Artistic wanderers bring it back home

Hungarian Cinema
January 14, 2005

More than 70 years have passed since the arrival in London of an audacious young Hungarian journalist called Sándor Korda, who was to establish the British film industry and become, as Sir Alex, the country's greatest movie mogul. As his London Films released all-time favourites such as The Private Life of Henry VIII and The Thief of Bagdad , other Hungarian film-makers elsewhere wrote, directed or designed classics such as Casablanca and Ninotchka .

Hungarian film-makers were perhaps the first to take cinema seriously enough to treat it as an art form. They were often subject to brutal supervision by paternalistic governments, ranging from the silly to the criminal. Western democracy reached Hungary only in the past decade and the film industry is thriving in post-Soviet rule conditions, with freedom of expression, excellent cultural and commercial contacts with the West and rising incomes leading to improved cinema attendance. So what can we expect from the industry now that its artists have the conditions they need to work from home?

John Cunningham, who teaches film studies at Sheffield Hallam University and the London Centre, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, has produced the first satisfactory, comprehensive study of Hungarian cinema since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

This is the first book in English to discuss significant aspects of Hungarian cinema such as avant-garde, animation and football films. The work includes a pronunciation guide and generous appendix. It should fascinate general readers and prove useful in film scholarship and historical, literary and cultural studies.

Cunningham divides the history of Hungarian cinema into four periods, reflecting the political establishment of the day. The first two periods ended in the 1960s, yielding films imbued with false romanticism before the end of the Second World War and the command culture of socialist realism after it.

All that time, Hungary's finest talent enriched the intellectual, scientific and cultural landscapes of other countries. Those forced abroad included the Korda brothers, György Faludy, Béla Bartók, György Solti, Ferenc Molnár, Menyhért Lengyel, Imre Kálmán, Miklós Rózsa and Mihály Kertész (Michael Curtiz).

The third period began after the 1956 revolution, which led to relative political relaxation that enabled directors such as Miklós Jancsó" ( Hungarian Rhapsody , The Red and the W hite), Márta Mészáros ( Little Vilma : The Last Diary ) and István Szabó" ( Mephisto , Sunshine ) to establish the reputation of native Hungarian films. This set the pattern for a fourth period, of enormous global success for films such as Sunshine (1999), a Hungarian-British-Canadian-German-Austrian production.

The interdependent local/international trend in Hungarian film-making may well intensify as a result of two developments that have arisen since Cunningham's book was published and since Hungary entered the European Union and introduced legislation to ease the flow of film finance.

The first is the huge box-office success of The Hungarian Wanderer , a low-budget comedy that had audiences rolling around over jokes that simply would not translate beyond the boundaries of Hungarian culture. This promises the emergence of small independent film companies serving the market for culture-specific productions that has been neglected in this age of globalisation.

The second is the construction, announced during last year's Cannes Film Festival, of the world's biggest film studios at Etyek, near Budapest, under the direction of Andy Vajna, the Hungarian-American film producer.

The complex, financed by international investment, will cater for the production needs of blockbusters. It will be named after Korda.

Thomas Ország-Land is a poet and foreign correspondent who writes on Eastern Europe from Budapest.

Hungarian Cinema: From Coffee House to Multiplex

Author - John Cunningham
Publisher - Wallflower
Pages - 258
Price - £45.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 1 903364 80 9 and 79 5

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