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Hungarian New Wave.
Melancholy and silence.

Do you know „Sunday-Monday”?, dir. Lívia Gyarmathy

The late 1950s and the 1960s saw several fascinating film trends developing in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. This artistic upheaval was initiated by the Polish Film School, followed by the triumphs of the Czech School and the Hungarian New Wave, with cinemas finally screening works by Mikhail Romm's students and the Yugoslavs of the 'black wave'.

Golden Era of Hungarian Cinema - film list

In all these cases, the artistic events were started (and often ended) by political turmoils: breakthrough speeches, coups in central committees, rebellions of enslaved societies and interventions by allied armies. The New Wave trends in Central Europe were also inspired by an atmosphere encouraging artistic cinema, which passed through the Iron Curtain from the West. The Polish Film School was influenced by Italian neo-realism, but the Czechs drew from the French New Wave and the Hungarians from the output of Michelangelo Antonioni. For the first time, cinema from this part of Europe was the avant-garde of the global film-making industry, invading the most important festivals without any apprehensions. France exported a fashion for national film libraries, discussion clubs and above all - film schools. All these institutions had an influence on the evolution of the treatment of film medium. For several years - in some countries for more than a decade - film-making, although funded, controlled and censored by the authorities won a freedom that could only be dreamt of in this part of Europe.

The history of Hungarian cinema was analogical, although it originated from an especially traumatic experience. In 1956 the desperate inhabitants of Budapest rebelled on the streets, building barricades and demanding independence. The revolution was brutally suppressed by the invading Soviet army, the liberal Prime Minister Imre Nagy was executed and the post of the Party's Secretary General was given to János Kádár, who held it until 1989. These facts made the difference which brought about the specific features of the Hungarian New Wave: this trend was not an artistic reflex of social revolt, but a kind of supervised opposition, accepted by the communist elite. Kádár experimented with an untypical form of socialism - commonly referred to as 'goulash communism'. After several years of intensive violence, he soothed the repressions, introduced economic reforms unthinkable of in the neighbouring countries, offering quasi-capitalism to the citizens, although soon nothing more than the prefix was left of the concept. And yet he endeavoured to compensate the Hungarians' trauma of 1956 with a margin of social, cultural and economic freedom - not a large one, but still incomparable with what happened in Czechoslovakia after 1968 and in neighbouring Romania and close Bulgaria throughout the communist rule.

Thus, the Hungarian New Wave was to some extent a project of the authorities, although it was critical of the party from the very beginning. Kádár and his allies offered a friendly atmosphere, financial and organisational support for film artists, usually young ones in their twenties or thirties. First, a film school was established in Budapest, and among its graduates there were all the most important Hungarian filmmakers. Maybe it was not as famous as its counterparts in Łódź and Prague, but it was developed by the somewhat older directors - Karoly Makk, Miklos Jancsó and András Kovács, educating a range of magnificent and variable artists: Zoltan Huszárik, Sandor Sára, Istvan Szabó and Istvan Gaal and also, which is worth mentioning, distinguished cinematographers: Sandor Sára, Lajos Koltai, Tamás Somló, Ferenc Szécsényi, Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszló Kovacs, who worked in the United States.

Another institution, even more important, was the famous Bela Balázs Studio, established in 1958 as a film club, an association of film school students, authors, screenwriters and critics. In 1961 it started producing films as well. It was at the Balázs Studio (the club's patron was the most famous Hungarian film theorist) where the first steps were made by such artists as: Huszárik, Sára, Szabó, and many years later Bela Tarr as well. The studio was an unprecedented phenomenon and it found almost no successors in the socialist bloc. Only in Poland, the Karol Irzykowski Studio, which was established in the sad 1980s offered opportunities for film debutants as well. The uniqueness of the Bela Balázs film company consisted in the idea of giving funds and artistic support exclusively to young directors. The studio enjoyed quite significant autonomy from the authorities, it attracted younger and older directors, authors and film theory specialists, who worked there for free, quarrelled about accepting screenplays, assessed projects, suggested amendments, and above all - made decisions on producing films. The rules of work at the Balázs studio were simple: every debutant could count for freedom artistic and financial support. If he made a valuable film, usually he could make the next with more professional film companies and return to the studio as a teacher and counsellor. If he failed, he often had a second chance - the last one, because you can't continue to try and prove your talent.

This concept and the nature of this film company encouraged experimental, innovative films which followed new-wave trends from France, Czechoslovakia, Italy or Great Britain. The artists avoided conventional plots, they bravely penetrated ideologically dangerous issues (including the 1956 revolution), making films which were usually more intense emotionally, pugnacious and overcoming stereotypes. Although the artists of the Bela Balázs Studio were variable and you couldn't find a formal or material link between them, together they shaped a uniform and repeatable film concept, marked by common experience and similarity of opinions which affected consistency of subjects and message.

In this way, the Hungarian New Wave came to being, and particularly between 1963 and 1971 it formed an exceptional phenomenon in European cinema. Its chronology is not obvious, but one can take the existentialist Current (Sodrásban) by István Gaál as the New Wave's precursor and the melancholic Sindbad (Szindbád) by Zoltán Huszárik (which was screened within its director's retrospective at the 6thENH IFF), as its crowning glory. These years witnessed the development of different authors, whose works remain a poignant part of the European film heritage.

By all means, the most prominent representative of this trend is Miklos Jancsó, regarded as one of the masters of the cinema in the 1960s, often compared to Michelangelo Antonioni. His most wonderful artistic period coincides with these years, although it is worth noting that, born in 1921, he belonged to the older generation of Hungarian artists. The most famous films by Jancsó are: Locarno award-winning Round-Up (Szegénylegények, 1965), a story about the psychological torture suffered by Lajos Kossuth's insurgents in the second half of the 19th century; The Red and the White (Csillagosok, katonák, 1967), a history about a troop of several dozens Hungarian soldiers and officers, who fought side by side with the Red Army in the Soviet Russia after WWI; Silence and Cry (Csend és kiáltás, 1968), a shocking description of the social and emotional degeneration after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; and The Confrontation (Fényes szelek, 1968), an autobiographic story about a group of socialist pioneers, who take over a convent school in the late 1940s and introduce communist terror into it.

The director of the Round-Up created his own, original poetics, combining film with ballet, preferring empty, geometric spaces with somewhat ceremonial movements of single characters or entire crowds, usually anonymous and used as an expressive symbol. Referring to Antonioni's experience, he constructed metaphors of his works not opposing the real world, but as an extension of seemingly objective observations. He distinguished objects and persons from their surroundings so as to make them lose their physical particularities and to use them as a tool for metaphors. As far as his opinions are concerned, Jancó stressed historical and philosophical reflection, confronting weak and enslaved characters with social institutions and ideology. He presented them as victims of wars, revolutions and ruined ideas, but also of psychological and social degeneration which resulted in violence, terror, rape, and death.

Historical and philosophical analyses with related issues of powerlessness, passivity, and a catastrophic approach were also common motives of Hungarian cinema. They can be found in the works of another famous director from Budapest as well - István Szabó, whose career had more international momentum. Before he became famous for his trilogy: Mephisto (1981), Colonel Redl (Redl ezredes, 1985), and Hanussen (Profeta, 1988), at the beginning of his artistic path, he had been searching for a bond with his own generation, bringing to Hungary the typical French New Wave model of plot and narrative. This atmosphere accompanied the making of a charming etude The Concert (Koncert, 1960), showing a day on the sunny Danube-shore boulevards of Budapest and the feature-length Age of Illusions (Álmodozások kora, the first part of Szabo's 'Jancsi trilogy', 1964) - a story about young people who graduate from their studies and are forced to start an independent life, gradually losing their idealistic beliefs.

The most distinguished work among the early films by Szabó is, of course, The Father (Apa, 1966), a chronicle of modern Hungarian history from the perspective of a boy, born just before WWII, maturing during the Stalinist era, starting his adulthood in 1956 and settling down during 'goulash communism'. Szabó's film is unique not only for its historical perspective (boldly accepted by censors), but above all the screenplay and the concept the plot it's based on. The events' starting point was the death of the main character's father: from that moment the son invented various, always useful and appropriate versions of his parent's biography and heroic end. During Stalinism, the father became a dead communist hero, and during the Thaw an uncompromising idealist. In reality, the absent father simply died in a hospital and his heroism was reflected at best in a noble distance to all ideas and in honesty to himself, not to external fashions which can only make us hostages.

This message seemed the best plan for life in those times, although it also brought indifference, the conviction that all effort was useless, melancholy and a catastrophic approach, so typical for Hungarians. This kind of disappointment is shown by Szabó, too. The 'Jancsi trilogy' is crowned with A Film About Love (Szerelmesfilm, 1970), where the director confronted the crude life of Budapest with feverish and rebellious Paris.

Modern subjects were present also in works by Istvan Gaál, who received an award at Karlovy Vary for his excellent Current, inspired by Antonioni's Adventure (L'Avventura, 1960), a story about a group of teenagers confronting the tragic death of their friend. After this experience, their carefree living and youthful joy are replaced with dark, existentialist reflections, remembrance of the dead, and the realisation of how delicate human life is. Several years later, there was the excellent debut of Marta Mészáros, whose The Girl (Eltávozott nap, 1968) told the story of a girl brought up in an orphanage, whose lack of communication skills condemns her to loneliness, mythomania and superficial relationships. Modern issues were also the subject of the Walls (Falak, 1967) by one of the greatest of Hungarian directors, András Kovács, a grim political essay which describes the process of destroying a nonconformist who rebels against a supervisor in a bold account of Hungarian national features: opportunism, passivity, fear, introversion and melancholy.

A separate cycle of films created in that period consists of works focused on an analysis of the fascist and Stalinist periods of Hungarian history. This analysis was often cruel for Hungarians themselves, and was the subject of the most extraordinary films by Kovács. In The Cold Days (1966) he presented the views of several people on Hungary's equivocal role in WWII, concentrating on rape, executions, collaborationism and conformism. In the wonderful Stud Farm (A Ménesgazda, 1979) he moved several years forward to display the process of taking over an aristocrat-owned stud farm assigned to become a part of state-owned agriculture, managed by incompetent, opportunistic farmers who are doomed to disaster.

Masterpieces about these subjects were made by Sandor Sára and Karoly Makk. The Thrown Up Stone (Feldobott kő), made by Sára described the Stalinist era from the perspective of the Roma population and focused on the barbarous collectivisation process and on the forced settlement of the Roma. And one of the best films of the epoch, the Cannes award winning Love (Szerelem) by Károly Makk, author of the memorable Another Way (Egymásra nézve), showed the lives of two women, a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, who suffer poverty and humiliation, waiting for their son and husband to come home. Worried about the old lady's health, the younger woman doesn't tell her the real reason of the man's absence: that he has been sent to a Stalinist labour camp. She makes a pact with the mailman and provides her mother-in-law with fake letters from America where the beloved son allegedly has a successful career.

Another satellite of Hungarian cinema was Zoltan Huszárik. He made few films (only two of them feature-length) and he is famous mainly for his legendary Sindbad (1971). In this visually and formally sophisticated adaptation of a novel by Gyula Krudy, Huszarik told - although this is a too trivial a word for this film - a story about a man who devoted his energy to enjoying his life with reflective melancholy - not in the name of hedonism, but admiration for the fragility and perishability of human existence. The main character, like Sindbad, sailed from one lover to another, as an aesthete he relished art, as an aristocrat of the sensitive palate he tasted the most refined dishes and alcohols. Huszarik made a charming version of In Search of the Time Lost, mixing the chronology, making it difficult to identify the film's narrator, but above all showing how volatile our life is, how short-lasted our feelings are: although in the evening we want to commit suicide for them, in the morning they deserve only a short sigh.

The Hungarian New Wave is impressive with its variability, richness of experience, subjects and moods. Certainly, we can capture the common and repeated features of this cinema: the atmosphere of resignation, melancholy, pessimism, conviction that a man's effort is useless and condemned to loss in confrontation with the omnipotent system. Hungarian films - like the Hungarians themselves - are filled with dark hues, which dominate even in comedies or cartoons for children. This is a cinema born of an experience of lost rebellions, after which it is easier to withdraw to resignation, apathy, conformism. This is a cinema born of the trauma of losing Vojvodina, Transylvania and imperialist aspirations, combined with a flat landscape and a cultural and linguistic isolation, shaping the atmosphere of entrapment. This cinema is difficult for its spectators, hope can be found only somewhere outside the plot, emotions are constructed with low-key gestures, delicate mimics - resignation rather than expressive activity. And yet, it is sure to leave us with rich historical and philosophical reflections, in an air of melancholy, no-one could express as perfectly as the Hungarians did.

Rafał Syska

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On the 29th July at 10:00 p.m. at the Wrocław Market Square there will be a special screening organised by Filmoteka Narodowa to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Polish cinema.

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