A History of Hungarian Cinema

piero scaruffi

Copyright © 2024 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use

History of Cinema | Best films of all time | Database of Filmmakers | Main Cinema page
See also the Best Hungarian Films of All Time

Austrian Hungary

The kingdom of Hungary was born in the 11th century (after an exodus from the Urals which is customarily to date from the year 896) and at one point it extended to the Adriatic Sea, having annexed part of Yugoslavia and Romania. Squeezed between the Ottoman Empire of Turkey and the Habsburg Empire of Austria, Hungary disintegrated: first it was annexed by the Ottomans (1526) and then by Austria (1699). Hungary retained some degree of autononmy but de facto German became its official language. A number of political events destabilized Hungarian society. Hungary has been granted limited democracy, but only about 10% of the Hungarian population could vote. In 1905 the Szabadelvu Part (Liberal Party), which had been in power since 1875, lost the elections, but the Austrian emperor refused to let the opposition form a new government. Philosophers and social scientists were already active in attacking the establishment, both the imperial family and the Catholic Church that supported it. The anti-clerical positivist philosopher Gyula Pikler (a Jew) and the social scientist Oszkar Jaszi (a Jew born Oszkar Jakobuvits) had launched the journal Huszadik Szazad (Twentieth Century) in 1900 and founded the Tarsadalomtudomanyi Tarsasag (Society of Social Sciences) in 1901. In 1906 the socialist Ervin Szabo' (a Jew born Samuel Schlesinger), who was working on the Hungarian translation of Marx and Engels, became the vice-president of the society. In 1907 there were riots in Budapest universities over the Pikler's political views. Inspired by Pikler, in 1908 the economist Karoly Polanyi (another Jew) founded the Galilei Kor (Galileo Circle), a group of atheists and pacifists, that also published a journal, Szabadgondolat (Free Thought). Intellectuals like the poet Endre Ady wrote in it. Meanwhile, Szabo' advocated Marxism in pamphlets such as “A Toke es a Munka Harca/ The struggle between Capital and Labour” (1911). When World War I started in 1914, these intellectuals led the anti-war movement.

Hungary had a lively literary scene. Significant novels of the early 20th century include: Zoltan Ambrus's "Girofle es Girofla" (1901), Geza Gardonyi's "A Lathatatlan Ember/ The Invisible Man" (1902), Ferenc Herczeg's "Poganyok/ Heathens/ Pagani" (1902), Kalman Mikszath's novels, such as "A Noszty Fiu Esete Toth Marival/ The Noszty Boy and Mary Toth" (1908) and "A Fekete Varos/ The Black City" (1910), Ferenc Molnar's "A Pal Utcai Fiuk/ Boys of Paul Street" (1909), Margarita Kaffka's "Szinek es Evek/ Colors and Years" (1912) and Frigyes Karinthy's "Utazas Faremidoba/ Voyage to Faremido" (1916). Hungary was also blessed with some of the most outstanding poets of the time, especially after the publication of the poetry anthology "Nagyvarad/ Tomorrow" (1908): Endre Ady ("Uj Veisek/ New Poems", 1906; "Ver es Arany/ Blood and Gold", 1907), the poet who launched the literary revolution, Dezso Kosztolanyi ("A Szegeny Kisgyermek Panaszai/ Complaints of a Poor Little Child", 1910), Mihaly Babits ("Herceg Hatha Megjonn a Tel Is/ Prince What if Winter Comes?", 1911; "Recitativ/ Recitative", 1916), Arpad Toth ("Hajnali Szerenad/ Serenade at Daybreak", 1913), Lajos Kassak ("Eposz Wagner Maszkjaban/ Epic in Wagner's Mask", 1915), etc. Hungarian theater boasted plays such as Ferenc Herczeg's "Bizanc/ Byzantium" (1904), Ferenc Molnar's "Liliom" (1907), Melchior Lengyel's "Tajfun/ Typhoon" (1909), Lajos Biro's "A Sarga Liliom/ The Yellow Lily" (1910), Ferenc Herczeg's "Kek Roka/ The Blue Fox" (1917), besides theater directors like Sandor Hevesi. Many of these writers gathered around the magazine Nyugat (West), founded in 1908 by Hugo Veigelsberg, Erno Osvat and Miksa Fenyo. Lajos Kassak started the magazines A Tett (1915), renamed MA (1916) that catered to the avantgarde (painters like Bela Uitz and Sandor Bortnyik, poets like Sandor Barta and Erzsi Újvari).

Contemporary French visual arts were imported to Hungary by the so-called "A Nyolcak” (The Eight), a group of young rebellious artists (mostly Jews) who met in Paris in 1908 and, upon returning to Hungary, led by Karoly Kernstock, organized in Budapest an exhibition in December 1909 that introduced the Hungarian public to the latest French, Austrian and German trends. Their exhibitions included events with the great Hungarian modernizers: Endre Ady (poetry), Bela Bartok (music) and Gyorgy Lukacs (philosophy). Art Nouveau entered Hungary thanks to architect Odon Lechner, who shaped the Szecesszio style by mixing folklore-inspired patterns and Middle-eastern textile patterns in buildings such as the Iparmuveszeti Muzeum (Museum of Applied Arts) of 1896 and the Magyar Kiralyi Postatakarekpenztar (Royal Postal Savings Bank) of 1901.

During World War I, the poet Lajos Kassak founded the leftist magazine A Tett (The Action) which later became Ma (Today), advocating pacifism and Marxism while promoting the aesthetic of the politicized artistic group Magyar Aktivizmus (Hungarian Activism).

Hungary was also the birthplace of some great mathematicians. Their dynasty began with Lipot Fejer (a Jew born Leopold Weisz) who taught John von Neumann (a Jew born Janos Neumann), Paul Erdos (a Jew born Pal Erdos) and George Polya (a Jew born Gyorgy Polya). Polya emigrated in 1914 to Switzerland, Von Neumann emigrated in 1920 to Germany (and later became a computer pioneer and quantum physicist in the USA), and Erdos emigrated to the USA in 1938.

Perhaps not negligible was the influence of psychiatry on the arts. At the beginning of the century Budapest boasted the second most important school after Vienna, initiated by Sandor Ferenczi (a Jew born Sandor Frankel), who had worked with Freud and in 1919 became the world's first university professor of psychoanalysis. Like him, most of the Hungarian pioneers were Jews, from Melanie (born Melanie Reizes) to Imre Hermann and Geza Roheim, and so were also most of the ones who worked abroad, like Michael Balint (a Jew born Mihaly Bergsmann who worked in Britain). In those days psychoanalysis was described as a "Jewish science" by detractors (its founder, Sigmund Freud, was Jewish too). Inevitably, there were crosspollinations between Hungarian Jewish culture and psychoanalysis.

Cinema was first employed by local artisans during to document Hungary's millennium celebrations of 1896. Mor Ungerleider, originally a cafe owner, is the man credited with starting in 1908 the business of film distribution with his company "Projectograph". At the same time he launched the magazine Mozgofenykep Hirado (Moving Picture News) where the early film critics wrote. The pioneers of Hungarian cinema during this time were theater actor Mihaly Kertesz, who made the first two Hungarian full-length films, namely Ma es Holnap/ Today and Tomorrow (1912) and Az Utolso Bohem/ The Last Bohemian (1912), adapted from Zsolt Harsanyi's play and produced by Mor Ungerleider, producer Jeno Janovics, and journalist Sandor Korda, who launched an influential magazine (Pesti Mozi in 1912, later renamed Mozihet or Cinema Week), wrote the screenplays for two films directed by Gyula Zilahy, namely Orhaz a Karpatokban/ Watchhouse in the Carpathians (1914) and A Becsapott Ujsagiro/ The Duped Journalist (1914), before becoming a director in his own.

Jeno Janovics opened studios in Kolozsvar (known as Cluj in Romania) and produced Felix Vanyl's Sarga Csiko'/ Yellow Foal/ The Secret of the Blind Man (1913), the first Hungarian film to be distributed worldwide, Kertesz's A Tolonc/ The Exile/ The Undesirable (1914) and Kertesz's Bank Ban (1914), an adaptation of Jozsef Katona's 1815 play (perhaps Hungary's most famous tragedy) starring the famous theater actresses Mari Jaszai. When the government banned foreign films, at the beginning of World War I, it helped jumpstart the local industry. In 1916, in the middle of the war, Janovics established a new production company, Corvin Film, and hired Korda as the film director, who made the first major blockbuster of Hungarian cinema, Feher Ejszakak/ White Nights (1916), an adaptation of Victorien Sardou's play "Fedora" (made famous by actress Sarah Bernhardt), followed by Mesek az Írogeprol/ Tales about the Typewriter (1916), the prototypical middle-class comedy.

In 1917 Korda acquired the company and made two famous adaptations: A Golyakalifa/ The Stork Caliph (1917) from Mihaly Babits (scripted by Frigyes Karinthy) and Az Arany Ember/ The Gold Man, from Mor Jokai. Korda wrote his own screenplay for the farce Harrison es Barrison/ Harrison and Barrison (1917), starring two popular comedians.

In Budapest the imperial photographer Odon Uher, the first president in 1906 of the National Association of Hungarian Photographers, and founder of the photography magazine A Feny (The Light), started his own Uher production company. His son, also called Uher, made Mire Megvenulunk/ When We Grow Old (1916), adapted from Mor Jokai.

Istvan Kato-Kiszly (born Kiszlingstein) was the pioneer of animation in Hungary with Odon Zsirb (1914), made from white paper cut-outs, and an unfinished Janos Vitez/ John the Valiant (1916), an adaptation of Sandor Petofi's epic poem.

By the end of the war, Hungarian cinema was very productive, one of the most productive in the world. The first Hungarian stars were Mihaly Varkonyi and Lili Berky.

Hungary boasted some of the earliest theoreticians of cinema. Particularly influential were Zoltan Somlyo's articles of 1912 in Moving Picture News and Jeno Torok's articles of 1915 in Cinema Week. Several books were published: Adolf Keleti's "A Mozgoszinhaz Mint a Nepmuveles Eszkoze/ The Moving Theatre as a Means of Mass Education" (1913), Szilard Beck's "A Mozgofenykep/ The Moving Picture" (1913) Lajos Kormendy's "A Mozi/ The Film" (1915), etc.

The most famous of these film critics was Bela Balazs (a Jew born Herbert Bauer), originally a writer who had provided the libretto for Bartok's opera "A Kekszakallu Herceg Vara/ Bluebeard's Castle" (1911). Balazs founded in 1915 a salon called Vasarnapi Kor (Sunday Circle) that included art historians Lajos Fulep and Arnold Hauser, sociologist Karoly Mannheim (later the author of "Ideologie und Utopie/ Ideology and Utopia", 1929) and Marxist philosopoher Gyorgy Lukacs (a Jew born Gyorgy Loewinger who had just published his thousand-page "A Modern Drama Fejlodesenek Tortenete/ History of the Development of the Modern Drama").

At the end of World War I the Austrian empire disintegrated and Hungary returned to be an independent state, although deprived of old Hungarian lands like Croatia, Transylvania, Slovakia and so on. Inspired by the Russian revolution, in 1919 Bela Kun briefly established a communist regime in Hungary, but Romania invaded Hungary, overthrew the government and helped admiral Miklos Horthy to seize power (ironically, Horthy was a navy admiral in charge of a country with no sea). The Trianon peace treaty of 1920 confirmed the new Hungary as a landlocked state (about one third of the old kingdom of Hungary), having lost territories to its neighbours (the newly created Czechoslovakia, Romania and soon-to-be-renamed Yugoslavia). The shrinking of the state (that left three million ethnic Hungarians outside Hungary) and the Bolshevik experiment were traumatic shocks for the Hungarians. Despite the peace treaty, Hungary was remained isolated throughout the 1920s.

During the brief communist experiment, Hungarian cinema was nationalized (even predating the nationalization in the Soviet Union). The sudden fall of the government, and the end of the ban on foreign films, marked the premature end of Hungarian cinema, which would live abroad throughout the silent era. The biggest studios shut down (Uher in 1922, Corvin in 1926). Many intellectuals fled Hungary during the Horthy proto-fascist dictatorship. Kertesz ended up in Hollywood with his new name, Michael Curtiz, and Korda in Britain, where he became Alexander Korda. Balasz wrote in exile his influential book on cinema, "Der Sichtbare Mensch/ The Visible Man" (1924). The constructivist artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (and future guru of the Bauhaus) also emigrated (to Berlin in 1920 and then in 1923 to Weimar).

If Hungarian cinema was late to bloom, Hungarian immigrants shaped Hollywood cinema: Adolph Zukor founded Paramount Pictures in 1912 and William Fox, who was born as Fried Vilmos, founded the Fox Film Corporation in 1915 (later known as 20th Century Fox). Hungarian immigrants were famous actors, like Bela Lugosi (born Bela Blasko) and Peter Lorre (a Jew born Laszlo Loewenstein) and (after 1941) Zsa Zsa Gabor, and directors, like Michael Curtiz, Pal Fejos and Laszlo Benedek, and soundtrack composers, like Miklos Rozsa.

The fascist regime didn't stop Hungarian writers from producing great literature. Notable novels of the Horthy era include: Dezso Kosztolanyi's "A Veres Kolto/ The Bloody Poet" (1922), Mihaly Babits's "Timar Virgil Fia/ The Son of Virgil Timar" (1922), Mihaly Babits's "Halalfiai/ The Children of Death" (1927), Lajos Zilahy's "Ket Fogoly/ Two Prisoners" (1927), Ferenc Mora's "Enek a Buzamezokrol/ Song of the Wheatfields" (1927), Zsigmond Moricz's "Uri Muri/ The Gentleman's Way of Having Fun" (1928) and "Rokonok/ Relatives" (1932), Gyula Krudy's "Rezeda kazmer Szep Elete/ The Beautiful Life of Kazmer Rezeda" (1933), Miklos Szentkuthy's "Prae" (1934), Aron Tamasi's "Jegtoro Matyas/ Matthias the Icebreaker" (1935), Miklos Banffy's "Erdelyi Tortenet/ The Writing on the Wall" (1940), and Sandor Marai's "Valas Budan/ Divorce in Buda" (1936) and "Parazs/ Embers" (1942). Realist writers like Mora and Moricz were even close to Soviet socialist realism. Two important plays were Gyula Hay's "Tanr Imparator ve Koylu/ God Emperor Peasant" (1932) and Jeno Heltai's "A Levente Nema/ The Silent Knight" (1936). The greatest poets of the 1920s were perhaps Lorinc Szabo ("A Satan Muremekei/ Masterpieces of Satan", 1926) and Gyula Juhasz (suicide in 1937). The monk Laszlo Mecs ("Uveglegenda/ Glass Legend", 1931) was one of the poets gathering around the Catholic magazine Vigilia. The 1930s were a particularly good decade for Hungarian poets such as: Jeno Dsida ("Nagycsutortok/ Maundy Thursday", 1933), Attila Jozsef ("Kulvarosi Ej", 1932; "Medvetanc", 1934), Gyula Illyes ("A Pusztak Nepe/ People of the Puszta", 1936), Mihaly Babits ("Jonas Konyve/ The Book of Jonah", 1939), and especially Miklos Radnoti, a Jew murdered by the Hungarian fascists during World War II and dumped in a mass grave ("Ujmodi Pasztorok Eneke/ The Song of the New-Fashioned Shepherds", 1931; "Meredek Ut/ Steep Road", 1938; "Tajtekos Eg/ Clouded Sky", 1944).

The Viennese operetta leaked into Budapest too, creating stars like Sari Fedak and Sari Petrass, both launched by composer Victor Jacobi's hit "Leanyvasar" (1911). Between 1908 and 1939 Bela Bartok towered over Hungarian classical music, with works such as "Cantata Profana" (1930), "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta" (1936) and his six quartets, but there was also Zoltan Kodaly, who composed the "Psalmus Hungaricus" (1932).

Jews were prominent not only in the cultural and political life of Hungary, but even in its sports. After all, a Jew, Ferenc Kemeny, had been the first Hungarian member of the International Olympic Committee. Hungary's first swimming stars were Alfred Guttman and Odon Grof, two Jews. Hungary's national football team relied on Jewish players such as Jozsef Braun, Gyorgy Molnar and Ferenc Hires-Hirzer. In the legendary match against Italy of 1924, which Hungary won by a score of 7-1, the Hungarian team fielded six Jewish players. Jews were particularly brilliant in fencing, which had been Hungary's national sport before football: three Hungarian Jews won Olympic gold medals. Karoly Karpati was one of the world's most famous wrestler (and eventually won the gold medal at the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936 in front of Adolf Hitler).

Horthy-era cinema was virtually non-existent. To be fair, the government tried to rescue cinema by establishing in 1928 the national Hunnia studio but the Great Depression struck one year later. And in 1939 the government enacted the "Jewish Laws" that, among other things, banned Jews from cinema. The damage was colossal: Hungarian cinema had been founded and fueled by Jews.

Very little can be salvaged of the early Horthy era, when movies were still silent. Maybe just Karoly Lajthay's Drakula Halala/ Dracula's Death (1921), because it was the very first Dracula film. On the other hand, Ivan Hevesy published an important treatise: "A Filmjatek Osztetikaja es Dramturgaja/ Aesthetics and Structure of Film Drama" (1925).

Istvan Kato-Kiszly continued to experiment with short animation movies: Romeo es Julia/ Romeo and Juliet (1921), a 13-minute version of the Shakespeare play made with puppet silhouettes cut from black paper, predating Lotte Reiniger's silhouette animation in Germany, and Hungary's first color animated film, the 18-minute Bogarorfeum/ Beetle Orpheum (1932).

The first sound film was Bela Gaal's musical Csak Egy Kislany van a Vilagon/ There is Only One Girl in the Whole World (1930). The following year two sound comedies launched the career of actor Pal Javor: Lajos Lazar's Kek Balvani/ Blue Idol (1931) and Istvan Szekely's Hyppolit a Lakaj/ Hyppolit the Butler (1931), written by Karoly Noti and starring Gyula Kabos, both photographed by Istvan Eiben, the latter edited by Laszlo Benedek. By far the best film of the two decades between the world wars was Pal Fejos' Tavaszi Zapor/ Marie Legende Hongroise/ Spring Shower (1932), a poetic and surreal fresco of rustic, patriarchal life, made in exile before retiring to a documentary career. Early sound films were otherwise mediocre comedies like Bela Gaal's Meseauto/ Car of Dreams (1934) and Laszlo Vajda's Magdat Kicsapjak/ Magda is Expelled (1937), which was remade in Italy by Vittorio de Sica as Maddalena Zero in Condotta (1940), but there were also Georg Hoellering's rural documentary Hortobagy (1936), inspired by Zsigmond Moricz's fiction and photographed by Laszlo Schaffer, Geza Bolvary's melodrama Tiszavirag/ Flower of the Tisza (1938), and Laszlo Kalmar's Halalos Tavasz/ Deadly Spring (1939), the film that launched sex-symbol and femme fatale Katalin Karady (born Katalin Kanczler). It was the era of folk legends, of comedies derived from Viennese operettas and of love stories in the vein of Italian "white telephone" tragicomedies.

Hungary had always viewed the Trianon peace treaty as unfair and that was a major factor in pushing Horthy into Hitler's sphere. Thanks to the arbitration of Hitler and Mussolini, Hungary regained some of the ethnic Hungarian territories ceded to Czechoslovakia and to Romania. In 1941 Hungary thus entered World War II on the side of Germany and Italy, declaring war on the Soviet Union and the USA. Horthy also began deporting Jews to Germany. By the end of the war, more than half a million Hungarian Jews had perished. As the Soviet Union was advancing towards Hungary, sensing that the Horthy government was ready to negotiate peace with the Allies, in March 1944 Hitler invaded Hungary ("Operation Margarethe") and in October his troops deposed Horthy and replaced him with the fascist Nyilaskeresztes (Arrow Cross) movement. In February 1945 Hungary surrendered to the Soviet Union.

Ironically, during World War II Hungarian cinema picked up production. Then came: Laszlo Kalmar's melodramas Danko Pista (1940) and Toparti Latomas/ Vision by the Lakeside (1940), Arzen Cserepy's social drama Foldindulas/ Landslide (1940), Frigyes Ban's comedy Egy Ejszaka Erdelyben/ One Night in Transylvania (1941), based on Istvan Asztalos' play "Alterego", and his musical Hary Janos (1941), based on Zoltan Kodaly's opera, Ákos Hamza's melodrama Bunos Vagyok/ I Am Guilty (1941), Geza Radvanyi's melodrama Europa nem Valaszol/ Europe Does Not Answer (1941), Ákos Hamza's comedy Ez Tortent Budapesten/ This Happened in Budapest (1944), Imre Jeney's proto-neorealist Es a Vakok Latnak/ And the Blind Can See Again (1944), Marton Keleti's A Tanitono/ The Teacher (1945), etc. By far the best of these films was Istvan Szots' lyrical Dovzhenko-esque rural drama Emberek a Havason/ The Mountain People (1942), starring future star Janos Gorbe, adapted from Jozsef Nyiro's stories about the villagers of Transylvania.

At the end of World War II the industry was completely destroyed. What had not been destroyed, had been stolen by the retreating Germans. Trivia: future filmmaker Miklos Jancso was a prisoner of war in Russia.


At the end of the war, in November 1945, Hungary held its first truly democratic elections, although only the anti-fascist parties were allowed to run, i.e. only the various factions of the Magyar Nemzeti Fuggetlensegi Front (Hungarian National Independence Front) that had fought the Nazis. The FKgP (which stands for Independent Smallholders' Party), founded in 1930 and representing the peasantry, won the majority and made a coalition with the Soviet-sponsored Communist Party to form a government led by Ferenc Nagy. Nothing was left of the old elite: Bela Kun had been executed in Russia in 1938 during Stalin's purges and Horthy lived the rest of his life in exile. The economy was devastated: Hungary posted the world-record monthly inflation rate of 41.9 quadrillion percent, i.e. prices doubling every 15.3 hours. The country was physically occupied by Soviet troops. It was not difficult for the Soviet Union to engineer a bloodless coup: in 1947 they arrested the leader of the FKgP, Bela Kovacs, and kidnapped Nagy's son to force Nagy to resign. In 1949 Matyas Rakosi, the leader of the Communist Party (technically the Magyar Dolgozok Partja), who had spent most of the Horthy regime in prison or in the Soviet Union, seized power and quickly dissolved the other parties. Hungarians had no sympathy for Russians: Russia had been an enemy since its troops helped Austria crush their independence movement in 1849, an enemy in World War I and an enemy in World War II. Nonetheless, Rakosi styled himself after Stalin with a similar program of forced collectivization of agriculture, nationalization of private enterprises, anti-clerical repression and closed borders, at the same time creating a police state devoted to purges of rivals, arrests of anyone suspected of being a dissident, and incarceration in gulags. Particularly unpopular was the show trial and execution of Rakosi's rival Laszlo Rajk in 1949.

When Stalin died in 1953, Rakosi repented and was replaced by Imre Nagy, who denounced the Stalinist purges his predecessor and released thousands of political prisoners. Hungarian writers, led by Tibor Dery, were the boldest in Eastern Europe to denounce Stalinism. However, in 1955 Rakosi seized power again. In October 1956 the people rose up. The revolution started with the funeral of the martyr Laszlo Rajk, rehabilitated after seven years. Students toppled a giant statue of Stalin and protested in solidarity with striking Polish workers. And then the marches turned into a popular uprising in favor of Imre Nagy, who was promptly restored to power. The Soviet Union decided that enough was enough: Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest and Janos Kadar was appointed Hungary's new dictator. Thousands of people were arrested, including famous intellectuals like Gyorgy Lukacs and Tibor Dery. Nagy was executed two years later. Meanwhile, the economy was on the brink of total collapse. This led to a mass exodus to the Western countries and deportations to gulags (not to mention executions) that totally changed the spirit of the nation.

The great writers to emerge after the war were the novelists Laszlo Nemeth, author of "Iszony/ Revulsion" (1947), and Tibor Dery, author of the 1200-page "A Befejezetlen Mondat/ "The Unfinished Sentence" (1949), and especially the poet Sandor Weores, although he was silenced after the publication of "A Fogak Tornaca/ The Portico of Teeth" (1947).

At the end of the war Balasz returned to Hungary and helped to make two dramas inspired by Italian neorealism: Valahol Europaban/ Somewhere in Europe (1947), directed by Geza Radvanyi (born Geza Grosschmid), scripted by Felix Mariassy and Judit Feher (Mariassy's future wife), starring Miklos Gabor, and sponsored by the Communist Party, and Enek a Buzamezokrol/ The Song of the Cornfields (1948), directed by Istvan Szots with the cast of his previous Emberek a Havason/ The Mountain People, an adaptation of Ferenc Mora's 1927 novel, and sponsored by the FKgP (but the film was banned until 1979). Just like De Sica’s shoeshine boys, Radvanyi’s orphaned children steal, pillage, and cheat, because they have no other chance, and because they had never encountered anything but contempt for the right to live and disrespect for human dignity; and society rejects them even when they try to make an honest living, and seems determined to use everything in its power to sabotage their hopes for a future.

In 1948 the Hungarian film industry underwent its second nationalization. The first film after the nationalization was the rural drama Talpalatnyi Fold/ Treasured Earth/ The Soil Under Your Feet (1948), based on Pal Szabo's trilogy of novels, a film started by Istvan Szots, completed by Frigyes Ban in collaboration with cinematographers Arpad Makai, Gyorgy Illes and Felix Mariassy, and scored by composer Sandor Veress. Marton Keleti's Magnas Miska/ Micky Magnate (1949) was a remake of Alexander Korda's 1917 silent film which in turn was an adaptation of Albert Szirmai's 1916 operetta. In 1949, when the communist dictatorship began, Hungary witnessed a new exodus of intellectuals: Radvanyi fled to the West while Szots (Hungary's most talented filmmaker) remained but his career was terminated (he would eventually emigrate to Austria in 1956 and spend the rest of his life in obscurity). By coincidence, Balasz died that year. The actress Katalin Karady, tortured during the war by the fascists for helping the antifascists and after the war by the communists for having been a star of fascist cinema, fled in 1951 and died in obscurity.

The legendary Soviet director Pudovkin visited Hungary twice, in 1950 and 1951, and instructed Hungarian filmmakers on how to implement Marxism-Leninism in cinema. He advocated the supremacy of script over direction. Thus "formalist" techniques of montage and flashback were discouraged. He personally reviewed the films that were under development and suggested modifications to conformed blindly to the communist ideology. The result was schematic movies that repeated optimistic views of the social transformation underway.

The new minister of culture, Jozsef Revai, previously a well-respected journalist (ironically chief editor of a journal titled Szabad Nep, i.e. Free People), made it clear what the artist's role was supposed to be. In 1952, responding to an article by Tibor Dery who was advocating artistic freedom, Revai "explained" that the supreme goal was the building of socialism.

Avant-garde art was criticized as bourgeois and decadent.

The first period of "socialist realism" yielded little of artistic value. Foltamadott a Tenger/ The Sea Has Risen (1953), a historical drama made under the supervision of Kalman Nadasdy, comically turned the events of the Hungarian independence insurrection of 1848 and the life of Hungary's national poet Petofi into Marxist propaganda.

Hungary's school of animation was making inroads thanks to Gyula Macskonsy's shorts such as A Kiskakas Gyemant Felkrajcarja/ The Diamond Half-collar of the Little Cockerel (1951), co-directed with Edit Fekete.

However, after Nagy replaced Rakosi as leader of the country and Jozsef Darvas replaced Jozsef Revai as minister of culture, Hungary's cinema suddenly blossomed like never before. Karoli Makk directed with Zoltan Varkonyi Simon Menyhert Szuletese/ The Birth of Simon Menyhert (1954), adapting a story by Tibor Dery, and on his own two films scripted by the influential intellectual Tibor Meray, namely A 9-es Korterem/ Ward No 9 (1955), photographed by Gyorgy Illes, and Mese a 12 Talalatrol/ Tale on the Twelve Points (1956), photographed by Istvan Eiben. Felix Mariassy debuted with Rokonok/ Relatives (1954), adapting Zsigmond Moricz's 1930 novel about an idealistic politician fighting corruption, Budapesti Tavasz/ Spring in Budapest (1955), based on Ferenc Karinthy’s novel, and the Cesare Zavattini-esque Egy Pikole Vilagos/ A Glass of Beer (1955), scripted by his wife Judit, a moving depiction of humble working-class families. Istvan Szots resurfaced after seven years with the 29-minute documentary Kovek Varak Emberek/ Stones Castles People (1955), again devoted to the rural world, and the 47-minute Christmas-themed fairy tale Melyiket a Kilenc Kozul?/ Which of the Nine? (1956). Zoltan Fabri blended rural folklore, love melodrama and generational rebellion in Korhinta/ Merry-go-round (1956). Laszlo Ranody and Laszlo Nadasy talked about juvenile delinquents in A Tettes Ismeretlem/ Danse Macabre (1956), photographed by Gyorgy Illes, whereas Imre Feher depicted the bohemian milieu in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Bakaruhaban/ Sunday Romance (1957), based on Sandor Hunyady's novel, scripted by Mikles Hubay and photographed by Janos Badal.

A new exodus followed the failed 1956 revolution. Szots, Badal and Meray were among those who fled.

Several important films were immediately banned and several important filmmakers saw their career terminated, like Zoltan Varkonyi’s A Keseru Igazsag/ A Bitter Truth (1956), a film that attacked Stalinist bureaucracy through the story of the corrupt manager of a large enterprise, and Felix Mariassy's bleak melodrama Kulvarosi Legenda/ Suburban Legend (1957), scripted again by his wife Judit, which was banned for "hopelessness and a false view of the working class.” After Tamas Banovich made the allegorical fairy tale Az Eltusszentett Birodalom/ The Empire Gone with a Sneeze (1956), his career as a director was terminated and the lead actor, Imre Sods, committed suicide. Feher never made a movie again.

Nobody was allowed to discuss the events of 1956, although Gyorgy Revesz managed to release Ejfelkor/ At Midnight (1957), scripted by politician and historian Ivan Boldizsar, about a young couple who must decide during a single night whether to flee across the border.

Mediocrity ruled again, with movies such as: Frigyes Ban's Szent Peter Esernydje/ St Peter's Umbrella (1958), an adaptation of Kalman Mikszath's novel, photographed by Gyorgy Illes; Zoltan Varkonyi's A Sebdlvany/ Pillar of Salt (1958); Laszlo Ranody’s melodrama Akiket a Pacsirta Elkiser/ For Whom the Lark Sings (1959), written by Jozsef Darvas; Viktor Gertler's Voros Tinta/ Red Ink (1960), an adaptation of Magda Szabo's novel; etc.

Gyorgy Ligeti was the main Hungarian composer of the post-war period, but he lived in Austria and Germany after the Soviet invasion of 1956, and so all his groundbreaking compositions of the 1960s and 1970s (from "Atmospheres" of 1961 to "Le Grand Macabre" of 1977) can hardly be called "Hungarian". Gyorgy Kurtag remained in Hungary and was recognized only after the end of communism. Hungary also gave the world of classical music the pianist Andras Schiff, but he too left Hungary (in 1979).

A new massive literary talent emerged in the 1950s: Magda Szabo, another poet who had been silenced after the 1949 coup, and went on to write some of Hungary's best novels ("Fresko", 1958; "Katalin Utca/ Katalin Street", 1969; "Abigel/ Abigail", 1970; "Az Ajto/ The Door", 1987), while Sandor Weores could partially reemerge and be recognized as Hungary's best poet of his generation "A Hallgatas Tornya/ The Tower of Silence", 1956; "Merulo Saturnus/ Saturn Descending", 1968; "Psyche", 1972) with Ferenc Juhasz ("A Szarvassa Valtozott Fiu Kialtozasa a Titkok Kapujabol/ The Boy Changed Into a Stag", 1955) and Laszlo Nagy ("A Vasarnap Gyonyore/ The Pleasure of Sunday", 1956).


During the following three decades Hungarian literature still produced great poets like Agnes Nemes-Nagy ("Napfordulo/ Solstice", 1967), Janos Pilinszky ("Nagyvarosi Ikonok/ Metropolitan Icons", 1970), Istvan Baka ("Dobling", 1985) and Szilard Borbely ("Adatok", 1988); great novels like Tibor Dery's "G. A. Ur X-ben/ Mr G. A. in X" (1964), Gyorgy Konrad's "A Latogato/ The Case Worker" (1969), Ferenc Karinthy's "Epepe/ Metropole" (1970), Andras Suto's "Anyam Konnyu Almot Iger/ Mother is Promising a Light Dream" (1970), Adam Bodor's "Plusz-Minusz Egy Nap/ Give or Take a Day" (1974) Miklos Meszoly's "Film" (1976), Peter Esterhazy's "Kis Magyar Pornografia/ A Little Hungarian Pornography" (1984) Peter Lengyel's "Macskako/ Cobblestone" (1988); and great playwrights like Istvan Czurka (the future right-wing extremist), Istvan Orkeny ("Totek/ Toth Family", 1967), Gyorgy Spiro ("Csirkefej/ Chickenhead", 1987), Gyozo Hatar ("Golgheloghi", 1989), and Mihaly Kornis ("Kozma", 1986).

Besides Magda Szabo, three literary cases captured attention internationally: Imre Kertesz, a Jew and Holocaust survivor whose work, ironically, was first appreciated in Germany, with his prose meditations "Sorstalansag/ Fateless" (1975), "A Kudarc/ Fiasco" (1988) and "Kaddis a Meg Nem Szuletetett Gyermekert/ Kaddish for a Child not Born" (1990), Peter Nadas with his post-modernist fiction "Emlekiratok Konyve/ Book of Memoirs" (1986), and Laszlo Krasznahorkai with the philosophical novels "Satantango" (1985) and "Az Ellen llas Melankoliaja/ The Melancholy Of Resistance" (1986) made into films by Bela Tarr.

As the Kadar regime stabilized and relaxed the censorship, Hungarian cinema quickly regained its footing. In 1958 the government created the Bela Balazs Studio to help the graduates from the Film Academy to make their first films, a program unique in the world. The studio became a gathering space for the avantgarde of the visual arts and of music, where students were encouraged to experiment new modes of filmmaking. In 1961 the first films of these graduates began to appear: Istvan Szabo, Sandor Sara, Istvan Gaal, Pal Gabor, Janos Rozsa, Judit Elek, etc. Their work was soon characterized by a historical spleen. Hungarian historical pessimism is perhaps unique in Europe, the sense of forever being a defeated nation, first enslaved by Austrians and then by Russians, speaking a language that belongs neither to the Slavic branch of the East nor to the Germanic, Anglosaxon and Latin branches of the West. This might explain the relatively low number of comedies.

Karoli Makk's Megszaplottak/ Fanatics (1961), photographed by Gyorgy Illes, about an engineer who comes out of his existential spleen when he finds a mission in life which basically consists in defying the bureaucrats, signaled a change in the political mood of the regime, a relaxation of censorship.

Zoltan Fabri was influential because he broke openly with the taboo that direction had to be subservient to the script. Fabri "rediscovered" montage and flashbacks, which had been de facto banned by socialist realism Ket Felido a Pokolban/ Two Halves in Hell (1961), set in a Nazi concentration camp, employs multiple flashbacks in which different characters tell a different version of the truth a` la Kurosawa's Rashomon, and was one of the first movies to deal with the damages caused by the collectivization and Rakosi's Stalinist policies. Az Otodik Pecset/ The Fifth Seal (1976), based on a novel by Ferenc Santa, stands as a philosophical meditation.

Miklos Jancso, who like most of these filmmakers, had spent many years making documentaries, was a much more adventurous filmmaker, influenced by Antonioni's cinema, by Brecht's theater, by the avantgarde and by the novels of Zsigmond Moricz. His films of the 1960s are drenched in atmospheres of gloom and alienation: Igy Sottem/ My Way Home (1964), his first collaboration with screenwriter Gyula Hernadi, set at the end of World War II; Szegenylegenyek/ The Round-up (1965), again written by Hernadi and set in the 19th century, and photographed by Tamas Somlo; Csillagosok Katonak/ The Red and the White (1967), set in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and designed as a grandiose and choral "revolutionary anthem" a` la Eisenstein; and Csend es Kialtas/ Silence and Cry (1968), starring Andras Kozak, set during the uprising of 1919, the first collaboration with cinematographer Janos Kende and again written by Gyula Hernadi. These films are characterized by a historical pessimism: history is just a monotonous sadomasochistic ritual that permeates the desperate lives of his characters. Jancso is the poet of the defeated, first identified individually and then considered in their totality as a sort of social class. With no more myths and heroes, Jancso's cinema becomes a chorus of laments. His landscapes are always huge spaces and his essential style sculpts every gesture in this flat universe of silences. Far from being linear message-oriented works, his films employ very long shots that are deliberately disorienting. He was the master of the unbroken tracking camera.

Next came an even more abstract filmmaker: Istvan Szabo. His first four films, notably Apa/ Father (1966), photographed by Sandor Sara, are partly autobiographical and star his alter-ego Andras Balint in roles that hint at Szabo's own odyssey. Both this film and the Alain Resnais-esque Szerelmesfilm/ Love Film (1970) merge the public historical past and the private individual past through high symbolic scenes. His most important film, Tuzolto Utca 25/ 25 Firemen St (1973), and perhaps the best film of Hungarian cinema yet, again photographed by Sandor Sara, further disposed with the temporal order and created a blend of voices in a plethora of formats (stream of consciousness, autobiography, dialogues, etc). This wildly surreal film, one of the most intricate flashbacks in the history of cinema, is one long delirious collective stream of consciousness that takes place on a hot summer night. Bizalom/ Confidence (1979), which began his collaboration with cinematographer Lajos Koltai, is a Bergman-esque domestic drama, wrapped in loneliness and fear, and set in a Kafka-esque environment. The German-language Mephisto (1981), the first collaboration with Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, was his meditation on the relationship between art and power. Hanussen (1988) is a historical drama set in World War II. starring again Brandauer and photographed by Lajos Koltai.

Peter Bacso faced the horrors of communism in the documentary-style Nyar a Hegyen/ Summer on the Hill (1967) and in the satirical and tragicomic A Tanu/ The Witness (1969), banned until 1981. He was the exception in that his movies of the 1970s were almost all comedies, often anti-bureaucratic satires like Forro' Vizet a Kopaszra/ The Agony of Mr Boroka (1972) and Ereszd el a Szakallamat/ Let go of my Beard (1974).

Other notable films of the 1960s include: Laszlo Ranody’s melancholy Pacsirta/ Drama of the Lark (1963); Andras Kovacs's moral drama Hideg Napok/ Cold Days (1966); Ferenc Kosa's family saga Tizezer Nap/ Ten Thousand Days (1967), co-scripted by Imre Gyongyossy and Sandor Csoori, and photographed by Sandor Sara; Imre Gyongyossi's historical drama Viragvasarnap/ Palm Sunday (1969); Felix and Judit Mariassy's Imposztorok/ Impostors (1969), a grotesque depiction of the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire; Judit Elek's Sziget a Szarazfoldon/ The Lady from Constantinople (1969); etc. Hungarian filmmakers, more than others, had a tendency to confront historical events of the past to draw parallels with contemporary society.

Marta Meszaros, another filmmaker who had spent the previous decade making documentaries, specialized in psychological portraits of lonely women in films such as Eltavozott Nap/ The Day Has Gone/ The Girl (1968), the first Hungarian film to be directed by a woman, and Orokbefogadas/ Adoption (1975).

Livia Gyarmaty became the second female director in the history of Hungarian cinema with Ismeri a Szandi-mandit?/ Do you Know the Sandi-mandi? (1969), scripted by her husband Geza Boszormenyi, a parade of sketches in a working-class setting.

These filmmakers were able to examine themes such as post-war alienation, the individual responsibility in collective tragedies, the importance of individual action for social reality (not fate but choice), the utopia of a humane socialism. Hungarian cinema of the 1960s shunned the fatalist overtones of Polish cinema as well as the generational issues of Czechoslovakia's cinema. At the same time, it was grounded on stronger theoretical foundations and, thanks to the Balasz school, also on stronger technical ones.

Hungary's school of animation matured via the Gusztav series of 1964-66, penned by Gyula Macskonsy, Attila Dargay and Jozsef Nepp, whose success led to feature-length animation movies like Marcell Jankovics' Janos Vitez/ John Corncob (1973), yet another adaptation of Petofi's poem, and Feherlofia/ Son of the White Mare (1981); Jozsef Gemes' Dalias Idok/ Heroic Times (1984), an adaptation of Janos Arany's poem "Toldi" (1846) which is one of Hungary's literary masterpieces, rendered in the style of oil painting; and Bela Ternovszky's Macskafogo/ Cat City (1986), written by Jozsef Nepp.

The political climate kept improving after 1968, when Kadar's communist regime enacted the Új Gazdasagi Mechanizmus (New Economic Mechanism) which liberalized the economy. Shops and restaurants multiplied rapidly. During the 1970s and 1980s Hungarian citizens enjoyed more freedom and a higher standard of living than most other Soviet Union satellites. It became easier for Hungarians to travel abroad and for Westerners to visit Hungary. Nonetheless communism deprived them of basic joys, and created an atmosphere of depression and apathy. In 1983 suicides in Hungary peaked at 5000 per year, possibly a world record.

Karoli Makk flirted with moral and political disaster in the kammerspiel Szerelem/ Love (1970), set in 1953 during the communist purges, starring Lili Darvas and photographed by Janos Toth, and Egymasra Nezve/ Another Way (1982), which combines political repression (it is set after the Soviet invasion of 1956) and sexual repression (it's a lesbian love story).

Peter Gothar depicted the absurdity of life under communism in the bleak Ajandek ez a Nap/ A Priceless Day (1979) and then indulged in a nostalgic fresco of teenager life in the 1960s with Megall az Ido/ Time Stands Still (1982), written by Geza Beremenyi and photographed by Lajos Koltai.

Notable films before the end of communism include: Istvan Gaal's elegant Magasiskola/ High School/ The Falcons (1970), adapted from Miklos Meszoly's novella; Gyula Maar's bitter drama Vegul/ At the End of the Road (1974); Imre Gyongyossi's Szarvassa Valt Fiuk/ Boys with Horns/ Boys Who Became Deer (1974), about a famous prison riot of 1944, became a case because of nudity, and Job Lazadasa/ The Revolt of Job (1983), a fairy tale of sorts that returns to Holocaust themes; Pal Sandor's political thriller Herkulesfurdoi Emlek/ Strange Masquerade (1976), scripted by Zsuzsa Toth and starring Endre Holman; Janos Rozsa's satirical comedy Pokfoci/ Spider Football (1976); Janos Domolky's satirical allegory A Kard avagy en Vagyok a Falu Rossza Egyedul/ The Sword or I am the Evil of the Village Alone (1977) Pal Gabor's Angi Vera (1978), a scathing portrait of a careerist woman and of the Stalinist era; Judit Elek’s distressing domestic drama Majd Holnap/ Maybe Tomorrow (1979); Laszlo Lugossy' realistic drama Koszonom Megragyung/ Thank you We're Fine (1981), written like most of his films by Istvan Kardos; Gyorgy Dobray's Verzerzodes/ Blood Clots (1982), written by Peter Horvath, about doomed juvenile delinquents; Miklos Szurdi's ferocious melodrama Hatasvadaszok (1982), in which the cast and the crew of a theater hide from a dying playwright that his play that has been banned and rehearse it during the day while secretly rehearsing at night the play that will actually premiere; Geza Beremenyi's historical meditation Atanitvanyok (1986); Peter Timar's comedy Egeszseges Erotika/ Sound Eroticism (1986), photographed by Sandor Kardos; Peter Bacso's Hany Az Ora Vekker Ur?/ What time is it Mr Vekker? (1985), the tragicomic adventure of a Jewish clockmaker during World War II; Laszlo Vitezy's historical epic Erzekeny Buczu a Fejedelemtol/ A Fond Farewell to the Prince (1986); Peter Gardos’s Szamarkohoges/ Whooping Cough (1986), released on the 30th anniversary of the bloody Soviet invasion, which views the event from the viewpoint of a child; and Gyula Gazdag’s black-and-white fairy tale Hoi Volt Hol Nem Volt/ Hungarian Fairy Tale (1987).

Judit Ember and Gyula Gazdag filmed the 100-minute, black-and-white "situational" documentary A Hatarozat/ The Decision (1973) about the conflict between some bureaucrats and some peasants, abstaining from influencing the dialogue in any way (the film was banned until 1993). That was the prelude to the "Documentarist" movement, which was born officially with Istvan Darday's Jutalomutazas/ The Prize Trip (1974), scripted by Gyorgyi Szalai, shot on location with non-professional actors who improvised the dialogues. Darday then made the four-hour Filmregeny - Harom Nover/ Three Sisters (1978), again scripted by Szalai, which follows three sisters over the course of two years. Darday also wrote Laszlo Vitezy's Voros Fold (1982), a fiction-documentary that attacked the bureaucrats.

Zoltan Huszarik made only two feature films: the stylish and surrealistic Szindbad/ Sinbad (1971), photographed by Sandor Sara, based on short-stories by Gyula Krudy that become a Fellini-esque journey into the past, and Crontvary (1980), both a biopic of a painter and a postmodernist reflection on cinema (the actor playing the painter is also himself a subject of the film). The commercial and critical failure of this film led Huszarik to kill himself in 1981.

Meanwhile, the Bela Balasz Studio had raised a generation interested in the linguistic aspect of filmmaking, under the influence of French theoretician Christian Metz and in general of French structuralism (which had a strong impact on the Hungarian humanities in general) and of semiotics. In 1972 the studio had launched a "Film Language Series" that sponsored the most radical experiments. They were also influenced by the revolution in classical music: John Cage's "aleatory" music and Schoenberg's "dodecaphonic" music. They were mostly graduates of the Szinhaz-es Filmmuveszeti Egyetem or SZFE (Academy of Theatre and Film), which in 1971 under Kalman Nadasdy had become a university, but also graduates in philosophy and multimedia artists. In 1973 Gabor Body founded the radical group K/3 at the Bela Balasz Studios, a Bauhaus-like center of research in semiotics and documentary filmmaking. This was the milieu of pioneering multimedia artists like Miklos Erdely, whose house hosted a salon of avantgarde artists, and who wrote the influential essays "Ido Mobiusz/ Time Moebius" (1974) and "Marly Tezisek/ The Marly Theses" (1980), Dora Maurer, Janos Toth and Agnes Hay (the partner of dissident Gyorgy Krasso, jailed for six years after the 1956 revolution); of composers like Zoltan Jeney and Laszlo Vidovszky, of painters like Akos Birkas; of pioneering conceptual artists like Endre Tot and Tamas Szentjoby. Many shorts were produced by these artists: Agnes Hay’s Gyurma/ Plasticine (1972) and Uldozes/ Persecution (1973), Tamas Szentjoby's Kentaur/ Centaur (1973), Dora Maurer’s Relativ Lengesek/ Relative Vibrations (1973) and Timing (1973), Janos Toth’s Study I (1974) and Study II (1975), Tibor Hajas' Ondivatbemutato/ Self Fashion Show (1976), Miklos Erdely’s Alommasolatok/ Dream Reconstruction (1977), etc.

Gabor Body was a key figure of this avantgarde movement. Amerikai Anzix/ American Postcard/ American Torso (1975), a collaboration with Peter Timar, mixed a costume drama, a text by Karl Marx, poems by Walt Whitman and a short story by Ambrose Bierce, and all in a visually stimulating manner and with an allegorical plot in which each character represents an aspect of human civilization. His four-hour film-essay Narcisz es Psyche/ Narcissus and Psyche (1980) , photographed by Istvan Hildebrand with music by Laszlo Vidovszky, starring Spanish actress Patricia Adriani and German actor Udo Kier, based on a verse drama by Sandor Weores which transferred the Greek legend into Victorian-era Europe and spans over a century but with the characters not aging at all, notably the beautiful and libidinous young woman, raised by nuns, and her platonic lover, the syphilis-ridden Narcizs. The film is an allegorical representation of the evolution/involution of European bourgeoisie and aristocracy, of the moral vacuum of communist Hungary. And it is, first and foremost, a visual and semiotic tour de force. Gabor died in 1985 at the age of 39.

Gyorgy Szomjas created a new cinematic language with two films modeled after Sergio Leone's "spaghetti-western": Talpunk Alatt Futyul a Szel/ The Wind Whistles under their Feet (1976) and Rosszemberek/ Bad People (1979), both set in a "wild east" of the 19th century.

Zoltan Fabri's latter philosophical films, Magyarok/ Hungarians (1978) and Fabian Balint Talalkozasa Istennel/ Balint Fabian Meets God (1980), were emblematic of Hungarian existential and historical pessimism.

Andras Jeles too experimented with cinematic language in A Kis Valentino/ The Little Valentino (1979), in which Sandor Kardos' cinematography follows the aimless wandering of a juvenile delinquent in the style of cinema-verite, and in a weird adaptation of Imre Madach’s "Az Ember Tragediaja/ The Tragedy of Man" (1861), one of Hungary's greatest poems, Angyali Udvozlet/ Annunciation (1984), played only by children.

Pal Erdoss (not related to the mathematician) directed harrowing tragedies written by Istvan Kardos, filmed documentary-style in black and white: Adj Kiraly Katonat/ Give me a King Soldier/ The Princess (1982), about a teenage girl from the countryside who moves to the city to work in a factory and witnesses the depravation and violence of city life, and its follow-up Visszaszamlalas/ Countdown (1985).

Marta Meszaros continued her feminist cinema with the "Diary" series of autobiographical stories, all of them photographed by her stepson Nyika Jancso, starring Zsuzsa Czinkoczi as her alter-ego: Naplo Gyermekeimnek/ Diary For My Children (1984), set in the Stalin era, Naplo Szerelmeimnek/ Diary for My Lovers (1987), in which she becomes a filmmaker, and Naplo Apamnak Anvamnak/ Diary for My Father and Mother (1990), set in the fateful 1956 of the failed revolution. The diaries were also rich in political commentary, that was unusual under communism, but presaged the fall of communism.

Bela Tarr soon established himself as the greatest Hungarian director yet. Panelkapcsolat/ Prefab People (1982), the first of his films to use professional actors, closed a quasi-documentarian trilogy devoted to commemorate the terrible conditions of life under communism. The claustrophobic chamber film Oszi Almanach/ Autumn Almanac (1984), shot entirely indoors, marked the transition of Tarr's cinema from the sociological sphere to the existential sphere (and from the fictional documentary to fully narrative cinema), and began his descent into an infernal circle of lugubrious pessimism. Karhozat/ Damnation (1988) began the trilogy of adaptations of Laszlo Krasznahorkai novels set in a quasi-apocalyptic world in which people move like zombies, crushed under the weight of an endless agony. Actors speak like robots, long sentences with no emotion. Images and sounds reinvent cinematic language as an hypnotic and hallucinatory experience. Superficially, a typical film noir, the story is drenched Dostoevsky-ian nihilism, Sartre-esque boredom, Beckett-ian absurd, and Hamletic philosophizing. It also began Tarr's collaborations with soundtrack composer Mihaly Vig and with cinematographer Gabor Medvigy.

Sandor Sara coldly documented the humiliating defeat of the Hungarian army during World War II in the eight-hour documentary Pergotuz/ Drumfire (1982), derived from a 25-episode TV movie, Kronika/ Chronicle (1982), of interviews with survivors and witnesses. His documentaries explored topics that were suppressed under communism, such as the expulsion of the Hungarian minority (the Szekelys) from Romania in Sir az ut Elottem/ The Road before Me Weeps (1987), and the deportation of Hungarian men to Soviet labor camps in Csonka-Bereg/ Mutilated Bereg (1988). He contributed to the fall of communism by investigating events that had been removed from the historical record and presenting the cruelty of communism via archival footage.

Livia Gyarmaty and her husband Geza Boszormenyi crafted the historical documentary Recsk 1950-1953 (1988) about a Hungarian gulag (in which Boszormenyi had been truly internet during those years), another work that contributed to the downfall of communism.


In August 1989 Hungarian politician Ferenc Meszaros of the Magyar Demokrata Forum in collaboration with Otto von Habsburg, the heir to the Habsburg dynasty of the old Austria-Hungary and president since 1973 of the Austrian-based Paneuropean Union, organized the Paneuropai Piknik (Pan-European Picnic), a peace rally on the Austrian-Hungarian border. That event, during which Hungarians could freely cross into Austria, marked the beginning of a peaceful revolution in communist Eastern Europe. A few weeks later demonstrators stormed the Berlin Wall, then communism fell throughout Eastern Europe, then the Soviet Union itself collapsed. Hungary became a Western-style democracy led by prime minister Jozsef Antall of the conservative Magyar Demokrata Forum. In 1994 a former communist, Gyula Horn, led the Magyar Szocialista Part (Hungarian Socialist Party) to victory and became prime minister. In 1998 the conservatives returned to power but the Magyar Demokrata Forum needed to form a coalition with the Fidesz party, and the young leader of this party, Viktor Orban, was prime minister for a couple of years. He was the first prime minister born after World War II. In 1999 Hungary joined NATO and in 2004, under the socialist government that succeeded Orban's, it joined the European Union. Great novels of the era include: Adam Bodor's "Sinistra Korzet/ Valley Sinistra" (1992), Kornel Hamvai's "Marton Partjelzo Fazik" (1995), Peter Esterhazy's "Egy No/ She Loves me" (1996), Pal Zavada's "Jadviga Parnaja/ Jadviga's Pillow" (1997), and Gyorgy Dragoman's "A Feher Kiraly/ The White King" (2005). Janos Terey was important as both a poet and a playwright.

This new era of cinema opened with female director Ildiko Enyendi's comedy Az En XX Szazadom/ My Twentieth Century (1989) and Istvan Szabo's Edes Emma Draga Bobe - Vazlatok Aktok/ Sweet Emma Dear Bobe - Sketches Nudes (1992), a powerful drama of an innocent who is corrupted by the world.

Bela Tarr concocted some of the world's greatest films of the decade in his unique excruciatingly slow style, starting with Satantango/ Satan's Tango (1994), another Krasznahorkai adaptation and another magisterial Mihaly Vig soundtrack, a seven-hour tour de force with excruciatingly slow gliding takes, photographed in rich black-and-white by Gabor Medvigy, set in an isolated, impoverished and sometimes brutish community, one of those multi-layered allegories that can take forever to unravel. All of this is related via a cinematic style that turns both the natural and the urban environments into metaphysical melancholy spaces, almost as if Tarr was hinting at a fifth dimension beyond time, or as if he wanted us to experience time after death. Even more graceful was the next adaptation, Werckmeister Harmoniak/ Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), based on Krasznahorkai's novel "The Melancholy of Resistance" (1986), the peak of his hypnotic, expressionistic, hyper-realistic and allegoric cinema. In both films events are wrapped in mystery, and the claustrophobia of his early documentary fiction is recast onto a wider canvas. On the other hand, virtually nothing happens in A Torinoi Lo/ The Turin Horse (2011) is a bare meditation that explores the inner apocalypse.

In the new century Gyorgy Palfi emerged as one of Hungary's greatest takents ever with the post-modernist murder mystery Hukkle/ Hiccups (2002) which, having no dialogue, looks like an ethnographic and nature documentary, when in reality it hides a harrowing story of mass murder. Palfi indulges in microscopic close-up shots of nature and of objects, thanks to Gergely Poharnok's cinematography. Taxidermia (2006), which inaugurated his collaboration with screenwriter Zsofia Ruttkay, is a generational saga of sorts, with sarcastic and grotesque overtones and absolutely no happy ending: there are three endings, one for each generation, and each is a macabre death. Equally original in plot and visuals were: Final Cut - Holgyeim es Uraim / Final Cut - Ladies and Gentlemen (2012), a collage of clips "stolen" from old movies organized to create a plot like a regular film (a` la Carl Rainer's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid); Szabadeses/ Free Fall (2014), the most disjointed of his films; the sci-fi movie, Az Úr Hangja/ His Master's Voice (2018), based on Stanislaw Lem's 1968 novel; and the post-apocalyptic Mindorokke'/ Perpetuity (2021), his first film without Poharnok.

Born in Los Angeles, Nimrod Antal wrote and directed the Hungarian-language film Kontroll (2003), a labyrinth of plots.


The world had forgotten Hungary's fascination with fascism of the 1930s. It resurfaced in 2010 when the right-wing Fidesz party (whose name stands for Federation of Young Democrats and Hungarian Civic Party) won elections and the nationalist Viktor Orban became prime minister, starting reforms to centralize power, muzzle the media and curb dissent, turning Hungary in the most illiberal state of the European Union.

Laszlo Nemes crafted the psychological drama Saul Fia/ Son of Saul (2015), a harrowing story set in a concentration camp, by shooting most scenes in long takes and in distorted close-ups that leave the background action out of focus. His enigmatic Napszallta/ Sunset (2018), set at the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire just before World War I, is another exercise in long shots, complemented by Matyas Erdely’s cinematography and Laszlo Melis’ dissonant music.

Kornel Mundruczo made Feher Isten/ White God (2014), an allegorical fairy tale that turns into horror movie, and the visceral emotional drama Pieces of a Woman (2020), scripted by Kata Weber, his first English-language film.

Other notable films of the Orban era are: Ildiko Enyendi's Testrol es Lelekrol/ On Body and Soul (2017), adapted from Milan Fust's novel; Lili Horvat's Felkeszules Meghatarozatlan Ideig Tarto Egyuttletre/ Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (2020); Denes Nagy's Termeszetes Feny/ Natural Light (2021); etc.

The blockbusters of the new century included: Eva Gardos' biopic Amerikai Rapszodia/ An American Rhapsody (2001), starring a 15-year-old Scarlett Johansson; Nimrod Antal's Kontroll (2003); Karoly Ujj Meszaros' Liza a Rokatunder/ Liza the Fox-Fairy (2015), an adaptation of Zsolt Pozsgai's play "Liselotte es a Majus" (2002); Gabor Herendi's period melodrama Kincsem/ Bet on Revenge (2017); Slovenia-born Milorad Kristic's animated Ruben Brandt a Gyujto/ Ruben Brandt Collector (2018); etc.

The 2010s were largely dominated by Orban's semi-dictatorship, but cracks emerged in the 2020s. A series of scandals (president Katalin Novak and justice minister Judit Varga had to resign after they protected a pervert guilty of a series of child sexual abuses) and an economic crisis weakened Orban, who was also increasingly isolated in Europe after he refused to fully condemn Putin's Russia when Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine. The rest of Europe looked down on Hungary, viewed as the weakest link in the Western NATO-based order. In 2024 Orban's former ally Peter Magyar joined Tisztelet es Szabadsag Part (Respect and Freedom Party) or TISZA, founded in 2021, and quickly turned it into Hungary’s strongest opposition party.

Copyright © 2024 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use
See also the Best Hungarian Films of All Time