Archive for August, 2009

Punitive Expedition

Büntetőexpedició
Hungary, 1970, black and white, 34 mins

  • Director: Dezső Magyar
  • Screenplay: Péter Dobai
  • Photography: Elemér Ragályi
  • Art Direction: Tamás Breier
  • Costumes: Zsuzsa Vicze
  • Editing: Hajnal Sellő
  • Sound: Károly Peller
  • Producer: Jenő Götz
  • Production Company: Béla Balázs Studio


Is there another national film culture that has devoted so much screen time to the study of horses? Not merely in the sense of lots of them on screen at any one time (there are plenty of American-made Westerns that offer much in that department), but in the way that many sequences in Hungarian films seem to exist solely to present the horse from multiple perspectives, whether in long shot as part of a large group, or individual body parts in extreme close-up. Notionally, Dezső Magyar’s film is set in 1913, and is about a group of soldiers representing the Austro-Hungarian empire establishing order in a Serbian village after colleagues are killed by rebels, but any narrative impetus is quickly buried in a series of lengthy, beautifully-filmed studies of horses in motion, underscored either by a Bach Brandenburg Concerto or simply the noise of their thudding hooves against faint bird-song. They ride across fields in the early morning mist, or through a forest, narrow depth of field keeping the horses in sharp focus as they’re sandwiched between blurred trunks and branches. Nearly all the riders are in uniform, apart from a nearly naked man who’s been tied to his mount. This, and the film’s title, primes us to anticipate the worst.

The film’s main polemical purpose then starts to reveal itself via a series of short, sometimes almost imperceptible flash-cuts, firstly to assorted military presentations and march-pasts, then dances and festivities involving the aristocracy (their essential decadence emphasised by bizarre shots of scantily-clad female archers and dogs with fake wings), and finally grainy newsreel images of revolutionary insurrections through the ages, many of them clearly taking place after the events depicted in the film. To an almost flamenco-sounding solo guitar strumming, a black-clad rebel with a Che Guevara beard begins torching the village prior to the soldiers’ arrival, with a religious procession sent out both to demonstrate against them and to slow them down (a brief voiceover snippet informs us that 800 Serbs and 500 Greeks and Albanians were evacuated from the village during these manoeuvres).

A prisoner is dressed in white shirt and black blindfold, and summarily shot (a gigantic close-up of his gulping throat the only hint of his reaction prior to him dropping abruptly out of frame). The Orthodox procession challenges the soldiers, who respond by drawing their swords and charging, their aggressively martial singing drowning out the Orthodox hymns. A sniper is spotted up a tree, and a marksman is summoned to dispatch him. When they reach the village, they are confronted by the bearded rebel, who charges at them holding a lance, like a descendant of a medieval jouster. While the soldiers’ prisoner yells in sympathy, the rebel and his horse are both shot, though he recovers repeatedly to attempt further charges before lead conclusively wins the battle with flesh and blood. Sheer weight of numbers (and horses) ensures the military’s triumph this time, though increasingly frequent cutaways to actual revolutionary footage up to the 1960s suggests that it may be short-lived.


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Posted on 26th August 2009
Under: Reviews, Festivals, Hungary, Dezső Magyar | No Comments »

Capriccio

Hungary, 1969, colour, 16 mins

  • Director: Zoltán Huszárik
  • Screenplay: Zoltán Huszárik, János Tóth
  • Photography: János Tóth
  • Editing: János Tóth
  • Sound: György Pintér
  • Music: Zoltán Jeney
  • Consultants: Elek Bajkovszky, János Réti, Hajnal Sellő
  • Producer: Jenő Götz, Péter Magyar
  • Production Company: Béla Balázs Studio


Ostensibly a non-narrative study of various aspects of a rural winter, this short film by one of modern Hungarian cinema’s greatest visual poets has all the spellbinding qualities of his better-known feature debut Sindbad (Szindbád, 1971), but here allied to a winning sense of humour that’s never quite allowed to detract from the haunting beauty of many of the images. The end of autumn is heralded by a few red leaves still clinging to a statue’s sculpted robes, while whip pans across the increasingly wintry landscape and close-ups of rippling water are given character by seemingly random freeze-frames and Zoltán Jeney’s electronic chirrups on the soundtrack. There are recurring shots of birds, migrating en masse, huddled by the icy water or lying individually dead, frozen stiff in the snow. So far Capriccio has been a reasonably generic mood piece, but then the snowmen arrive.

We briefly see one of them being constructed by snowball-throwing children, but the origin of most of the snowmen is a complete mystery. Some sport antlers, others candelabra, they’re decked out in military or religious accoutrements, hold portraits or musical instruments. A whole semicircle of snowmen forms a brass band, while a top-hatted colleague is waited upon by semi-nude women dressed as angels. One lies on a funeral bier, surrounded by candles, another in a hospital bed that’s been set up on an ice sheet. Another has a real human skull where its heart would normally be. Yet another has its entire chest region occupied by a wire cage full of living birds, while another has perspex-encased beetles for eyes, to make a change from the usual carrots and corn-cobs standing in for facial features.

Very funny though much of this is, Huszárik never forgets the film’s primary purpose, which is to emphasise the fleeting evanescence of not just the seasons but also living creatures within it: the snowmen might as well be us ourselves, mere blips in a timeline lasting millennia. A collection of snow homunculi reminiscent of Anthony Gormley’s Field for the British Isles (one sporting real glasses) melts in seconds with the assistance of time-lapse cinematography. Soon everything has melted, droplets of water drip off branches, and grass starts growing to herald the arrival of spring. and the cycle begins anew.


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Posted on 24th August 2009
Under: Reviews, Festivals, Hungary, Zoltán Huszárik | No Comments »

Ten Thousand Suns

Tízezer nap
Hungary, 1965/67, black and white, 110 mins

  • Director: Ferenc Kósa
  • Screenplay: Ferenc Kósa, Sándor Csoóri, Imre Gyöngyössy
  • Photography: Sándor Sára
  • Production Design: József Romvári
  • Sound: György Pintér
  • Editing: Ferencné Szécsényi
  • Music: András Szöllősy
  • Production Manager: József Bajusz
  • Cast: Tibor Molnár (István Széles), Gyöngyi Bürös (Juli), András Kozák (István Széles junior), János Koltai (Bánó Fülöp), Ida Siménfalvy (Széles’ mother), János Rajz (Balogh), János Siménfalvy (Uncle Sándor), Anna Nagy (Mihály’s wife), Nóra Káldi (policeman’s wife), Kornélia Sallai (Bánó’s wife), László Ferencz (gypsy), István Szilágyi (referee), Péter Haumann (policeman), László Nyers (Mihály Csere), István Széles, Mihály Papp
  • Production Company: MAFILM


One of the most impressive Hungarian directorial debuts, Ten Thousand Suns offers clinching proof that Miklós Jancsó wasn’t the only mid-1960s master offering breathtaking widescreen compositions featuring hundreds of men and horses. Shot by Sándor Sára, then well on his way to cementing his reputation as one of Hungarian cinematography’s greatest visual artists, the film routinely throws up stunning shots: mass wheat scything, dozens of horses crossing a bridge to market (followed shortly afterwards by train wagons crossing the same bridge heading in the opposite direction, a neat visual gag on technological progress), prisoners doing hard labour on a rocky hillside, numerous public festivities crammed with local colour. The aesthetic impact alone makes it’s easy to see why this once had a considerable international reputation, even achieving a commercial release in Britain.

Another reason for its acclaim outside Hungary may be that while it tackles similar material to Zoltán Fábri’s Twenty Hours (Húsz óra, 1965), it does so in the much more immediately accessible form of a three-decade family saga (the period alluded to by the title adds up to just over 27 years) which spans the pre-war era through to the János Kádár’s so-called ‘goulash communism’ of the 1960s. We watch the former peasants István Széles (Tibor Molnár), his wife Juli (a wonderfully expressive Gyöngyi Bürös, her silences as eloquent her sparse dialogue) and their friend Bánó Fülöp (János Koltai) negotiating all the pitfalls that history strews in their path, not always with complete success. Though long-term friends, István and Bánó are politically poles apart: Bánó is the local Communist activist, organising a trade union and enthusiastically implementing agricultural reform on the local collective farm. By contrast, István consciously shuns identification with a particular line, and while this makes him a much more clear-sighted observer of communism’s drawbacks, it’s not without considerable hardship along the way, including a long spell in prison - though he also refuses to side with the rebels of 1956, since they also stand in the way of his landowning ambitions. (More specifically, he refuses to shoot Bánó, despite the latter now being firmly established as his ideological ‘enemy’).

Kósa parallels this central narrative with a vivid portrait of the lot of workers over this period. Before the war, István, Juli, Bánó and their peasant cohorts live in extreme poverty, effectively slaves to the local landowners and all their actions are shown to have moral consequences above and beyond their notional illegality - for instance, stealing straw from the pigs to use as fuel on New Year’s Eve means that the piglets will be found frozen to death the following morning (in one of many quirky touches that separate this film from one of Jancsó’s more earnest parables, the miscreants are ordered to apologise to the surviving pigs). The potato is the staple diet, and not just as food - Bánó manages to get one to power a radio. A strike leads to a confrontation between those seeking higher wages and those who point out that they’ll starve without work, though the latter end up ritually humiliated by being tied to upended wheelbarrows and having dirt thrown in their faces.

Following the war, whose passage and outcome is efficiently conveyed by newsreels and shots of black-shrouded women in mourning laying candles on tombstones, a new government decrees that the land belongs to those who need it. This leads to scenes that echo one of the flashbacks in Twenty Hours, as over-excited peasants pre-emptively raid a grain store, a politician pleading with them to stop and wait as the grain will soon be theirs anyway. A massed celebration includes a speed-eating contest reminiscent of the ones in György Pálfi’s grotesque Taxidermia (2006) as well as mass wrestling, a twilight dance around a bonfire, and a merry-go-round (an iconic shot for Hungarian cinema ever since Zoltán Fábri made one the centrepiece of his breakthrough film Merry-Go-Round/Körhinta in 1955).

But the euphoria quickly gives way to disgruntlement: Bánó asserts that the more one gives, the happier one is, but when he seeks to put this notion into practice by requisitioning some of István’s grain for the benefit of poorer community members, István is unimpressed by the argument that it properly belongs to the people and resolves to steal it back, an action that leads to the death of his man-mountain accomplice Mihály (previously seen as a champion speed-eater and wrestler) and hard labour for István himself. When he returns, he finds his son grown up (and now played by András Kozák, a regular lead in Jancsó’s films) and evidence of the encroachment of progress - Juli tells him that the women wear nylon now, and the peasant houses are now dwarfed by much more modern buildings. This sequence of the film delights in juxtaposing the ancient and the modern: a lovely lyrical sequence sees a session of ploughing accompanied by the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, a forest is mysteriously populated with riderless bicycles, and a trip to the beach reveals a bizarre juxtaposition of costume styles from modern bathing costumes to traditional Hungarian male headgear.

The film’s final sequences reveal Kósa’s ultimate thesis, as father and son are explicitly contrasted despite sharing the same name. István senior is a traditionalist, raised as part of a hierarchy, and consequently his notion of ambition is to rise up to the top - or at least to a level where he can ensure a life of comfort and plenty. He’s paralleled with King Lear, whose decision to give up his land resulted in his decline and death. But István junior is a child of the postwar era, raised in a very different environment where the physical and social needs of the community come before individual desires - and therefore, Kósa implies, a model citizen of a new socialist Hungary where theory and practice can finally become one.


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Posted on 20th August 2009
Under: Reviews, Festivals, Hungary, Sándor Sára, Ferenc Kósa | 2 Comments »

Cold Days

Hideg napok
Hungary, 1966, black and white, 96 mins

  • Director: András Kovács
  • Screenplay: András Kovács, based on the novel by Tibor Cseres
  • Photography: Ferenc Szécsényi
  • Production Design: Béla Zeichan
  • Costume Design: Zsazsa Lázár
  • Sound: Gábor Erdélyi
  • Editing: Mária Daróczy
  • Production Manager: Ottó Föld
  • Cast: Zoltán Latinovits (Major Büky), Iván Darvas (Lieutenant Tarpataki), Tibor Szilágyi (Ensign Pozdor), Ádám Szirtes (Corporal Szabó), Margit Bara (Rózsa), Éva Vass (Edit), Mari Szemes (Milena), Irén Psota (Betti), Teri Horváth (Pénztárosnö), István Avar (Corporal Dorner), Tamás Major (Colonel Grassy), János Zách (General Feketehalmy-Czeydner), János Koltai (Adolf Gottlieb), György Bárdy, István Bujtor, Nándor Tomanek, Edit Soós
  • Production Company: MAFILM Stúdió 1


It’s hard to fault the title: virtually every scene in András Kovács’ powerful film is either set outdoors in snow that audibly crunches underfoot, or in a white-walled prison cell where central heating clearly isn’t a top priority. The latter is occupied by four former members of the Hungarian army, awaiting trial in connection with various atrocities committed four years earlier, in 1942, when over three thousand Serbs and Jews from the town of Novi Sad (recently annexed to Hungary) were massacred in legally dubious circumstances. The chill is further accentuated by the occasional use of the spare, almost skeletal third movement of Béla Bartók’s ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta’ (some fourteen years in advance of Stanley Kubrick co-opting it for The Shining) and an early shot of a hole being blasted in the iced-over Danube. Kovács is too discreet to show exactly what it’s being used for, but the sight of civilians shivering on the bank, planks being laid to to the edge of the hold, a pile of discarded clothes and armed guards being given their orders leaves us in little doubt.

Naturally, the cell’s inmates are anxious to minimise or deny their involvement in the above (as Tarpataki puts it “nobody is better or worse, just more or less fortunate”), but as they argue amongst themselves, a much clearer picture emerges, aided by Rashomon-style flashbacks from their multiple viewpoints). The most senior prisoner, Major Büky (Zoltán Latinovits), considers himself more of a victim than a participant, since his wife Rózsa was caught up in the round-ups of prisoners and subsequently vanished. Throughout Büky’s testimony, he is at pains to stress his essential decency, and that of his wife - brought up to be anti-Semitic, she nonetheless became friends with her Jewish landlady Edit. He is convinced that Rózsa is still alive, unconvincingly explaining that women have a good sense of danger and know when to take evasive action. He also cites the disappearance of her suitcase as evidence that she pre-emptively fled: despite increasing indications to the contrary, he refuses to believe that Hungarian soldiers could ever be guilty of looting.

Not to be outdone, Lieutenant Tarpataki (Iván Darvas) tells an anecdote about an arbitrary arrest and detention procedure in which market sellers were rounded up, vetted by one of their customers, and the ones she didn’t recognise were taken away and presumably killed: he claims he regrets his passivity in the face of clear breaches of military convention. He also plays down the explosions on the ice, claiming that there are plenty of legitimate reasons for making holes. Ensign Pozdor (Tibor Szlyági) is obsessed with where the death statistics came from - 3,309 alleged victims, but who counted them? And how could they accurately say that 299 were “of advanced age”? At one point, when confronted with increasingly clear evidence of his own guilt, Pozdor seeks to play it down by saying that it’s wrong for him to have been singled out, since everyone in his unit was just as guilty of committing atrocities. By reducing the victims to mere numbers, he’s cynically (or possibly unconsciously) diminishing their status as human beings.

Throughout their testimonies, blame is firmly placed on General Feketehalmy-Czeydner and Colonel Grassy, the former given to patriotic rabble-rousing (”I shall not abide cowardice! More zeal! More fighting spirit!”), the latter favouring largely indiscriminate slaughter: at one point, Grassy orders an entire group of suspects to be killed because the forty partisans he’s after are presumably among them. To sidestep justified suspicions that they’re crudely opting for the (concurrent) Nuremberg defence that only the people giving the orders were to blame, the conveniently dead Corporal Dorner (István Avar) becomes the primary scapegoat, being shown drunkenly killing an innocent (Jewish) electrician and his son. Grassi allegedly refuses to take any action, telling Büky that when Germans are invading, concern for individual Jews is misplaced, and that punishing men for trivial infractions would demoralise them.

It’s the fourth and most militarily junior cellmate, Corporal Szabó, who is the most honest, presumably because he lacks either the authority or the political nous to transfer blame. Also, as an underling, he was compelled to participate in the massacre because the alternative would have been near-certain death for himself. While he also uses the “only obeying orders” defence, he knows that it has much more justification in his case, and can therefore go into the kind of detail that his colleagues have been deliberately shying away from - in the process revealing information about the near-certain fate of Büky’s wife that causes Büky’s previously controlled, quasi-aristocratic demeanour to suddenly vanish. This explosion of violent rage is doubly revealing, simultaneously exposing Büky’s total selfishness (having previously regarded the fate of thousands with something close to equanimity) and demonstrating how even someone as outwardly quiet, bookish and ‘civilised’ as him can be goaded into committing atrocities given a convincing enough excuse.

Unlike Zoltán Fábri’s near-contemporaneous Twenty Hours (Húsz óra, 1965), where the portrait gradually assembled by the flashbacks indicated a community of sharply divergent views and opinions, here Kovács uses four very different testimonies to paint what is ultimately a wholly coherent picture of the same event, with each man bearing equal moral guilt for what happened - if they weren’t actual participants, like Szabó, they could have taken some kind of action to stop or minimise it. The film’s dominant message (expressed unusually bluntly by the elliptical standards of mid-1960s Hungarian cinema), that for evil to triumph it is necessary for good men to do nothing, could just as easily be transferred to any number of contentious political and military situations. Kovács was clearly challenging his Hungarian audience to think about this and similar events, many of which would have happened well within the lifetimes of a mid-1960s audience.


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Posted on 20th August 2009
Under: Reviews, Festivals, Hungary, András Kovács | No Comments »

Twenty Hours

Húsz óra
Hungary, 1965, black and white, 110 mins

  • Director: Zoltán Fábri
  • Screenplay: Miklós Köllő, based on the novel by Ferenc Sánta
  • Photography: György Illés
  • Production Design: József Romvári
  • Costume Design: Judit Schäffer
  • Editing: Ferencné Szécsényi
  • Sound: Mihály Lehmann
  • Production Manager: Ottó Föld
  • Cast: Antal Páger (Jóska Elnök), János Görbe (Anti Balogh), Emil Keres (journalist), Ádám Szirtes (Béni Kocsis), László György (Sándor Varga), József Bihari (András Csuha), Lajos Őze (Kiskovács), János Makláry (György Vencel), Károly Kovács (the count), Gyula Bodrogi (the doctor), Ági Mészáros (Terus), Tibor Molnár (Máthé), Teri Horváth (Ilonka, Kocsis’ wife), Béla Barsi (board member), Ferenc Kiss, Sándor Siménfalvy, Ilka Petur, Noémi Apor, Ida Siménfalvy, Bertalan Solti, László Bánhidi, Sándor Szakács, Gyula Bakos, Teréz Bod, Antal Farkas, János Horkai, József Horváth, András Kern, Ibolya Péva, Gellért Raksányi, István Sztankay, Géza Tordy, Lajos Kelemen, Imre Sarlai, Pál Zoltán
  • Production Company: MAFILM


The investigative narrative and flashback structure of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane has been used more than once to frame a central European political subject. The best-known example is Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru), written in 1963 but not filmed until 1976, but Zoltán Fábri’s Twenty Hours is in many ways its Hungarian equivalent. Here, an unnamed young journalist (Emil Keres) decides to disinter the story of a village murder that happened nine years previously (i.e. in 1956, a detail never stressed but which few contemporary viewers would have missed), by going to the scene of the crime and spending twenty hours interviewing anyone who’ll speak to him about what happened. He ends up with a vast array of personal anecdotes stretching back to World War II, with much stress placed on the upheavals of the early years of collectivisation and Stalinism.

The officially recorded facts appear to be as follows: collective farm worker Béni Kocsis (Ádám Szirtes) was murdered by local Communist Party secretary Sándor Varga (László György), who was subsequently expelled from the village. But the circumstances leading up to the murder are intertwined with a longstanding political struggle between village chairman Jóska Elnök (Antal Páger) and his current and former comrades. In 1945, they “looked to the future, just as after rain, one breathes from the air”, but the introduction of socialism and collectivisation has had mixed results. Some objected to it from the start - when the village assets are divided up according to need (those with more children get more land), György Venczel (János Makláry) protests that he never touched anyone’s property, and wants witnesses to the effect that Jóska forced him to sign the relevant documents: his caution is understandable, given the upheavals he’s presumably lived through as an adult, from 1919-45. András Csuha (József Bihari) is initially more accommodating, dictating a speech so flowery (”I, a homeless have-not, living in misery with six children, have taken twelve acres, and my share can only be taken away at the cost of my life”) that he later has it framed.

But his disillusion gradually grows when he realises that the co-op officials lack any feeling for poetry, or the primal thrill that comes with the first bloom in spring: they’re only interested in productivity and targets. Kiskovács (Lajos Őze) resents the fact that he helped give his comrades a leg-up, only to end up with no qualifications himself, while Anti Balogh (János Görbe) is unofficially declared “the people’s enemy” for having the temerity to break with the party after being accused of hoarding food - first, he announces that he no longer wishes to be addressed as ‘comrade’, and then confronts a policeman, baring his chest and daring him to shoot.

Jóska (who is trying to persuade the villagers to approve a major drainage scheme to give long-term protection at the cost of short-term pain that few are willing to countenance) has the unappetising task of holding all these factions together, though there are plenty of poisonous rumours doing the rounds about his own past. These tensions come to a head when during a confrontation at his own home, someone shoots at him through the window, the bullet missing his head by inches. Jóska doesn’t know who the mystery assailant is, but the fact that his dog didn’t bark suggests (correctly) that he’s a former friend.

All this is told in a series of Kane-like flashbacks, often presenting the same event from two different, sometimes opposing viewpoints, and some interviewees are reluctant to divulge anything at all. The doctor who pronounced Kocsis dead (Gyula Bodrogi) spends more time showing the journalist round his basement pad (decked out like a 1960s bar, with jazz and Edith Piaf on the stereo) than in actually answering any questions: he was obliged to treat victims of political violence because of the Hippocratic Oath, but he stresses that this doesn’t commit him to any cause. Parents of major players in the murder saga are often more forthcoming than their offspring, largely because they bring a sense of historical perspective, though in one case a man holds Jóska personally responsible for his father’s decline and death after he sacked him. (This is one of the most striking sequences in the film, stacked with charged symbolism, including the revelation that there was a tradition of bosses and underlings serving themselves from the same pot, but only those in charge were allowed to take the meat). The man urges the journalist not to print his name, because he’s already spent nine years in jail - again, the clear implication is that this happened in 1956 or shortly afterwards.

According to an interview with cinematographer György Illés by John Cunningham and Beata Barna, the film was originally edited in sequence, the final structure being devised after early criticism that the film felt too slow. One immediately useful by-product of the use of flashbacks from multiple viewpoints is that it gives Fábri the option to return repeatedly to powerful visual motifs, especially the bullet holes in Béni’s door and Jóska’s wall - often emphasised through the use of shock-cuts (such as during a meeting when it’s pointed out that everybody has enemies). Another repeated motif is the journalist napping in a nearby meadow, his papers strewn into disorder by the wind as though making sense of them is a futile exercise.

By the film’s appropriately ambiguous and inconclusive ending, we have learned a huge amount about the village and everyone in it, but are none the wiser about what makes everything tick - the implication being that the events of 1956 could easily happen again. If the film is occasionally frustratingly opaque to the present-day viewer, this is historically justified by the fact that Fábri was taking advantage of a recent relaxation of censorship, but presumably still felt inhibited about speaking out too loudly. Even oblique references to 1956 would have flirted with taboo, and many of Fábri’s contemporaries favoured a much more allegorical approach - such as Miklós Jancsó with The Round-Up (Szegénylegények) the same year.


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Posted on 19th August 2009
Under: Reviews, Festivals, Hungary, Zoltán Fábri | No Comments »

Swimming-Pools

Strand
Hungary, 1963, black and white, 14 mins

  • Director: István Ventilla
  • Photography: István Ventilla
  • Producer: József Pásztor
  • Production Company: Béla Balázs Studio


Not so much a documentary as an often near-abstract study of bodies on beaches, much of István Ventilla’s film uses extreme telephoto foreshortening to reduce people to constituent parts. Flesh is contrasted with sand, stone and grass, and with other examples: hairy and smooth legs almost seem to be parts of different species. Fingers hold pieces of bread and watermelon, sweat beads form on a man’s face, deliciously plump sleeping children are contrasted with the wrinkled, leathery skin of people at the other end of Dante’s cammin di nostra vita.

Slow dissolves and extreme close-ups heighten the sense of intimacy as we eavesdrop on conversations (or try to, though the camera is usually trained on the auditor rather than the speaker) or watch a couple lying together on the beach in a shot that could almost be a still photograph were it not for the almost imperceptible movement of a single caressing hand. There is no spoken content: the music segues from a stately choral affair to sparse woodwind, organ and solo female vocal. A bell is rung, heralding a change of pace. Crowds of people mass in a large swimming pool complete with wave machine, their movement heightened by the use of repeated panning shots, or zooms in and out. Whereas the film previously focused on one or two people at a time, here any sense of individuality is subsumed by becoming a tiny part of a gigantic mass movement of bodies, the effect heightened by the resumption of the earlier choral music and repeated camera pullbacks.

Despite the evident talent displayed in this short, director/cinematographer István Ventilla’s career doesn’t seem to have amounted to much: his best-known film seems to be a 1978 US-made effort known variously as Nicole, Crazed or A Woman’s Revenge (1978), which an IMDB commenter characterised as “A very odd film with lots of fast editing shifts and loaded with non-sequiturs” and which is mainly notable for what is apparently the only nude scene featuring Catherine Bach of The Dukes of Hazzard. One assumes this wasn’t treated quite as elegantly and respectfully as the many bodies in Ventilla’s earlier film.


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Posted on 19th August 2009
Under: Reviews, Festivals, Hungary, István Ventilla | No Comments »

Current

Sodrásban
Hungary, 1963, black and white, 90 mins

  • Director: István Gaál
  • Screenplay: István Gaál
  • Dramaturge: Luca Carall
  • Photography: Sándor Sára
  • Production Design: József Romvári
  • Costume Design: Zsuzsa Vicze
  • Editing: István Gaál
  • Sound: Tibor Rajky
  • Music: András Szöllősy, Mária Mezey, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Antonio Vivaldi
  • Production Manager: Lajos F. Kiss
  • Cast: Mariann Moór (Böbe), Andrea Drahota (Zsofi, aka ‘Tomboy’), Istvánné Zsipi (Aunt Anna), Sándor Csikós (Laci), János Harkányi (Gabi), András Kozák (Luja), Tibor Orbán (Zoli), Gyula Szersén (Karesz), Lajos Tóth (Berci), Mária Fogarassy (Mother), Lajos Kormos, Kálmán Csohány, Kálmánné Csohány, József Horváth, Kornélia Sallai, Ferenc Paláncz, András Ambrus, Albert Almási, Rezső Kárpáti, Pál Keresztes, Nándor Pagonyi, Sándor Siménfalvy, Ferenc Vezse
  • Production Company: Hunnia Filmstúdió


Also known as In the Current, this was the debut feature by the 30-year-old István Gaál, and has subsequently been recognised as one of the earliest films of an authentic Hungarian ‘new wave’. Gaál had spent two years (1959-61) studying film at the Centro Sperimentale in Rome, and Current shows the clear influence both of Italian neo-realism and its more modernist offshoots. It’s probably safe to assume that Gaál would have seen Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), to which Current occasionally bears a strong resemblance in its depiction of a group of friends whose lives are permanently altered when one of them mysteriously disappears during a riverside excursion. The crucial difference here is that the various characters are much younger, some not yet out of their teens, and consequently forced to grow up faster than intended.

The film begins in sunny, upbeat fashion, with lithe and energetic young men and women leaving their small village to spend a day frolicking on the sands beside the river and picnicking in the woods. Six of them are old friends, with the seventh, Zoli (Zsofi’s new neighbour) fitting right in almost from the start. They’re a very familiar bunch, right down to the petty squabbles - though the latter will later be replayed and agonised over, as though they offered some kind of clue as to the meaning of what later happened. They even pose for a photograph, largely stripped to their underwear, a couple streaked with warpaint-like mud, an image of carefree innocence (albeit with ‘Lord of the Flies’ overtones) that will also be repeatedly shown in increasingly ironic circumstances. Gabi’s disappearance changes everything, including the film’s pace and tone. Finding his clothes still present on the shoreline, they run along the shoreline calling his name before doing the sensible thing and hand the matter over to the police - but that’s when the recriminations and internal soul-searching begin, which will dominate the rest of the film.

Coming from different backgrounds and with different interests suggesting divergent temperaments (when medical student Zoli is introduced to the rest of the group, we learn that it contains a student, a biologist, a physicist and a sculptor) each has their own individual reaction to Gabi’s disappearance. Zoli struggles to recall his face, Zsofi wonders whether they were truly in love, Laci asks his solipsistic parents what they’d have done if he’d drowned (and is given the less than helpful response “clever boys don’t do such stupid things”) and worries whether Gabi has left anything aside from fading memories, Luja finds solace in his art (he’s training to be a sculptor) and Böbe realises that she feels nothing for Kari, whose love for her is superficial compared with Gabi’s for Zsofi’s (though this is now, of course, an untestable proposition, and implicitly challenged by the memory of her slapping him on the beach).

All recognise that Gabi’s disappearance has changed them in some way, but they can’t articulate precisely what - one attempt at rationalising whether they have a moral responsibility for what happened because they were effectively a community is dismissed with a curt “this isn’t a maths problem”. Böbe claims that Gabi was effectively a ‘father confessor’ to all of them, and he seems to retain this role even in death, his memory triggering numerous revealing reminiscences (notably Zsofi’s monologue about an erotic but strangely chaste encounter with Gabi in an otherwise abandoned boathouse).

Weaving a much more definite path through all these questions and arguments is the figure of Gabi’s grandmother, largely silent (except for the keening song she sings at the funeral), shawled in black and clutching a symbolic loaf of bread and an unlit candle, at one point drifting down the fatal river in a boat as if to get as close as possible to her grandson’s spirit at the moment it left his body, after which she affixes the candle to the bread and lets it drift away. There’s a sense of ancient ritual coming into play here, something that the young people can’t begin to grasp.

Bookending the narrative elements and threading through them is the powerful symbolic device of the fast-flowing river, first seen in the opening credits accompanied by Vivaldi’s stately Concerto Grosso in D minor, as suggesting something largely impervious to the passage of time. Gaál and cinematographer Sándor Sára (swapping the roles they performed on their previous collaboration, the short documentary Gypsies/Cigányok, 1962) contrive some stunning images in which the river looms large. A standout example is a three-plane composition in which Zsofi comforts Luja on the bank in the left foreground, Gabi’s grandmother drifts past in her boat in the middle, with either the sun or the moon (given the use of silhouette, it’s hard to read the time of day) in the background on the right, or the shot of the sextet searching for Gabi alongside the river, filmed from inside the current itself, with the camera occasionally dipping below the surface. Gaál and Sára are just as inventive indoors: Laci’s bedroom, with its decorative rocks, cacti, hourglass and other objects, filmed in close-up so that they momentarily become a series of abstract studies in a way that anticipates the future work of assistant director Zoltán Huszárik (who would collaborate with Sára on the poetic masterpiece Sindbad/Szindbád in 1970).

The film has a very strong sense of place: the opening shots establish the small, close-knit village community, with haymakers and barges frequently glimpsed in the background - the police, too, perform their work unobtrusively and efficiently. The performances throughout ring entirely true, with much of the younger cast being drawn from a local acting school - though one of them, András Kozák, would soon become a familiar face in the work of Miklós Jancsó and other major Hungarian filmmakers of the 1960s.


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Posted on 18th August 2009
Under: Reviews, Festivals, Hungary, Zoltán Huszárik, István Gaál, Retrospectives, Sándor Sára | No Comments »

Gypsies

Cigányok
Hungary, 1962, black and white, 17 mins

  • Director: Sándor Sára
  • Screenplay: Sándor Sára
  • Photography: István Gaál
  • Editing: István Gaál
  • Sound: Gyula Novák
  • Producer: András Nemeth
  • Production Company: Béla Balázs Studio


If the IMDB is to be believed, this short documentary made for the renowned Béla Balázs Studio is the directorial debut of Sándor Sára, who went on to forge a distinguished career as both director of his own films and cinematographer of other people’s, notably Ten Thousand Suns (Tízezer nap, d. Ferenc Kósa, 1967), Sindbad (Szindbád, d. Zoltán Huszárik, 1971) and many early István Szabó features (Sára’s cinematographer here is István Gaál, also a future director). This short film is a quasi-anthropological study of a group of gypsies living in a makeshift encampment far away from any significant Hungarian population centre, but at the same time being expected to integrate convincingly into “normal” society.

It begins with a series of stark black-and-white still photographs of gypsies, with an emphasis on small children staring directly at the camera, a motif that continues through the moving-image material. A percussive accompaniment segues into a gypsy folksong about people who disappear out of the blue, and those who are punished by the authorities even when innocent. The camera circles around the gypsy settlement, whose huts have clearly been built by their inhabitants. Mothers take their young children to a medical centre, whose doctors diagnose that they’re suffering from malnutrition, especially lack of milk (a voiceover highlights that many gypsy children are badly stunted both physically and mentally as a result of early nutritional deprivation).

While the kids form themselves into lines to watch cars, boats and trains passing, their elders describe the trials of their lives in voiceover: society is supposed to help the poor, but gypsies barely register. Despite endless applications, they’re passed over for social housing, and a typical monthly income of 700-800 forints barely leaves enough over for food. As one pithily puts it “honesty leaves us when we have no work”, but even when they get work they’re mercilessly exploited. They eventually had to build the settlement themselves, but they’re currently stuck there, as they have no resources to build anything better.

Sára intercuts these with glimpses of authentic folk culture. A funeral sees the corpse in an open coffin surrounded by keening headscarfed women. One tells a proverb about how gypsies used to be birds, flying from place to place in search of food, but when they alighted on a huge surplus, they stayed too long to indulge, and their wings turned into hands. The menfolk work in iron, illustrated by a rapid montage set to a rhythmic, percussive score.

The rest of the film concentrates on the lives of the children, first seen walking three kilometres to school, mostly along a dirt track, with many barefoot. As they attend class, they describe their dream careers in considerable detail: nurse, teacher, ticket collector. When they reach the school, they wash in a small tin tub outside and hang their coats on a pair of rickety beams. A girl recites Vladimir Mayakovsky, a boy Sándor Petőfi - both revolutionary poets, though the film doesn’t emphasise this. A brief sequence of the kids copying a blackboard drawing of a peasant woman bending over a field is echoed in the film’s final shot as a gypsy boy draws a similar picture from memory on the wall of the family home. Though Sára’s film is for the most part bleak and pessimistic, this does at least hint at the possibility that the kids’ education is working outside the confines of the classroom, and they at least might have a faint hope of a better future.


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Posted on 18th August 2009
Under: Reviews, Festivals, Hungary, István Gaál, Sándor Sára | No Comments »

You…

Te
Hungary, 1962, black and white, 10 mins

  • Director: István Szabó
  • Screenplay: István Szabó, Tamás Vámos
  • Photography: Tamás Vámos
  • Producer: András Nemeth
  • Cast: Cecília Esztergályos
  • Production Company: Béla Balázs Studio


One of the first films by one of Hungary’s greatest contemporary directors, You… is a delightful jeu d’ésprit with a distinctly French nouvelle vague flavour: in particular, it’s strongly reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s Une Femme Mariée (1964), though Szabó’s film was made a couple of years earlier. The second person singular title refers to an unnamed woman (an early screen appearance by prolific actress Cecília Esztergályos), who’s first shown conversing with an unseen lover who rebuffs her request to draw a picture of her because it’s impossible to capture her in motion - something the film goes on to do to perfection.

Indeed, much of it is a study of movement: an early montage shows the woman sashaying down the street, eating an ice cream, wiping a spillage off her left breast and glancing coquettishly at a group of young men. Szabó sometimes resorts to slow motion to study her gestures, whether tossing rubbish into a bin or reading a newspaper. She looks up into the sky with a telescope, then downwards from a high balcony. She runs down several flights of steps, the horizontal stripes in her top contrasting with the vertical bars of the railings, almost like the calibration marks on an Eadwaerd Muybridge study. She traverses zebra crossings repeatedly, a quickening montage making the routine seem increasingly perilous.

Back with her lover, she proposes ringing doorbells and ordering the respondents to “fall in love!”, just to see what happens. An open window looks into a dentist’s surgery and she feels a twinge in her teeth. She weighs herself, and examines her snub nose in the machine’s mirror, prior to admiring herself in assorted shop windows. A witty cutaway to a biology textbooks reminds us that “the brain controls all human activities”, and she holds her head in her hands as though it’s become unexpectedly fragile prior to speculating what she’d find were she to journey into her lover’s mind. (”Just how much I love you”, he disingenuously claims). Finally, she buys a bottle of milk and swigs from it on a street corner, accompanied by several people doing the same thing.

One shouldn’t make any great claims for You…: it’s essentially a lighthearted romp by a director whose career still lay ahead of him. But its quicksilver visual wit (much of the film is dialogue-free, underscored by an elegant piano trio) also shows that Szabó was well on the way to mastering his medium even at this early stage.


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Posted on 17th August 2009
Under: Reviews, Festivals, Hungary, István Szabó | No Comments »

Hungarian New Wave: Melancholy and Silence

During the dozen or so days I spent at the Era New Horizons festival in Wrocław last month, I divided much of my time between compulsory jury duty (i.e. watching all thirteen films in the New Polish Films competition) and sampling as much as my schedule would allow of their mouthwatering 1960s/70s Hungarian retrospective, ‘Melancholy and Silence’. This didn’t just give me the chance to see many of these films on the big screen - in many cases it was the first chance I’d ever had to see them at all. Sadly, the intros and Q&As (often featuring the relevant directors) were strictly for Polish or Hungarian speakers, and the accompanying festival publication was in Polish (though the organisers kindly gave me a copy anyway), but I took copious notes and am planning to upload pieces on many of them over the next three weeks or so.

There were twenty features in all, plus three shorts programmes, and I managed to catch the vast majority that I hadn’t already seen - exceptions are marked with asterisks in the following list (though István Szabó’s Father is at least out on DVD in the US).

  • Adoption (Örökbefogadás, d. Márta Mészáros, 1975)
  • Agnus Dei (Égi bárány, d. Miklós Jancsó, 1970)
  • Cold Days (Hideg napok, d. András Kovács, 1966)
  • The Confrontation (Fényes szelek, d. Miklós Jancsó, 1968)
  • Current (Sodrásban, d. István Gaál, 1963)
  • *Do You Know Sunday-Monday? (Ismeri a szandi-mandit?, d. Lívia Gyarmathy, 1969)
  • *Father (Apa, d. István Szabó, 1966)
  • Football of the Good Old Days (Régi idők focija, d. Pál Sándor, 1973)
  • Holiday in Britain (Jutalomutazás, d. István Dárday/Györgyi Szalai, 1974)
  • Love (Szerelem, d. Károly Makk, 1970)
  • Photography (Fotografia, d. Pál Zolnay, 1972)
  • The Red and the White (Csillagosok, katonák, d. Miklós Jancsó, 1967)
  • The Round-Up (Szegénylegények, d. Miklós Jancsó, 1965)
  • Silence and Cry (Csend és kiáltás, d. Miklós Jancsó, 1968)
  • Sindbad (Szindbád, d. Zoltán Huszárik, 1971)
  • Ten Thousand Suns (Tízezer nap, d. Ferenc Kósa, 1965/67)
  • Twenty Hours (Húsz óra, d. Zoltán Fábri, 1965)
  • The Upthrown Stone (Feldobott kő, d. Sándor Sára, 1968)
  • *The Whistling Cobble Stone (A sípoló macskakő, d. Gyula Gazdag, 1971)
  • The Witness (A tanú, d. Péter Bacsó, 1969)

…plus three programmes of shorts by the renowned Béla Balázs Studio. I caught the first two, and managed to see:

  • Capriccio (d. Zoltán Huszárik, 1969)
  • Gypsies (Cigányok, d. Sándor Sára, 1962)
  • A Mother (Anyaság, d. Ferenc Grunwalsky, 1972)
  • New Year’s Eve (Szilveszter, d. Elemér Ragályi, 1974)
  • Princess in Rags and Tatters (Rongyos hercegnő, d. István Dárday, 1975)
  • Punitive Expedition (Büntetőexpedició, d. Dezső Magyar, 1970)
  • Relative Swings (Relatív lengések, d. Dóra Maurer, 1973)
  • Swimming-Pools (Strand, d. István Ventilla, 1963)
  • You… (Te, d. István Szabó, 1962)

I’ve linked to existing Kinoblog reviews, and will be updating this post as more are added.

Posted on 17th August 2009
Under: Festivals, Hungary, Retrospectives | 4 Comments »

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