István Szabó: against repression

In order to bypass the censors while managing to express their views, Szabo and other great filmmakers of socialist countries had to create an original film vernacular that allowed them to indirectly point out the problems of their time…

In early March of this year, seventy-four-year-old István Szabo’s film The Door premiered in Hungary. The legend of Hungarian and world cinema based this film on a novel by the highly esteemed Hungarian writer Magda Szabó (1917-2007). It was a Hungarian-German co-production filmed in English. Oscar winner Helen Mirren and the prominent German actress Martina Gedeck star as a famous writer and her maid who gradually build a complex relationship. This film was selected to be shown at the prestigious Moscow International Film Festival, which took place at the end of June. And so it has become something of a tradition: Szabó’s films are international co-productions that attract greater attention from the international public than other Hungarian films that are at least as valuable as this one.

This began in 1981 with the director’s first co-production Mephisto, for which he won an Oscar and which definitely confirmed him as one of the best directors in the world. This was reinforced by the success of his next two films, also co-productions and sort of a trilogy from the 1980’s - Colonel Redl (1985) and Hanussen (1988). After the pronounced modernism of his previous Hungarian phase, in this trilogy he turned to the classic narrative plot that to a certain extent allowed the films an epic dimension, further emphasized by the importance of the period in which the stories took place - Nazism (Mephisto and Hanussen), WWI and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy (Colonel Redl). However, even in this framework Szabó focused primarily on individual fates that illustrate the cruelty of eras when individuals were powerless before the demands of totalitarian regimes. Over the next twenty years, these preoccupations and film processes changed only slightly in his co-production films, with great international film stars (Meeting Venus, 1991, Taking Sides, 2001, Being Julia, 2004) and now The Door, which has arrived almost on the coat-tails of the extraordinary successes of the aforementioned trilogy. A film which can fully stand the comparison with his glittering period in the 1980’s is undoubtedly Sunshine (1999), an extremely impressive chronicle of the suffering of a Jewish-Hungarian family during the many changes of the state’s borders, social regimes and ideologies, as well as wars from the end of the 19th to the end of the 20th century.

His even better Hungarian films from the 1960’s and 1970’s, done with much more modest budgets, display a similar relationship between the individual and social upheaval (WWII and the establishment of the Stalinist model of socialism in Hungary). These films also won awards at many international festivals, including the greatest ones, such as Cannes or Berlin. These films were created in a system that did not care about commercial success or ratings, but rather focused on ideological censorship. In order to bypass the censors, and yet manage to express their views, both Szabo and other great filmmakers of socialist countries had to create an original style that indirectly, through film vernacular, pointed out the key problems of their time. In these films by Szabó, Western critics recognized similarities with the French new wave, because they were less acquainted with the Polish film of the second half of the 1950’s (one of Szabo’s favorite films is Wajda 's Ashes and Diamonds, 1958), which in its account of social relations and in building an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear, undoubtedly influenced the Hungarian director even more. Nevertheless, he transformed all these influences into a pronouncedly modern and original style through which he explored the roots of the deepest emotions of his protagonists and indirectly created a complex picture of society and the times in which they lived, while attentively tending to the visual beauty of each frame, a suggestive atmosphere and authenticity in reviving the past, as well as ensuring maximum persuasiveness in all the characters, from the protagonists to the smallest bit-roles, in order to create an original tragedy of the denial of humanity in the name of higher ideals.

In this short program, one may see two very valuable films from this period. Father (1967) is his most personal film. It won the Grand Prix in Moscow (ex aequo) and the special jury prize in Locarno. In the creation of the main character (played by András Bálint), who researches the death of his father, Szabo used many autobiographical elements. His unusual love story Confidence (1980), which won the Silver Bear for Best Director in Berlin, represents his peak in this period and, in my opinion, is his best film of all time. It is a story about two people who, at the end of World War II, must pose as a married couple to avoid arrest, even though they had never met before. His rare later returns to Hungarian production conditions resulted in equally valuable films, such as the extraordinary personal drama about two women in the transitional period Dear Emma, Sweet Böbe (1992), and Relatives (2006), an interesting account of modern-day corruption that has not changed much since the 1930’s when Zsigmond Moricz wrote the novel upon which the screenplay was based. The latter is shown in this program and allows audiences to see how much Szabó has changed in his approach to Hungarian author films. (Tomislav Kurelec)