Hungarian Film Week

It’s evident that, during the ’70s, a major piece of Europe’s film action shifted east of the Rhine. The West German cinema overextends, the Polish renaissance has stopped dead, but—increasingly confident—Hungary continues to produce a forbiddingly ingrown, sporadically popular cinema of impressive quality and intelligence.

The author of subtle, unsettling films that mix defamiliarizing hyper-realism with a stringent lyrical streak, Zsolt Kézdi-Kovács seems the strongest filmmaker from the “generation of 1956.” An assistant to Miklós Jancsó for much of the ’60s, Kézdi-Kovács’ first features were characterized by long choreographed takes and overt political criticism. With When Joseph Returns (1975)—a pared-down, opened-up case study of two wildly antipathetic women achieving “a silent living side by side” and the most impressive Hungarian film to get North American distribution since Red Psalm—Kézdi-Kovács worked through Jancsó’s influence to embed his critique in tenderly horrific contemplation of workers in a workers’ state, untheatrically treating an assembly line or the TV in a cramped, immaculate flat as a subject for Vermeer.

The Nice Neighbor (1979), a downbeat, manic comedy of unpleasure, seems to be the director’s lone hometown hit and was shown in some American cities last year as part of a Hungarian touring package. Nouvelle vague icon Laszló Szabó plays a heartlessly manipulative Budapest tour guide who forcibly inherits his father’s miserable flat in a condemned building that’s half a barrio of garrulous crazies and hallway boozers. Szabó insinuates his way into everyone’s life, and, to steal a phrase from Hungarofilm Bulletin, “manages to turn the tenantry into ‘one great family’” with himself at its head. Typically—this is Hungary—this regime comes to naught: at the height of the terror (suicides, searches, denunciations), the tenants are abruptly dispersed around Budapest and the moldering apartment house is left to the stray cats—a startlingly heart-tugging coda to ninety minutes of hot and cold sound and fury.

Visszaesök, Kézdi-Kovács’ new film, returns to the laconic eloquence ofWhen Joseph Returns. The English title is currently Forbidden Relations; “Falling Back” or “Falling Again” comes closer to the Hungarian connotations of repetition, relapse, and sexual desire. Through careful, static compositions that mix their focal lengths and balance on a knife-edge between loathing and wonder, Kézdi-Kovács tells the story of a half-brother and -sister living in sin and begetting children in an ugly village out on the flat Hungarian plain. Their amour fou is as subversively underplayed (and hence explicit) as their foredoomed run-ins with the state (doctors, cops, courts, prisons). Although based on a true incident—according to Variety, Kézdi-Kovács interviewed the couple, who now have five children—and totally matter-of-fact in delivery, the film winds up seeming as bluntly primal as an Old Testament anecdote.

The most consistently interesting filmmaker born since the war, Gyula Gazdag was 24—the youngest director in the Hungarian movie industry, and already known for his comic documentary shorts—when he made The Whistling Cobblestone (1971). This sly, high-spirited satire of official incompetence in a Young Pioneer camp garnered considerable local flak, and Gazdag’s second feature, Fisherman’s Bastion, has been shelved for years. (Those who’ve seen it suggest that Gazdag’s treatment of the housing shortage as the occasion for a Franz Lehár romp through a garbage dump cut too deep.) The sense of Hungary as curdled—if not blood-drenched—Hapsburg pastry is one of Gazdag’s major themes. His third feature, Swap (1977), sounds like a jaundiced metaphor for the film industry itself—the madcap staging of a made-for-TV operetta in a small backwater inspires a problematic pseudodocumentary on the local historical museum.

A Bankett (The banquet), telecast in 1981, is Gazdag’s own tour of the museum, taking a bizarre political episode from 1945—a village liberated by the Russians declaring itself an independent Soviet republic—and turning it into a metaphor for Hungarian political discourse. Gazdag evidently organized an outdoor lunch on a summer afternoon to reunite the village’s onetime honchos, then filmed the results TV news-style. The verité goes on for possibly a hundred minutes of overlapping dialogue during which the banqueteers recount the incident that put their town on the map while holding forth on subjects ranging from Communist Party pensions to the World War II deportation of the Jews. Every third assertion gets disputed (“There was!” “There wasn’t!” “He was!” “He wasn’t!”), participants admonish each other that “Hungarians shouldn’t quarrel,” address the camera in exasperation, and simply doze off. The camera meanwhile drifts up and down the table as waiters whiz by, removing empty bottles of Coke or schnapps. In one sense, A Bankett is a kind of ethnographic oral history of a dead head man. The absent protagonist—one Imre Rabai, the leader of the autonomous state of Veszto—is continually evoked, and when one discovers almost incidentally that Rabai was reporting to a Russian major, it begins to seem as though Franz Kafka had written The Mouse That Roared. Minimal as the film is, it cannily engages the great East European tradition. If the anecdotal plot suggests an anti-Ashes and Diamonds, the long, fluid takes are Jáncso povera.

Gazdag’s latest, Elveszett Illuziok, transposes a chunk of Balzac’s Lost Illusions to Budapest and 1968. The meteoric rise and precipitous fall of a wide-eyed writer from the sticks—“He’s come from the great plain and has never seen a theater”—is intercut with over-staged operettas and even more intricately choreographed parties full of miniskirted girls frugging to the rock group the Who. Unobtrusively bracketed by the Paris uprising and the invasion of Prague, Gazdag’s well-timed comedy of careerism is less gloomy than the obvious Polish correlatives—Andrzej Wajda’s Without Anesthesia, Krzysztof Zanussi’s Camouflage, Agnieska Holland’s Provincial Actors—but it’s a fizzy drink with a deceptive kick: “You won’t be a real journalist until an article appears under your byline that you had nothing to do with,” one seasoned hand warns the young hero.

Gazdag’s contemporary, Gábor Bódy, has been Hungary’s one-man—which is to say, far from invisible—underground for the better part of a decade. He has made shorts drawing on game theory, semiotics, and computer video; his 1975 feature, American Torso, is a distant cousin of Ken Jacobs’ Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son. Narcissus and Psyche—a four-hour costume epic full of enigmatic doings and offscreen perversions, and possibly the costliest feature Hungary has ever produced—seems designed to make Bódy’s genius an international fact of life, although it failed to do so at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival.

This year Bódy unleashed A Kutya Eji Dala (Night song of the dog), the Exhibit A of Hungarian punk and likely the closest thing to a midnight movie ever produced under the Warsaw Pact. Unfortunately, the midnight movie it resembles is less Eraserhead than El Topo. A shaggy tale of sub-Bunuelian cruelty involving a crippled Stalinist, a phony priest (Bódy), a wayward army wife, and a child moviemaker, it is heavily interpolated with sight gags, super-8, pseudo-porn, extraterrestrial voices, and lengthy performances by what the English translator termed “punk orchestras.” Although the 2 1/2-hour film is doggedly leaden, the bands are first-rate, and the flower of Budapest counterculture—students, hippies, dissidents, punks, sociologists, “representatives of every faction,” I was told—turned out for the film’s premiere in a big theater on Lenin körut.

Bódy’s often puerile blasphemies seem calculated to drive a stupid apparatchik nuts, but the film’s greatest provocation is actually its studiedly indifferent craft. Bödy hired Johanna Heer, the producer/camerawoman of Amos Poe’s Subway Riders, to reproduce the hot lighting and crass compositions of Poe’s patented cruddy look. The film may be too tame to travel, but it’s a massive affront to the Hungarian fetish for impeccable cinematography.

J. Hoberman