Gabor Body

7.2 American Torso (1975)
6.8 Narcissus and Psyche (1980)
6.0 Dog’s Night Song (1983)

Gabor Body (Hungary, 1946) was a key figure of the Hungarian avantgarde of the late communist era. He graduated in philosophy in 1972 and in 1973 founded the section K/3 of the Bela Balasz Studios while studying theater and cinema, debuting as a filmmaker with shorts such as Tradicionalis Kabitoszerunk/ Our Traditional Drug (1973) and Negy Bagatell/ Four Bagatelles (1975) while also rising to prominence as a theater director.

His graduation film Amerikai Anzix/ American Postcard/ American Torso (1975), a collaboration with Peter Timar, tells the story of three Hungarian officers who serve as land surveyors during the last days of the American Civil War by merging historical documents, a text by Karl Marx, poems by Walt Whitman and Ambrose Bierce's short story "George Thurston" (1883), and all in a visually stimulating manner and with an allegorical plot: each character represents an aspect of human civilization (the rationalist, the fatalist and the romantic) and is condemned to a different fate. At the same time its visual style explored and exploded cinematic language itself: visual effects (Timar's work) evoke silent cinema, vintage photographs and ruined decades-old celluloid. Body's hyper-realism is not about the Civil War but about the medium used to present it (cheating as if silent cinema already existed in 1865).

Shot in black and white, the film opens in North Carolina in 1865 with the view of the countryside from a rifle's sights. Soldiers are shooting at each other during the Civil War of the USA. The sights of the rifle are also pointed at two land surveyors who are working in the fields, indifferent to the bullets that flash by them. As a group of Confederate soldiers approaches, the two surveyors flee. As they chat, we realize that they are Hungarians: major Janos Fiala and his assistant Boldogh. They discuss the hero of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-49, general Artur Gorgey. The major reports to the Union general what they discovered about the enemy's positions, important to plan an attack. Not enough for the general to make a decision.
The general orders his captain to launch a diversionary attack so that Janos Fiala can continue his reconnaissance. Just then an officer of the railway company, Isaacson, approaches Fiala with a business proposition: the Transcontinental Railroad will need Fiala's cartography skills. Fiala proudly demonstrates a new cartographic tool, the "theodolite". Fiala has to leave for his mission. Another Hungarian, lieutenant Adam Vereczky, offers to join as an observer. We then see, accompanied by distorted opera music, life in the military camp: prostitutes, nurses, chefs, etc. Fiala finds a letter with money and a contract: Isaacson is to hire him and his assistant. Boldogh, however, is homesick and not sure he wants to stay in America. The camera then explores the barracks where soldiers get drunk, read the newspaper, play billiard, play cards, ... Seeing so many Hungarian veterans, Fiala asks about Vereczky. A former soldier claims that Vereczky carried out heroic actions during the Crimean War, but another Hungarian who has been listening silently interrupts him saying that Vereczky ran like a coward. Fiala stares at the full moon and sits by himself. A voiceover recites Walt Whitman's poem "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d". The general interrupts his meditation and announces that Fiala's maps are not needed anymore because the Confederates pulled back: the war is coming to an end. Fireworks light up the night sky. Fiala explains his cartographic method to Vereczky in a noisy saloon while people dance and fight. The following day Fiala and Vereczky goes into an expedition into the woods just for fun, passing by a band of musicians. Fiala tells his story, of all the armies that he has served in Europe as a cartographer. They eventually run into peasants who have set up an enormous swing between two trees. Fiala wants to demonstrate to Vereczky his cartographic method. The two part ways, each holding an end of the rope. Then they look at each other with telescopes, and then they point each telescope to the swing. All of this to calculate its width of the swing. Meanwhile, Boldogh brings the news that the Confederates are defeated. Fiala again invites him to join the new venture in California, but Boldogh prefers to return to Europe. The musicians are still walking around and playing their joyful march. Fiala and Vereczky walk to the giant swing. Vereczky want to try it himself. He keeps pushing higher and higher, cheered by the spectators. The images become blurred, broken, unstable. Vereczky crashes to his death and is buried right where he fell. The musicians are still marching and playing. Fiala packs his precious "theodolite", seems to make one last geometric calculation in his mind, and leaves.

Body experimented with computer-generated visual patterns in the short Psychokosmen/ Psycho-Cosmos (1976).

Privat Tortenelem/ Private History (1978), another collaboration with Peter Timar, is a short that reconstructs the interwar period through a collage of home videos.

The film-essay Narcisz es Psyche/ Narcissus and Psyche (1980), photographed by Istvan Hildebrand with music by Laszlo Vidovszky, based on a verse drama by Sandor Weores and starring Udo Kier and Patricia Adriani (which exists in three different versions, the longest of more than four hours), is his most daring film, a sensory bombardment, whose story, which transfers the Greek legend into Victorian-era Europe, spans over a century (ending around 1920) but with the characters not aging at all, notably the beautiful and libidinous young woman, Psyche, a fictitious poetess raised by nuns, and her platonic lover, the syphilis-ridden Narcizs, a poet who really existed. The film is an allegorical representation of the evolution/involution of European bourgeoisie and aristocracy and specifically of the moral vacuum of Hungarian society under communism. It is, first and foremost, a visual and semiotic tour de force. Psyche is played by Spanish actress Patricia Adriani and Narcissus is played by German actor Udo Kier. Among the actors are also multimedia artists Miklos Erdely and Tibor Hajas and the poet Janos Pilinszky. Too many characters, and most of them underdeveloped. Unfortunately the film is drenched in over-saturated dark blue and green which is quite annoying. The visual effects this time seem to detract more than to attract and too many segments are devoted to lengthy boring political discussions. The story is also simplified compared with the Weores original.

A number of elderly witnesses (including the 19th-century poet Ferencz Kazinczy, played by poet Janos Pilinszky) tell the origins of the 19th century aristocrat Erzsebet Lonyai or just Lidi, a descendant of both gypsies and aristocrats. Her mother was a countess who ran away with a renown gypsy violinist, Janos Bihari, when the girl was still three years old. After her mother died, her uncle sent her to a convent school until the age of 14. Then she moved in with her sister Anna/Ninon, who had married a rich landowner, Gaston.
The film begins in earnest when she is a young attractive woman engaged to Istvan Terek. They are on their way to visit his mother, but then she turns the carriage towards her uncle Jozsef's place. When they arrive, they both recite poems they have written. They mingle with the intellectuals who assemble at Jozsef's villa, including Ferencz Kazinczy. Later she suddenly kisses passionately a young man, Nikolaus Wesselenyi, a soldier, in front of Terek until the young man pushes her away. The young man is sitting on a couch. She opens his pants, removes her underwear and sits on his penis. The fiance' walks out disgusted, vomiting, while they make love in that position. She then calmly cleans the young man's penis. After they have sex again, she tells him that she will not marry him because she is fond of her freedom. Lidi's cousin Joso, who is also in love with her, follows Lidi to her sister's castle. At night her sister plays the piano (horribly) in front of a mountain of candles. Her husband Gaston walks in and she gets scared. She insults him and runs into Erzsebet's bedroom, claiming that he has been beating her. Multiple voices introduce Lidi's older and poor mentor and tutor, Laszlo Toth or just Laci, also a poet, who has been hired as an instructor by the rich Rhedey family. He reveals to Lidi that he has contracted syphilis from a gypsy. She is hurt because she, since childhood, has wanted to give herself to him but he always rejected her. Lidi in turn confesses that she has a woman's disease that make her bleed copiously. She also reveals that she was deflowered at 14 by Gaston, her sister's husband. She let Gaston do it out of boredom. Once she even got pregnant of him and Gaston forced an abortion by kicking her belly, and she's been bleeding since then. A fan of Graeco-Roman culture, Laci has written a tragedy in verse about "Psyche' and Narcissus". Lidi gives him money to cure his syphilis and find a doctor for her condition. Multiple voices tell us how Gaston, fed up with Lidi's nymphomaniac exceses, locked her up again in a convent. The noble Klara Rhedey is desperately in love with Laci despite the fact that Laci is poor. Laci quits his job and leaves the Rhedey castle to study thanks to a scholarship from the Catholic archbishop Fischer. In order to get out of the convent, Erzsebet/ Elise/ Lidi accepts to marry the Austrian baron Max Zedlitz (played by actor Gyorgy Cserhalmi), a product of the Enlightenment who rooted for Napoleon. At an Austrian party, Lidi is harassed by the minister of interior and does not hesitate to slap him in the face. The police soon expose her as a gypsy adventuress who pretends to be a princess of Transylvania and she is forced to leave the capital, wandering on foot in the countryside. Max follows her and proposes marriage, despite the opposition of his family. We see explosions (the beginning of the 1848-49 revolution of independence) while we see Max and Lidi making love (the images are superimposed and the naked bodies are blurred). But Lidi tells Max that she is not interested in marriage and also that she loves her old tutor Laci. Lidi travels alone to Laszlo's city and finds him living in poverty in a cave-like room but studying to become a doctor. He has abandoned the Greek gods for scientific knowledge. Lidi is annoyed by his textbooks and flirts with his students Fidel and Marton. He calls her a "whore". She blames him for not taking her virginity when she was a teenager. Nonetheless, after the argument they make love, for the first time, and despite his syphilis. She lives with him in poverty and helps him with his studies. Laci introduces her to a specialist who finds the problem of her bleeding: a polyp. She is scared but the doctor removes it. We see a close-up of the bloody polyp pulsating on the floor.

Fidel and Marton visit Laci and discuss politics. A man known as "Baron Mika", who is actually Nikolaus Wesselenyi, is galvanizing young people. Lidi meets the fanatical activist Zoltan and his circle of revolutionaries, who are drafting a new liberal constitution and dream of a universal revolution. Lidi offers to help even though Zoltan reminds her that her uncle is a leader of the ultra-conservatives, i.e. the enemies. Another conspirator, Ferdinand, escorts Lidi to a billiard room that is usually reserved for men, a fact that upsets Zoltan. Ferdinand then tries to rape Lidi in an adjacent room but he is impotent. Lidi makes fun of him. She's upset only because her clothes are torn. An embarrassed Ferdinand offers her a man's jacket. Lidi then cuts her hair short and dresses like a man so she can attend the session of parliament, attended also by Polish delegates, who are fighting for national independence. Somehow at the end of the debate they decide to inflate a hot-air balloon.
Laci and his students take a boat to the theater where a passionate director is working on the production of Laci's tragedy "Narcissus". The director is worried that Laci's tragedy is too abstract and suggests to replace the Greek gods with Hungary's national heroes. Laci refuses, insults the director, and leaves alone.
Lidi worries with Ferdinand about Zoltan: her uncle told her that the government is about to crack down on the opposition. She tried to protect both Zoltan and Ferdinand by telling her uncle that she is pregnant of one of them but not sure who exactly is the father. Her uncle orders her to retire to his secluded villa. Lidi leaves for her uncle's villa and minutes later Ferdinand is shot dead by a soldier after throwing a stone at an official. Lidi barely makes it out of town, disguised as a gypsy, before troops seal it. She meets a member of the opposition, Janos, who is escorting Mika/ Nikolaus to exile: Mika has been released from prison because he went completely blind. Janos tells Lidi to forget Zoltan: he is not dead but imprisoned for life and he has gone insane. She has lost three of her lovers: Ferdinand (dead), Mika (blind and exiled) and Zoltan (jailed and insane). Lidi gives birth in the remote snowy location. A woman immediately takes the child away, presumably on behalf of her uncle, and Lidi is too weak to stop her.
We then see wordless images of a bloody battle (presumably the 1866 battle in which Prussia defeated Austria-Hungary, the war that started the decline of Austria).
Laci has a philosophical discussion with Lidi's suitor Max, who is still in love and desperate to find her.
Lidi now makes a living as a tailor for women. Three young women, all in love with the same captain, come to buy dresses from her. When they leave, we see her making love with a bearded man who lost a leg. She stares at herself in the mirror and, terrified by what she sees, she throws an object at it and breaks it: the hole shows a cloudy night sky. At the last minute Lidi decides to attend the ball. The famous captain, Kratky, who is married with children, is immediately smitten by her beauty and tries to kiss her, but she rejects him. Laci is outside, unable to enter because he doesn't have money to pay for the ticket. Lidi finds him outside, cries on his shoulder and kisses him. But Laci, who is broke and jobless, is cold and hostile. He tells her that Max, whose parents died, is looking for her and even offered a reward for news about her whereabouts. Laci thinks that the money will enable him to cure his disease, complete his studies and marry her properly to get a higher standing in society: she's a countess after all. But at the same time he calls her a whore, born a whore. Lidi runs away, hurt, getting lost in a foggy bluish forest. They call and look for each other in the forest, without finding each other. Laci bends on a pond and whispers to himself: "Narcissus".
Thanks to Laci, Max finds Lidi, proposes and this time Lidi accepts. They move into Max's Bohemian castle by a lake. They have two children: the girl Mari and the boy Max. Lidi, now a baroness, seems devoted to her family. Max continues his charitable and utopian endeavors. Max, whose income relies on a mine, cares for the living conditions of the miners. Max and Lidi personally cure them when they are ill, and they design a new complex of public homes for their families. Max even hires a scientist to measure the heads of his workers. Lidi explores the lives of the workers. She decides to protect the young Ilse who is a gifted dancer whom her father consider useless. Lidi even sees a pig fly from the stables.
We see images of snow avalanches while Lidi reads a letter from Laci, who is devastated by the news of her marriage. Laci has returned to their hometown and has studied the lot of ordinary workers. We see surreal images of naked workers behind a geometric grid. Laci has concluded that all the ills of society can be solved by scientific progress and has decided to move to Vienna where he can mingle with scientists and begs Lidi to be the patroness of his new studies. Max and Lidi agree to send Ilse to a dance school in Vienna. Lidi accompanies the girl there and can also visit Laci. Laci gives her a lengthy delirious speech and then tells her that he has nothing left to learn in Vienna. She sees the treatise that he has written in German, "The Role of the Individual in the Perfection of Fate". He asks for her and Max's help to convince the scientist to sponsor his studies in Germany. Lidi simply leaves him some money and returns home.
At home she tries in vain to convince the scientist of the merits of Laci's treatise. The scientist is unimpressed. Lidi is convinced that the scientist used to be a priest in the conservative circle of her uncle, but Max doesn't believe her. Max bought a telescope and they watch the stars together. We see them making love among the stars, with various visual effects.
Meanwhile, Laci is visited by a theater director who think that his tragedy "Narcissus" is a masterpiece except that he wants to turn it into a musical and has already hired a composer. And so the tragedy is revised for a variety theater as a cabaret-style show, "Narcissus and Echo". As he walks out of the theater after a rehearsal, Ilse is waiting for him and kisses him passionately: they have become lovers. Laci is devastated when the theater director, claiming that the audience wants military topics, cancels "Narcissus and Echo".
Meanwhile, in the castle Max is getting increasingly mad, devoured by anxiety and paranoia. At the beach Max tells Lidi that he wants to travel. They spend four years around the world while Austria plunges into World War I. When they return at the end of the war, they find the estate dilapidated and the mine unusable. Max decides that they should sell the castle and move to America.
Lidi finds a letter from Laci, who has moved to Budapest and lives in poverty with Ilse and housekeeper Klara. Laci's health has deteriorated and he is going mad. A delirious Laci, stating that his disease is no longer infectious, still tries to rape Lidi in front of Ilse and Klara. Ilse admits that she slept with Laci and din't contract the disease. It's Laci's last will and Lidi is torn if she should satisfy it. The screen goes black and red. Laci dies. At the funeral Lidi tells Max that it's pointless to cry for Laci because Laci was egotistic, in love only with himself, just like his "Narcissus". We then see oneiric images of Laci as Narcissus.
(Note that Lidi is still played by the same young actress even though by now she should be a very old woman. Everybody else has aged around her).
Lidi is detemined to have "Narcissus" properly staged. Max auctions off the valuables of his estate to a cast of rich people. Lidi invites a powerful intellectual, Eberhard, who is interested in staging Laci's tragedy. The intellectual has a sinister goal of using art and religion instead of politics to educate ordinary people. Their conversation is interrupted by someone who calls the intellectual and sounds like Hitler. Max invites Eberhard to give a demonstration of his ideas about theater, and we assist to a sort of slide show in which five naked dancers are used to explain geometric patterns of the bodies. The audience (the tycoons who had been invited to the reception following the auction) starts stripping naked and then they all follow the dancers outside in the night as if hypnotized. We see explosions in the night and then a bare-chested man explodes. Two people still dance on an island floating in the sky while other people explode.
In the morning the guests return to the castle. Max and Lidi leave. Max tells Lidi that their trip to America is arranged, but she wants to remain until Eberhard stages "Narcissus". They get into an argument. Max goes mad and causes an accident that kills Lidi.
While we see fast-moving images of the film, the narrators of the first scene gives their final remarks on the story. They question everything that we have seen We learn that three years later Max dies too. One person even questions whether these people ever existed at all. The camera stays on Lidi's tomb showing it season after season until it is overgrown by vegetation and no longer visible.

Fascinated by videocassettes, in 1980 he launched a magazine devoted to the phenomenon, “Infermental”, which became a videocassette (made of excerpts from videos by international filmmakers), each issue set in a different European city, starting in 1982 in Berlin, co-edited by Astrid Heibach. Gabor, taking advantage of of residences in Berlin and Vancouver, pioneeed the new medium of video with shorts such as Der Daemon in Berlin/ The Demon in Berlin (1982) and Either Or in Chinatown (1985).

three philosophical shorts De Occulta Philosophia (1981), Dance of Eurynome (1983) and Walzer (1985)

Kutya Eji Dala/ Dog’s Night Song (1983), photographed by Johanna Heer (who is not Hungarian), is a caustic fresco of Hungarian society after four decades of failed communist experiment. It also shows Gabor Body's interest in the parallel underground culture of communist Hungary (for example underground rock bands) that could be documented only through home videos. Body deconstructs and hijacks the structure of the crime thriller and toys with the boundary between artistic film and home video, trained acting and amateur acting, fiction and documentary. It is telling, and perhaps satirical, that Body employed amateur actors (like the members of the punk band and himself) to discuss philosophical topics. The story itself is confusing and inconsistent, especially at the end, but coherence and clarity are not the goal here.

A group of people in a bus. A man in wheelchair in the street passes by a man, Janos, who kicks a ball in the air. The ball falls in the woods where a child runs after it. The child runs into a woman who asks him for the way to the church. Another woman arrives and offers to do her hair. The invalid loses control of the wheelchair in the downhill street and is ejected when the wheelchair crashes against the guardrail. The ball stops. It's evening. People in the bus chat. One girl is going to visit her father in the sanatorium. A priest sits in the back (played by Body himself). The priest and another passenger get off the bus and find the injured invalid. The priest helps him get back on the wheelchair and then pushes the invalid back to town, introducing himself as the village's new priest, and the invalid tells him that he was left paralyzed after someone shot at him in 1956 (the failed uprising against communism). He's fed up with life and tried to kill himself. Elsewhere, a boy wakes up as his parents are arguing: Janos/Jancsi and wife Marika (played by Marietta Mehes). She complains that he went out with a friend and got drunk. He curses the day he had sex with her when she was 16 and slaps her in the face, but then they make love. The priest spends more time with the unhappy invalid and the invalid tells him that his wife stays with him only for money: his pension is three times her salary. They have been married for 30 years but he is been on a wheelchair for 26. He also confesses that he has many enemies in the village. The priest manages to cheef him up Back to Janos: he is still venting his frustration to his wife. They smoke a cigarette outside, in the dark. We learn that he is an army officer. She gets dressed and leaves the house, in the middle of the night.
We then see home videos of a boy walking around with a German tourist, Olli, who speaks rudimentary Hungarian and tells the boy that his own father, baron Dorogi, is dead. Olli's amateur video becomes a collage of life in the village while the soundtrack sings "Europa ist Amerika". Olli's video ends in a room where people are discussing a music concert in front of the invalid in the wheelchair and he gets in a bad mood. We see Olli filming them from the hallway. The camera then indulges on vintage photographs posted on the wall, perhaps the story of the invalid's political career.
A priest from a nearby village comes to visit the new priest.
The film turns to the other passenger who got off the bus, a young astronomen who works at the nearby observatory. Janos' boy Janika is visiting him. The astronomer is filming the movements of the stars. The boy tells him that his parents have videos that they don't want to show to him. The astronomer tells the boy to bring the films and the camera to him. The boy wants to know why dogs bark at a full moon, and the astronomer gives him a philosophical answer.
Then we see a home video of a punk band, whose singer is the astronomer (real-life singer Attila Grandpierre of real-life band Vagtazo Halottkemek/ Coroners On The Run aka VHK). The video shows us an interview with the members of the band.
Army officer Janos during military exercises writes a letter to his wife Marika, asking her to come home. And then he tears up the letter and then writes a letter to a friend in the navy.
We then see a woman running towards the observatory and calling Attila's name in holding a bunch of roses but her voice is distorted electronically to sound robotic. She has come a long way to stay with him and to be forgiven but he rudely rejects her.
We see the priest in the church listening to the confessions of pious people.
The film shifts abruptly to a visit by the priest, dressed in ordinary clothes, to the invalid. We learn that the invalid was an officer of the communist party who confesses his love for Stalin.
At night the invalid has a nightmare of the priest dancing with peasant women while he is watching them on the wheelchair invalid in the wheelchair. and the women then dancing around him.
More videos of the punk band VHK. And then a video of another band, A.E. Bizottsag (fronted by both male and female singers), a band that sounds like the no-wave bands of New York (DNA, Contortions).
Marika is now working in a night-club run by a gypsy. Her husband Janos shows up dressed in his uniform and makes a scene demanding that she returns home, but Marika accuses him of being impotent.
Attila's friend comes to talk to him but we don't hear what they discuss. A young woman who has tuberculosis visits the priest and tells him that she left her husband Laci because she loves same husband so much. She sounds deranged. He gives her a needle to prick herself whenever she feels that she is not telling the truth. She keeps repeating that she loves her husband and each time she pricks her arm more deeply feeling more pain. She dies, possibly having killed herself with the needle.
Marika performs with the punk band A.E. Bizottsag. Her drunk husband watches jealous and then asks her in vain to return home: she is saving money to rent an apartment and take their son with her.
We see another interview with the band VHK.
On the same bus of the beginning, the army officer recognizes Attila the astronomer. They reach the town at night and find that the Stalinist invalid has tried again to kill himself, except that this time he succeeded.
A detective gets suspicious of the priest: both the woman and the invalid were hanging out with him, both died on the same day, and now the priest has disappeared. We learn that the woman stabbed her own heart with the needle that the priest gave her. We see amateur videos of the police interrogating village folks. We finally learn the name of the invalid, Miklos. They interrogate the child too, who claims he can operate the videocamera and has filmed UFOs. A flashback shows us the child hanging out with Olli the German tourist and making more videos of the townfolks, including a video of the priest pushing Miklos on the wheelchair down the steep road. The police watches the boy's videos. Comically, they mix up the boy's videos with a pornographic video. They also interrogate the priest of the nearby town who tells them that the disappeared priest claimed to have a mission.
We then see the priest arriving at a woman's house, bringing her flowers and saying that he completed his mission. They pray together. He then tells her that he needs money to pay for a ship ticket that will take him abroad. She gives him the money. Both the radio and newspapers report that the police is searching for the priest, who turned out to be an impostor, and is suspected of double murder. The fake priest enters the night-club and starts dancing alone. Someone recognizes him and calls the police. He flees in the night, chased by two women and two cops. He ends up running on the highway. We hear the police radio discussing his whereabouts and see a sign "S000T090" on the top left corner of the screen as if this were police video footage. We also hear of a bus accident that killed a lot of people, perhaps the same bus ride. Eventually the priest reaches a place where a woman confesses that she killed the sick woman, accidentally (the woman was pricking her chest with the needle under the blanket), and somehow the cops stop chasing him. Janos the army officer plays with his son in the backyard. He shows the child fireworks. He asks the child what he sees in the videocamera and tells him that he has to return it to the German tourist. We then hear a biblical tale of Jesus' last unseen miracle. The film ends with classical music (Handel's "Halleluja") superimposed to a female choir singing a folk song and to punk-rock.

He died in 1985 at the age of 39 in mysterious circumstances, probably a suicide. When communism fell, it was discovered that Body had worked since 1973 for the secret police, informing on artists and intellectuals of his circle.

(Copyright © 2022 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )