15 Essential Films For An Introduction To Hungarian Cinema

8. Mephisto (Istvan Szabo, 1981)

Mephisto (1981)

This is the first Oscar-winning Hungarian movie. István Szabó’s work is an adaptation of Klaus Mann’s novel with the same title. The film can be inserted into one of the most influential waves of Hungarian cinema at that time; it was the drift of the New Academic movement, which was to create more conventional pieces to the audience than those of the previous epochs.

Klaus Maria Brandauer embodies a stage actor, Hendrik Hoefgen, with great empathy; through his acting, we can learn the life of this character who starts as a leftist sympathizer, but parallel to the rising of the National Socialist Party of Germany, he’s growing into the great actor he desires to be. By this, he gradually evolves to be the puppet of the right-wing. The tragedy is that Hendrik only wants to dedicate his life to his art. Where lies the boundary of this enthusiasm? He could not answer.

On the other hand, Hans Miklas (Gyorgy Cserhalmi) is the counterpoint to the protagonist; he’s a nationalist who moves away from the Party due to his disillusionment. The development of these two characters depicts the moral of the film: the implications of opportunism.


7. Men On The Mountain (Istvan Szots, 1942)

Men On The Mountain

This film features a heartwarming performance by Janos Gorbe, portraying a Szekely called Gergely, who lives his life in the Transylvanian mountains along with other men. They are a community of woodsman whose members still keep the connection with nature. However, this idyllic atmosphere is broken by the owner of a logging company, whose appearance implies a series of tragic events.

Istvan Szots paints a kind of sacral world to the screen; the rustling forest, the simple life of these men, and the presence of the sun as if it was much closer up in the mountains than in the village, which seems to be intact from the modern world.

The movie was well received at the Venice Biennale, and it had a serious impact on the formation of Italian Neorealism.


6. Son of Saul (Laszlo Nemes, 2015)

Son of Saul

The previous years saw a divisive and controversial period of Hungarian filmmaking due to the establishment of the Hungarian National Film Fund in 2011, which made a completely new system, one that was not favored by the majority of great directors, such as Tarr or Jancso. However, it seems the order is slowly restored, as very fine pieces are introduced to the world, notably “White God” by Kornel Mundruczo, or this entry.

Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig) is a prisoner of Auschwitz, and he works for the Sonderkommando, whose members are forced to contribute to the exterminating process by clearing dead bodies. Saul’s spiritual exodus begins when he decides to give the ultimate honor to a dead boy by burying him according to Jewish traditions.

One can almost constantly Colonel Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now” echoing throughout the film, saying “the horror… the horror.” The echo is constructed from the disturbing cinematography and sound work, including the background noises, gunfires, death rattles, and offscreen sounds, as we can not see what’s really happening, just like what Saul is experiencing with his own eyes in this film. A very conscious directorial intention carried out by sound engineer Tamas Zanyi, it makes the horror almost tactile.

Laszlo Nemes had conquered the audience and jury of Cannes with his debut movie, which earned the Grand Prix award. This is a film that shows the Holocaust from an unexpected new angle.


5. The Round-Up (Miklos Jancso, 1966)

The Round-Up

Years after the Spring of Nations of 1848, the retaliation is still going on. The Hungarian outlaws, those who fought alongside the charismatic leader Sandor Rozsa, are being collected to an abandoned rampart somewhere in the Hungarian Plains.

A prisoner is promised to be freed under the condition that he can provide the names of other prisoners who had murdered more than he. Others are demanded to answer a question in exchange for their lives: is Rozsa amongst the convicted ones?

With his second entry on this list, Jancso establishes a world that seems to be grasped out of the flow of time and space. The Hungarian Plains surround the prisoners and their detainees, encompassing them like a deserted planet, and it offers no opportunity to flee, no matter what they were promised.

The cinematic language made the movie become a groundbreaking achievement, which is still admired by critics and movie lovers – a personal favourite of Tarr’s – and hopefully will be for generations to come.


4. The Witness (Peter Bacso, 1969)

A tanú

A cult classic to which a whole nation can relate, “The Witness” tells the story of a simple dike-reeve who takes care of his many children and tries to fulfill his work at the dam, but he is constantly in and out of prison. The political power intends to collaborate with him, offering him a number of jobs in order to operate him as a puppet, but comrade Pelikan (Ferenc Kallai) keeps on messing things up due to his incompetence, which is the reason for his frequent visits to the prison.

Peter Bacso’s bittersweet political satire was immediately banned in Hungary, only to be released 10 years later. Almost every aspect of the darkest period of communism – the Rakosi Era – is aligned in the movie, but each of them becomes ridiculous, which is one of the main strengths of every masterpiece: learning to laugh at the cruel, the unjust, because that’s the only way to deprive them of their power.


3. Narcissus and Psyche (Gabor Body, 1980)

Narcissus and Psyche

Based on the literary work by Sandor Weores, this is about the life of a fictional poetess, a woman of wild nature called Erzsebet Lonyai (Psyche) played by Patricia Adriani, and his lover Narcissus, played by the legendary Udo Kier. Their inhesion forms one of the most epic love stories, which remains unfulfilled; it is exposed to a continually regenerating cycle of attraction-repulsion, which is kept in motion by other lovers, diseases, and tragedies.

Director Gabor Body created a cornerstone of the Hungarian New Sensibility, which was formed around the beginning of the ’80s. His quasi-avant-garde approach, accompanied by cinematographer Istvan Hildebrand, makes the 261-minute runtime of the movie an eye-catching artwork.

The dimensions of space-time, and every aspect of our reality, is condensed into a very tiny point – into the celluloid itself – just to explode into a whole new Universe with its own laws. An audiovisual feast, the film makes “Narcissus and Psyche” one of the most visually astonishing pieces of world cinema.


2. Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2000)

Werckmeister Harmonies

A traveling circus arrives in a town, stirring the lives of the community. The main attractions are a giant whale and a malformed creature called Prince, whose words inflame the masses. This is the environment to which Janos Valuska (Lars Rudolph) is embedded, and he’s a pure-minded man who preserves innocence in this inhumane world.

Adapted from the novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, “Werckmeister Harmonies” is the second installment of Tarr’s ontological trilogy preceded by Satantango and followed by “The Turin Horse” in 2011, a film whose beauty and sadness penetrates the viewers’ minds in the form of dreams.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The only question that remains is whether heaven does really exist. Because it seems that hell lives on earth and there is no escape from it, for everything that is celestial is destroyed by humans. “Werckmeister Harmonies” is a sensitive and transcendental piece of art.


1. The Fifth Seal (Zoltan Fabri, 1976)

The Fifth Seal

The 70s was one of the most flourishing decades of filmmaking. It was also the time for Hollywood to revive itself, and some very remarkable pieces were born to become classics. And it happened in Hungary, with this lesser-known but inescapably important movie.

Set in 1944 during the time of Hungarian national socialism and the reign of the Arrow Cross Party led by Ferenc Szalasi, “The Fifth Seal” is about a group of four men who gather every evening at a pub to drink and have conversation.

At one point, a stranger who went through the front appears and joins the conversation, which soon turns into a philosophical debate. A seemingly unanswerable question arises about what is truly right or wrong, in the light of each of them having to face their true selves. Life, however, makes them answer as soon they are tested…

Zoltan Fabri’s “The Fifth Seal”, based on the novel by Ferenc Santa, contrasts the everyday people with the harsh, cruel dynamics of history. It aims to seed the question in every viewer, and will not let go of them as the answer will sprout in every mind. Sooner or later, everyone has to be tested while standing in front of the universal laws of morality. “The Fifth Seal” is one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of cinema.


Honorable Mentions:

Somewhere in Europe (Geza Radvanyi, 1948)
Professor Hannibal (Zoltan Fabri, 1956)
The Last Goal (Zoltan Fabri, 1963)
Cold days (Andras Kovacs, 1966)
Father (Istvan Szabo, 1966)
The Tóth family (Zoltan Fabri, 1969)
Sindbad (Zoltan Huszarik, 1971)
Colonel Redl (Istvan Szabo, 1985)
Eldorado (Geza Beremenyi, 1988)
My Twentieth Century (Ildiko Enyedi, 1989)

Author Bio: Janos is a 23-year-old writer, and a recent graduate of film theory and film history from Eotvos Lorand University (ELTE), Budapest. Currently he lives in Hungary and works on his projects. He has a great passion for literature and cinema, and believe that the purpose of our unconscious  is to awake the true reality that surrounds us, by interpreting the products of art: because those are the highest form of existential revelation.