a child. Her mother is dead and she doesn’t know what has happened to her father. She is accompanied by an older couple who were friends of her parents and in Budapest she will be fostered by Magda, someone else who knew her parents and who is now in a senior position in the Hungarian Communist Party.

Bunking off to watch Garbo in the cinema.

I enjoyed the film very much. Juli is played by Zsuzsa Czinkóczi. She had been a child star and had appeared in three films for Mészáros and two for Márta’s former husband Jancsó Miklós. Czinkóczi was 15 when Diary was completed. In the narrative she ages from 15 to 21. It is an extraordinary performance and it is because of her performance that I sometimes felt that I was watching a 1960s New Wave film. Juli has that mixture of vitality and confidence mixed with moments of immaturity and vulnerability that I associate with the young women of 1960s films. She finds herself living in the midst of Party privilege in a large house taken from the bourgeoisie. She is enrolled in the top school in Budapest. But she doesn’t want either of these privileges. Instead she wants to find out what has happened to her father and her other relatives. Magda keeps her on a very tight rein and she has to ‘borrow’ Magda’s pass to indulge her only vice – bunking off school to go to the cinema. Meanwhile, around her, the Stalinists increase their control over Budapest. I felt at a disadvantage because of my limited knowledge of Hungarian politics in 1947-49. At one point, Magda is firm in condemning Tito, the communist leader of Yugoslavia who broke away from the USSR, leading to banishment from the Cominform – the association of socialist states. Magda preaches the Stalinist line promoted by Rákosi Mátyás, the Hungarian leader whose image is central to government events in Budapest alongside those of Lenin and Stalin.

Juli and her mother in the USSR when the heavily pregnant woman reaches the village hospital

As the film’s title suggests, it is like a personal diary. Juli’s ideas, her fears and her desires are central and we see the political environment in the background. It isn’t until she begins digging that she uncovers clues to what happened to her parents. She has her own intimate memories which Mészáros inserts into the narrative without any warnings or clues. These are scenes that Juli is remembering or daydreaming about when she sees her father in a quarry selecting stone and working on a sculpture or when she accompanies her pregnant mother to the hospital. These are personal memories for Mészáros and she emphasises this by casting the Polish actor Jan Nowicki as both Juli’s father during the dream/memory sequences and János, her father’s friend who escaped to France in the 1930s but returned to Hungary after 1945. Mészáros later married Nowicki. Diary was photographed by Jancsó Miklós Jr., her son from her second marriage to the director Jancsó Miklós, perhaps the best-known Hungarian filmmaker of the period.

Little sense of Hungary as a defeated Axis supporter came across to me, but perhaps that is the point – everyone has to survive in the new system and the past is quickly forgotten if bringing it up would mean criticising the Russians. János does talk about the war and the (British?) air raids which killed his wife and disabled his son. He will become the character through whom Juli learns about the past. Juli’s ‘adopted’ grandparents are an odd couple. The man does provide Juli with some clues about the past, but the woman is a very sketchily-presented figure.

Juli (centre) tries to leave Budapest but the police search for her with orders from Magda

Juli’s story is in one sense a ‘coming of age’ story, though some of the most common elements of that genre are not followed up and the story is complicated by the political struggle. Juli changes when the evidence of how the system really works is brought home to her. At other times she does the kinds of things teenagers do. She has a boyfriend who she met at school, but she tells him from the start that she doesn’t love him. What she wants at this time is a friend of her own age. Mészáros Márta is an immensely important female filmmaker but there have been debates about the extent to which Diary for My Children is a feminist film. In one sense, simply making the film in the patriarchal Hungarian system, which still seems to have prevailed in the 1980s, is a feminist statement. In the next film in the series, Diary For My Lovers (1987) Juli travels to Russia to go to the Moscow Film School because the film schools in Hungary don’t admit women. This is again an autobiographical statement. Here is an extract from an essay by Catherine Portuges on the Second Run website (the full essay comes with the DVD):

 . . . the film is neither purely fictional nor entirely autobiographical, nor, for that matter, strictly speaking a product of what has been called ‘women’s cinema’. Rather, by maintaining an intricate balance between personal exploration on the one hand and historical investigation on the other, Mészáros’ cinematic method transforms and expands its autobiographical dimension by alternating sequences in which the historical context, marked by the use of archival footage, is dominant. This structure positions the viewer in a way that avoids both the more complete distancing of documentary and the more individually-motivated conventions of autobiographical cinema. . . . Diary for My Children transcends traditional categories of genre, yet it functions as a kind of history . . . in which different angles of vision operate to analyse micro-history in order to generate ideas about a larger, macro-historical vision – a private message, in other words, which, in the public mind, becomes a collective one. (Catherine Portuges is the author of Screen Memories: The Hungarian Cinema of Marta Meszaros (Women Artists in Film), John Wiley and Sons, 1993

This is quite a persuasive argument, though for me the archival footage wasn’t so noticeable until towards the end of the film, by which time Juli is ‘aware’. In fact, I identified with Juli so strongly that the division didn’t really bother me. Juli stretches Magda’s patience and won’t listen to the older woman’s justifications – or at least her behaviour means Magda thinks that she just won’t listen. (It is this refusal to engage with Magda’s perspective which is perhaps the disadvantage of the ‘diary’ narrative. I was strongly reminded of a similar narrative in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013). Ida is set in the 1960s and an 18 year-old young woman leaves a convent to meet her aunt who has been a judge in communist Poland. Juli could easily be in that 1960s-set film. I’d like to see what happens to her in the other three films, but availability looks a real problem. Perhaps MUBI can find them as well?

The Round Up (Szegénylegények, Hungary 1966)

Imprisonment and torture

dir: Miklós Jancsó, Hungary 1966. Black and White, Agascope 2.35:1, with subtitles.

Screened at the Leeds International Film Festival

The film is set in Hungary in 1869. Events have followed on from the failed revolution of 1848 and there have been bands of rebellious peasants in the countryside. Part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the revolts are both about nationalism and about class. A new noble minister for law and order is determined to stamp out resistance, using whatever means is necessary.

The credits are shown over a series of graphic images: factories, mansions, prisons, and implements of torture whilst a voice over comments on the ‘enrichment of the bourgeoisie’. Then the film opens with a long sequence shot showing the actual round up of the title. Horsemen gallop across the flat, almost featureless plains, chase down peasants and herd them together. The action then moves to an enclosure and nearby buildings, predominately in white. The peasants are confined in an enclosure, Individuals are taken away to be pressurised or tortured. The latter includes a set of narrow and constricting cabins in which men are locked.

Women bring food and necessities to the imprisoned men. They are herded and attacked by the military. Their (presumed) husbands throw themselves from the walls of the enclosure. A woman is stripped and forced to run a gauntlet of flailing soldiers.

One peasant confesses to a two killing. He is then threatened with hanging unless he discovers a perpetrator who has killed more people. He is only partially successful when he finds a ‘victim’ he can only identify three of the names of the claimed victims. There is an execution.

The informer tries again. But locked in a cabin at night, he is found strangled next morning. Three men finally confess to arranging his death. The authorities questioning of the imprisoned suspects focuses on one of their leaders, Sandor.

Late in the film the remaining imprisoned peasants are forcibly enrolled in the army. Two claim to have riding experience with the rebel groups. They demonstrate their prowess. They are then allowed to select comrades from the ranks for a mounted battalion. Once gathered together they sing a song from their rebel days. But their enthusiasm is misplaced and they face punishment rather than service.

Jancsó’s films are strongly allegorical. Whilst individuals come to the fore for particular scenes, the characters are not psychologically drawn: they are symbolic of their class and their social position. The settings and the landscape are very important and add to the sense of parables about society and social relations. Stylistically he uses long shots, long takes and sequence shots, (though not to the degree found in later films like Red Psalm). He frequently places simultaneous action in different planes within the image. There is a strong emphasis on the framing and the camera movements: editing is simple though cuts are often abrupt.

Graham Petrie interviewed the director and commented on his approach to filming: “During filming, Jancsó’s major concern is with the use of space and, as Madaras suggests, with the rhythmic utilisation of that space through the moving camera. According to [János] Kende, the lengthy sequence shots which characterise his films are all worked out on location; cast and crew arrive knowing only the equipment and props (candles, rain-making machines and so on) that they are likely to need. The total space of the day’s shooting is laid out with tracks, and a starting-point for each shot – usually a close-up, of a face, a hand or a weapon – is established. The movements of the main actors, and much of their dialogue, are then built up, together with the appropriate camera movements, and finally the often numerous extras are integrated into the total pattern. With a particularly complicated shot, this can take up most of the day. As all the sound is post-synchronised, Jancsó may well still be shouting instructions to the cast and crew during the actual shooting. The first take, Kende says, is usually discarded, as there are still too many errors; by the third or fourth take, things have become too mechanically perfect. The second take, therefore, is usually the one used.” (In Red Psalm, Flicks Books, 1998).

By the 1960s the conventions of socialist realism were disappearing, though they still exercised some influence in Eastern European cinemas. At one level The Round Up offers a historical example of the ruling classes’ suppression of the resistance of the ordinary working people. However, there is less about the politics of the revolution than in, say, the later Red Psalm. Petrie comments “Neither side was completely pure or innocent; the victims could be manipulated into betraying or deserting their comrades, and former victims were perfectly capable of committing atrocities . . . the possibility of achieving social and political justice seemed extremely problematic.” It would seem that Jancsó’s films needs to be interpreted in the light of the concept of hegemony. Hence the importance of the opening titles where the power of the bourgeoisie is seen as embodied in the instrument of production and of torture, seeping into the social relations of all, even the oppressed.

We had a short introduction before the screening. The speaker emphasised the allegorical aspect of the film, which was made only eight years after the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He stressed, as do a number of writers, that the thematic centre of Jancsó’s films is the question of power: who controls it and how they use it. From this perspective The Round Up offers forensic study of a particular historical instance where the ruling class exercise power in an extreme fashion. But the generalised presentation of this encourages audiences to consider parallels with their own world – with obvious examples now in 2011.

Miklos Jancso’s later film, Red Psalm (1971), was also screened during the festival, but unfortunately not in a 35mm print due to the poor state of the existing copy.

The Turin Horse (A torinói ió, Hungary/Fra/Ger/Switz/US 2011)

The daughter going to the well.

Director: Béla Tarr. Screenplay: László Krasznahorkai, Béla Tarr. Cinematography: Fred Kelemen. Music: Mihály Vig. Black and white, with English subtitles, approximately 150 minutes.

Screened at Leeds International Film Festival.

Béla Tarr has achieved a high reputation among European art film directors in recent years: though I could not find a profile of him in any of my biographical and encyclopaedic books.

His preoccupations are fairly distinctive, but at the same time there are strong parallels with the films of other Hungarian directors, especially Miklós Jancsó. The characters are almost symbolic, the narratives clearly allegorical, whilst the black and white cinematography is luminous and full of striking sequence shots. This is in contrast to the story world, which is grim and fatalistic. The Turin Horse fits the pattern, though (sadly) it is also likely to be the last of these features.

The title and the film’s opening present a narrative voice recounting an episode from the life of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche against a black screen. Nietzsche sees a cabman flogging an exhausted horse in a Turin street. The philosopher flings his arms around the horse and then passes out. So begins his final days of mental breakdown. Finally the voice asks “what happened to the horse?”.

The rest of the film presents a tale involving a farmer and his horse. Not, I think, the same ones as in the Turin episode, minor details don’t fit and the setting is the countryside familiar from Tarr’s other films set in Hungary. It does seem, though, that it is set in 1899. The farmer, who has an incapacitated hand, lives with his daughter in a rude and fairly primitive farmhouse. It is set in a desolate and windy vale. There is a well and a stables where the old, worn out horse is kept. The film covers six days and nights, during which time a very strong gale blows but finally subsides. In the course of the film the horse becomes ill, a neighbour visits to buy a bottle of Pálinka {a locally brewed hooch): a band of gypsies stop at the well for water: and the well suddenly dries up. And the narrative voice returns several times to comment on events, at one point picking up a reading from a religious book by the daughter. The final comment from the voice occurs at the film’s end, as darkness increases, and offers the audience little but ambiguity.

What the farmer actually grows or produces is not clear: the basic diet of father and daughter is potatoes. I noted that they do not eat the skins, whereas, given their limited diet, this would have seemed to be a good idea. The daughter has to dress and undress the father due to his disabled hand: though this is resolutely non-sexual. As noted at one point she reads from a book, given to her by the passing gypsies. I was a little surprised that she was not illiterate, though her reading is halting and laboured. Much of the time is taken up with routine tasks or activities.

Tarr has offered a partial explanation of the film:

The Turin Horse is about the heaviness of human existence. How it’s difficult to live your daily life, and the monotony of life. We didn’t want to talk about mortality or any such general thing. We just wanted to see how difficult and terrible it is when every day you go to the well and bring the water, in summer, in winter …All the time. The daily repetition of the same routine make it possible to show that something is wrong with their world. It’s very simple and pure.” (Bela Tarr)

This is certainly one aspect of the film. But I think audiences will actually consider such general things as mortality during or after the film. There is a narrative development on the screen, and it is a relentless closing in: a sense of a fate that encloses the character as the darkness of night encloses us all at one time or another.

Co-incidentally I listened to a recording of a programme chaired by Melvyn Bragg this week on The Frankfurt School. One contributor suggested that Theodore Arno (in particular) held to the view that ‘happy, conformist’ mass culture blinded ordinary people to the reality of life. He believed that progressive art should actually expose them to the reality of the miserable oppression that is the actual world. I would think that these philosophers would find Tarr’s films exemplary in this respect. The problem aspect with both thinkers and filmmakers is that there is the risk that this doomed existence seems inescapable.

But if Tarr’s films seem to lack a way out of hell, they are impressive in their depiction of such situations. The black and white images at time offer an evocation of an action or setting, as in the superb opening tracking shot, which follows the farmer, horse, and cart as they ascend, with difficulty, a hilly path. It would seem that Tarr and Kelemen used a Steadicam for most of these impressive sequence shots. At other points in the film a long take provides a simple shot that contemplates a character, in particular a beautiful framing of the daughter as she gazes out of the window in the farmhouse. The sound is partly naturalistic, with the incessant wind preying on both characters and audience. But there is also a recurring musical sequence, ominous but repetitious. And the performers (including the horse) are at one with the landscape and the elements. This is a film which is a pleasure to watch, and which is immensely stimulating. Despite its running time of two and half-hours it did not seem long, nor did it become monotonous.

Artificial Eye will be releasing the film in the UK.

Forest (Rengeteg, Hungary 2003)

The young woman who dreams . . .

Hungary 2003, 1.85:1, 90 minutes, in colour.

Director and screenwriter: Benedek Fliegauf. Cinematography: Zoltán Lavasi. Film Editor: Lili Fodor. Leading cast: Rita Braun, Barbara Csonka, Laszio Cziffer.

Screened as part of the Magyar Masterpieces retrospective at Leeds International Film Festival.

This is a challenging and certainly very original film. I found it riveting, but even by the end I was unsure about what exactly I had seen. Never mind, it is a great 90 minutes of cinema.

The film opens outside what appears to be a Department Store with crowds of people entering and leaving. The camera seems to pick on a character or characters and follow them: only to change its mind and follow another. The credits follow. Then we view a series of vignettes, with short interludes. Some characters appear several times, some only once. The little dramas are mainly abrasive as one character upbraids another.

In order of appearance we see a young woman (Kati) return to her flat and find her friend (Barbara), a sleeping man with a dog and a can of gasoline. Two young men discuss an unseen and distinctly odd pet. A husband and wife discuss the husband’s attitude and treatment of their ten-year-old daughter. By a river two men tell a young woman a story about an accident and a giant catfish. A couple, seemingly married, row about the contents of a man’s knapsack and his dead friend. A young woman recounts a disturbing dream to her boyfriend. Barbara and Kati re-appear in a wood, arguing because Barbara has lost the map. The young couple re-appear sitting round a campfire, there seem to be other people there.

Here the film fades into darkness and we are left with the sound of the flickering flames. Now the film reprises the opening sequence outside the store. We are able to identify the various characters from the vignettes, either leaving or waiting outside. It seems exactly the same as the opening sequence, though I thought there was a slight but significant additional action.

The various little dramas have a lot going on in them: more than suggested above. They seem very separate, but tantalisingly as the film continues there are suggestive overlaps. Moreover, there are interludes between the vignettes when some of the characters briefly re-appear, though involved in what is never clear.

The film’s style bear some comparison to the Dogme School of filmmaking. The film is shot in a restless, constantly mobile way, using a hand-held camera, and featuring mainly close-ups with the occasional long shot. I noted only one long shot in the main film: a woman stands looking over a partly urban hillside. There are however long takes or sequence shots, brining a sense of candour to the scenes. These include constant whip pans back and forth between the various characters. The sound design is also extremely important. Most of the film relies on naturalistic sound, with the only music occurring in the interludes. The cast is composed entirely of non-professionals: “It was very low budget. The actors were friends of mine . . . They are normal people who were from my surroundings. With non-actors I cast very close to the character . . .” (Benedek Fliegauf).

There are also aspects that seem troublingly inconsistent. The man with the can of gasoline brings the dog to Kati, and, presumably leaves it with her. We do not see it again, but it is in both the opening and closing sequences. Here a young woman, whom I think we do not see in the main part of the feature, is walking it on a lead? And there are other, presumably deliberate, ambiguity.

The film achieves that intense in-your-face effect found in the best Dogme films. One becomes deeply interested in the various characters. The less abrasive episodes offer a sort of relaxation between the heavy encounters. I am still puzzling out the interconnections between all these segments. It is like a fine poem. The lines, or here the images and sounds, lodge in one memory: evocations on which you can dwell with pleasure or carry on attempting to analyse.

Love (Szerelem, Hungary 1972)

Mother, doctor and daughter-in-law

Hungary 1972, 1.85:1 black and white with English subtitles, 88 minutes.

This is a film with a delicate surface but a tough interior. It opens with an old an infirm woman (Lili Darvas) under the care of her servant Iren. She is visited regularly by her daughter-in-law Luca (Mari Torocsik), whilst her son Janos (Ivan Darvas) is away in an uncertain situation. From the start the film mixes memories with then present in short, elliptical inserts. This is essay on time and memory reminiscent of the work of Alain Resnais. Apart from food and flowers the daughter-in-law brings letters from the absent son. But it becomes apparent that his situation is different from the successful career presented in the letters.

Like other Hungarian films there is a strong sense of allegory, and some of the use of settings as well as the graphics in the inserts reminded me of the films of Miklos Jancsó. But this has a different sort of lyricism, a fragility that echoes the feelings of the characters involved.

The film adapts two short stories of the writer Tibor Déry.  This is reckoned to be the finest work of the director Károly Makk, who trained in the Socialist Film School and started directing in the 1950s. The cinematography by János Tóth makes beautiful use of the black and white images, and achieves delicate effects with special lenses, long lenses and the occasional zoom. What we would now call the sound design is notable for the mix of dialogue and sounds, including those of the settings and animals. The editing is distinctive, and one constantly has to respond to changes and new images. The English subtitles are less judicious, with some odd spelling and formulations, though one can always work out the sense. Given this is Hungary in 1972, an audience can soon work out what is likely to be the actual situation of the son and husband. There is a distinct lack of signs as to places, dates or events. This gives the film an allegorical feeling, but presumably also deflected possible political criticism.

One of the strengths of the film is the way that the characters’ feelings and their fears are so effectively captured. On one hand, parts of the film feel like a poem on aspects of love, in other parts there is a strong sense of the realistic depiction of the characters situations. It has an intense sense of place, setting, objects and props. The camerawork makes a viewer strongly aware of the physical context, in which the characters are found, move and interact.

“One of the chief merits of this film is that it presents complete human beings. It employs small gestures (sinking wearily into a chair, smoothing the coverlet, or remembering an insignificant episode from the past) to present a rich world of emotions.” (Károly Nemes, Films of Commitment, 1985).

NB the film should be in 1.66:1, but the projection was nearer to 1.85:1.

BIFF 2011 #17: The Last Report on Anna (Utolsó Jelentés Annáról Hungary 2009)

103 minutes. Colour, With English subtitles.

Director: Márta Mészáros.

Meszaros has had a long career in the Hungarian film industry. She started working on documentary in the 1950s and moved to features in 1968. She has made over two dozen features; though many have not been seen in the UK. Her film about Imre Nagy, A temetetlen halott (The Unburied Man (2004, reviewed elsewhere in this blog) has yet to receive a screening in the UK. Earlier films have won prizes at the Berlin and Cannes Film Festivals. She deals very powerfully with issues affecting women, but also shows a recurring concern with the troubled history of her country in the C20th. A series of semi-autobiographical films focused on the tragedy of the 1956 uprising. This new feature deals in part with that story.

The film combines characters from recent history in a partly fictional story. But the story itself includes flashbacks and inserted footage of historical events. The film opens with a dedication to Anna Kéthly. She was a member of the Social Democratic Party and the first woman to be elected to the Hungarian Parliament in the 1930s. Her life was a struggle, first against the fascist government of the 1930s: then against the German occupation: and finally against the Soviet occupation from 1945. In 1956 she was a member of Imre Nagy’s short-lived nationalist government and then went into exile after the suppression of the rebellion. In exile she continued to campaign and oppose the Soviet occupation. (The character in the film is played by Enikö Eszeyi).

Mészáros film imagines an episode late in her life of exile when the Hungarian government attempts to lure her back to her native country. This plot hinges on Péter (Ernie Ferkete), a younger university lecturer in Literature, who is also the nephew of Anna’s past love, Faragó (György Cserhalmi), who remains in Hungary. Péter’s unlikely Ph.D. study is Walloon Troubadours. This provides for the ploy for him to attend an academic event in Brussels where Anna remains in exile.

Mészáros increases the complex of associations by opening the film with Péter confessing his clandestine past to his younger brother. It is now 1992 and as he begins his story we see the coverage of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary covered on the television news. The film ranges widely in time and space. Flashbacks, including newsreel, take us back to the 1930s, the 1940s and the fateful year of 1956. And the characters move between the capital of Hungary Budapest and the western capital of Brussels.

We learn not only about Anna’s political career but also her personal involvement with Faragó (the younger version is played by Ernie Ferkete), who belongs to the Communist Party. One of the props of their relationship is a small book of poetry. The poems figure large in the film, and I think the poet was probably a real writer and most likely carries strong connotations for Hungarians.

Whilst part so the film carry the almost noir atmosphere associated with surveillance and the secret police, [for example in Margaret von Trotta’s The Promise/Das Versprechen, 1994) there are also fairly sardonic episodes. Péter’s ‘handler’ in Brussels is a strong and attractive woman bureaucrat. At one point, after wine and a party, she leads him away by his tie – we are able to imagine what occurs in the ellipsis.

Unfortunately instead of a 35mm print we viewed a version on Digibeta. The image quality was not particularly good and also variable in clarity: meanwhile the aspect ration, probably 1.78:1 showed signs of cropping and squeezing, [possibly down from 1.85:1:] this was especially noticeable in the frequent large close-ups. This rather limited my appreciation of what appeared to be some extremely well crafted sequences. The newsreels and the sequences with recreations are generally very well handled. I did think some of the Budapest reconstructions seemed the wrong period? And the personal drama uses setting and landscape to good effect. When Péter arrives in Brussels we follow him as he strolls through a park: the sun is out, the park is green and a group of young hippies smile benevolently at him. As his assignment develops there are increasing days of rain. Several shot of Anna use the flowers in her house and in her garden as placements. The last shot of her in the film racks to soft focus as she pushes through close-knit bushes and trees. A sort of visual equivalent to some of the lines in the poems.

The importance of Péter’s work is emphasised by the status conferred on Anna as an émigré. Late in the film she celebrates a birthday and among the many telegrams is one from the King of the Belgiums. At another point a friend with an embassy car visits her. This is Golda Meir, a real-life friend of Anna. Given the role of the Suez invasion in forestalling any action over the invasion of Hungary, I found this a little odd. The explanation is presented when Anna tells Golda that, ‘I have lost a country, you have gained one’. This sense of loss as an exile is an important theme in the film.

However, there is also a concentration on the personal at the expense of the political. This is a common trait in Mészáros’s films. However, it leaves a certain lacunae for the viewers. So the political distinction between Social Democrat and Communist is never developed. Neither are the politics of the Soviet Union or of their puppet government in Hungary. And at one point Péter’s handler tells him that the CIA funds Anna’s group, but we hear no further about his.

The film’s focus is very much on the effect of events on Anna and Faragó. But it also draws parallels with the new generation. So Péter’s young wife, Kati (Gabriella Hámori). also benefits from his work for the Security Services and is able to join him in Brussels. But she is then appalled when she realises the work that he is involved in. And as we hear the story through Péter’s confession to his younger brother we also become aware of the cost to himself and those about him of his actions.

The fact that the story concerns the efforts of a man to inveigle a woman is not accidental. Gender is key focus in Mészáros’s films. And intriguingly the central plot device echoes Margaret von Trotta’s The Promise. In both films it is the woman who escapes to the west whilst it is the man who stays behind, caught up in the State repression dramatised by the films. In The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, 2006), with its male director, one of the male protagonist finally makes it in a unified Germany whilst the female protagonist dies.

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.