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15 Essential Films For An Introduction To Hungarian Cinema

23 August 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by János Szedresi

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

It is well known that some outstanding Hungarian figures made a great impact on the development of technology in the 19th and 20th centuries, ultimately on the formation of our contemporary world. Life would be very hard to bear or experience without the usage of the digital computer, plasma television, antibacterial disinfection or simply the ballpoint pen, just to name a few.

But what about the art? Let’s say that if scientific achievements radiate outside the borders of Hungary just to serve the need of the world, contrariwise, except for a few works, those of artistic kinds are to be recognized within its own home – at least history has proved that.

Hungarian movies cannot be attached to any grand cinematic movements or waves; just like a lonely wanderer, it has its own ways, which are determined primarily by the weather, which means politics in this context.

The change of political systems, oppressors and ideals throughout Hungarian history, especially the 20th century, has made a particular mark on the collective soul and behavior of Hungarian people. This resulted in a special mood, a bittersweet harmony that can be seen in many works of Hungarian literature, music, and of course, movies.

This list tries to collect 15 outstanding Hungarian movies, which could serve as the greatest ones as well. It’s not an easy task to objectively classify the best films of an entire nation, but the main intention of this article will hopefully be fulfilled: to introduce some very fine movies to the audience outside Hungary.

 

15. Time Stands Still (Peter Gothar, 1982)

Time Stands Still

Dini is an average high school student, standing at the threshold of adulthood in post-revolutionary Hungary. His father fled to the US after the uprising, so he is living his life with his mother and brother, whose application to the university is constantly rejected.

It’s a time for sex, for rock ’n’ roll, and to face the faults of the former generation. But how can this new generation of uptight, unappreciated youngsters make a difference if they get constantly disappointed in their own exemplars? That’s what happens to Dini himself, so at the end there remains nothing, but to carry the same faults, the same mistaken patterns again and again, hoping the pillars that had been shaken in the revolution will collapse someday.

A Hungarian beat movie, a brave depiction of the era when the soil was about to undulate under the Eastern Bloc, but it’s first a coming of age story, an age that might never come, for time indeed stands still.

 

14. Taxidermia (Gyorgy Palfi, 2006)

Taxidermia

The ’90s and ’00s saw a natural implication of political/historical events within the arts: the system change of 1989 was to be reflected.

Adapted from the short stories by Lajos Parti Nagy, this movie – one that has a resemblance to Pasolini’s works – tells the story of a family through three generations, depicting three male figures each with their repugnant, perverse manias that pulsate like kind of strange hearts, making it the central theme to their life.

The first one is a sexually unsatisfied lecher, the second is a gobble champion, and the third one, the grandchild, works as a taxidermist, but his passion allows him to rethink where the boundaries of his profession lie. The title refers to him, the only one who finds some sort of redemption, the only one who can transcend his demons into higher levels.

Palfi made a unique cinematic experience unlike anything that Hungarians were used to before. His collaboration with cinematographer Gergely Poharnok resulted in a work so witty and spectacular that constructs disgusting and beautiful as something inseparable, like two sides of the same coin.

 

13. The Corporal and The Others (Marton Keleti, 1965)

The Corporal and The Others

Set toward the end of WWII, according to the story – carefully crafted and studded with comic, later to become proverbial phrases by Istvan Dobozi – the protagonist, Ferenc Molnar, is about to end the war, ignoring that the war is not getting to its end. He gets away with the military pay of his battalion, which he hides in a bunch of hand grenades.

Trying to get through the war in a mansion with some other deserters and the apprentice of the mansion, they face a series of comedic events while trying to conserve their incognito status.

Starring a Hungarian dreamcast (including Imre Sinkovits, Ivan Darvas and Laszlo Markus), the movie became a cult classic in its homeland.

Often referred as the Hungarian “Kelly’s Heroes”, “The Corporal and The Others” is a hilarious comedy about the true nature of war, in which there is no place for heroism, ideals or sacrifice; the only thing that matters in every kind of war is survival.

 

12. Merry-Go-Round (Zoltan Fabri, 1956)

Merry-Go-Round

Released in the year of the Hungarian Revolution against Soviet oppression, “Merry-Go-Round” is a story about two young lovers from the countryside, who oppose the old views, the will of the father, and try to validate their feelings.

It’s a very simple story with exquisite acting by Mari Torocsik and Imre Soos, who make the feelings of the two characters so bare and penetrating that even the audience could feel perplexed just by seeing their faces and gestures. Director Zoltan Fabri operated with such genuine ideas, perfect pacing and rhythm, that the movie became a masterful work in its simplicity; sadly it did not fulfill the Palme d’Or nomination back in its time.

Pure love and sincerity are depicted with Fabri’s unique visual style, resulting in such sequences like the dancing scene, which is a truly fine cinematic moment.

 

11. The Red and the White (Miklos Jancso, 1967)

The Red and the White

The scenery: Soviet-Russian lands struck by the Civil War. The time frame is around 1919.

The movie follows a few Hungarians working for the Red Army, but there is no real protagonist; people die and others are to be focused on, so as to die themselves. It seems like only one thing is secure: death, which does not discriminate between the Czarists and the Communists. People are killing other people, and the whole action seems like a mindless game, as it does not make any sense. The name of the game is simple: war.

This turbulence is beautifully offset by Jancso’s fluently flowing long takes – which is one of his attributes – making the gaze of the camera something like an eye for a ghost, which swings carefully around the events, not intervening, just observing them.

Jancso is one of very few Hungarian directors who received worldwide recognition. As Martin Scorsese said in an interview, “I’ve never really been exposed to such a sensibility before…”

 

10. Love (Karoly Makk, 1971)

Szerelem

An elderly ailing woman is waiting for her filmmaker son to return from America, so she can see him before she dies. Her expectation is fed by her daughter-in-law, who would not tell the truth: the long awaited son and husband won’t come for awhile, because he is in prison.

The story is based on Tibor Dery’s two short stories, who himself was sentenced to prison for his political resolution during the Revolution of 1956.

“Love” is often considered to be one of the most beautiful Hungarian movies. It is filled with real drama, not only due to the script, but to the actors (Lili Darvas, Mari Torocsik, Ivan Darvas) who resonate so sensitively the emotions of their characters.

Director Karoly Makk, with the assistance of cinematographer Janos Toth, uses an imagery constructed by fragments to get the audience into the mind of the dying lady; it is another kind of reality, one that is merged from lies and memories. A styling that was based on one of the trends of ’70s, the subjective cinema, which was known for its aesthetic elements, contrary to the other stream, the more objective one, which included movies that had documentaristic constituents.

 

9. Satantango (Bela Tarr, 1994)

Sátántangó (1994)

After the political and economical system change at the end of the ’80s, some waves were on their way to evolve into a major tide, but sadly none of them became significant. One of them was the so-called black series, established by Tarr himself. These movies aimed for a sort of deconstruction of the former film traditions, and also to draw up universal contents.

Based on the novel by Tarr’s longtime collaborator, Laszlo Krasznahorkai – the winner of the 2015 Man Booker International Prize – this movie presents an apocalyptic vision planted into the minds of a small farming community, which is facing its end. However, two men who were believed to be dead appear and subvert their lives with their promises. The audience experiences the events from different viewpoints throughout the legendary 450-minute runtime, full of long takes, which is one of the director’s attributes.

There is a scene in Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” in which two characters at the table have a discussion about the sacrality of the present moment. This sacrality is what makes Tarr’s movies so unique. He touches every scene of his works with the intention of capturing time and space in it’s most vivid presence. Every noise, every gesture, and all the actions in their imperfect perfection serve as the ever-constructing material of the texture of the moment, ultimately the texture of the movie.

 

 

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  • marcel

    If you’re into newer than this list is showing:

    Kontroll
    Valami Amerika
    Szabadeses (2014)

    • Renáta

      I wouldn’t mention Valami Amerika on the same page with the films above…. Kontroll is a film which is entertaining for us, but not someone who cannot speak the language or never been to Budapest.

  • Pingback: 15 Essential Films For An Introduction To Hungarian Cinema | roberto cimatti()

  • How about The Turin Horse (2011)?, and either Satantango or Werckmeister Harmonies should be at the top of the list

  • villain

    Of course you can’t summerize a country’s film life in 15 movies but it is a really good list. Although quiet unbalanced because the list is dominated by art house and (as marcel pointed out) old movies. You may want to check out kontroll, teso, liza a rokatunder, isteni muszak, nyocker, which are very stylish and unique movies directed by the younger generation.

  • Renáta

    I would add:

    Ripacsok (1981) – Pál Sándor
    Egészséges Erotika (1985) – Péter Tímár
    Bibliotheque Pascal (2o1o) – Szabolcs Hajdu

  • Renáta

    Eldorádó (1988) – Géza Bereményi

  • greenperegrine

    In my opinion the below movies should be mentioned from the 21st century:

    Kontroll
    White Palms
    Heavenly Shift
    White God
    Dealer
    Nexxt – Frau Plactic Chicken Show (They used characters and stories from Clockwork Orange and American Psycho)

  • AdityaGokhale

    Istvan Szabo’s “Bizalom (Confidence)” (1980) deserved an honourable mention at least.

    “Mephisto” may be a Hungarian film but it is still a German language film. Not to take away from it….Mephisto is one of my favorite films, a masterpiece.