Istvan Szabo

(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
Best films:
25 Firemen St (1973)
Mephisto (1981)
Sweet Emma Dear Bobe (1992)
Confidence (1979)
Hanussen (1988)
Father (1966)
Redi Ezredes/ Colonel Redl (1984)
Sunshine (1999)

If English is your first language and you could translate the Italian text, please contact me.
Attivo fin dai tempi del liceo, Istvan Szabo esordisce nel lungometraggio con opere liriche caustiche [Almodozdsok Kora/ Age of Daydreaming (1964) primo film d'autore: i sogni e gli entusiasmi di un gruppo di ragazzi si schiantano contro una realtà meschina], soprattutto il secondo, Apa/ Father (1966), parabola del culto della personalità: un ragazzo, che ha sempre conservato un ricordo eroico del padre, eletto a protagonista della lotta contro il nazismo, scopre che anch'egli non fu altro che un povero diavolo. Il film è un incrocio fra la rievocazione lirica alla Resnais e la critica allegorica dello stalinismo.

Szerelmesfilm/ Love Film (1970), his first color film, revisits both the historical Hungarian past and the private individual past, pointing at both sociology of a nation and psychoanalysis of childhood myths as complementary tools to reach the truth. The first half jumps back and forth in time, mostly a stream of memories a` la Alain Resnais, and is more evocative than narrative. The second half is more linear, almost entirely played in France in the present (and a lot less interesting than the first half).

Jansci talks to the camera, explaining that he is on his way to meet a girl he hasn't seen in ten years. Jansci and Kata grew up together during the war. Actually, this Kata was a really annoying little girl, who one day told him that his father had died and then kept making fun of him, to the point that he has recurring dreams of her on a swing chanting that his father has died. He left his girlfriend, who came to the train station to wish him a good trip and ran along the railway waving goodbye. On the train memories come flowing back. When his father was arrested as a deserter, Kata's family took him in, but the little girl threatened to tell everybody about Jansci's father if Jansci didn't give her his knapsack. He remembers the carefree happiness their childhood while the fascists were spreading terror in the streets and the planes were dropping bombs on the city. Now he is sitting in a comfortable train, showing his documents to polite conductors and immigration officers. He remembers when Kata, now a young woman living under communist rule, phoned him to tell him that she was going to flee Hungary and that she regretted that he had decided to stay. He remembers that during the war, as children, they had attempted to dig a tunnel all the way to America after learning at school that the Earth is round. The classes were taught in somebody's living room because the school had been bombed. He remembers the street car that they took every day as children, and where, as young adults, they kissed while it was snowing outside. He remembers that, as teenagers, already under communism, they were judged by a commission of the other teenagers emulating adult communists and convicted because they had been seen holding hands and she steadfastedly admitted that she loved Jansci more than anybody else. He remembers when they caused the entire neighborhood to lose power while trying to electrocute a fish before dissecting it at a time when their dream was to become doctors. They played in the snow both as children and then as young lovers. They were briefly separated by communism. When they met again, their hands searched each other while they were walking, trying to return to the spontaneity of when they were children and always holding hands, but she, still a virgin, got scared when he tried to kiss her. Finally they became lovers but just then the Soviet Union invaded Hungary to abort the 1956 revolution. We see again a scene in which he is stopped a patrol while riding his bike, and this time we see the scene continue until he meets with Kata. She still doesn't want to have sex. There is shooting in the street. Back then they remembered the woman who had been taken away and shot by the Germans, Bozsi, a vivid memory for both of them. We see again Kata phoning Jansci that she is leaving the country. On the train he imagines how it will be when he meets her in France. Her letters started coming soon afterwards. She studied fashion design, she found a job. The letters got shorter and shorter. He had another girlfriend. Jansci realizes that the train has reached the station and gets off. Kata is not there: she had a meeting and sent a friend to pick him up. Finally she shows up at her apartment and they make love. She has the same memory that he has of them in wintertime. They go over some of the memories that we've already seen but they argue because they remember different details. They meet with other Hungarian exiles. One woman survived the mass shooting carried out by Germans in which Bozsi was also killed, but her recollection differ from theirs. She tells them of how she saved herself by swimming down the river and then walking to the border. Kata doesn't want Jansci to leave. He proposes to her. She accepts. But then they realize that they both have a past: she had two lovers, and one was her friend's husband. They take a beach vacation. She curses her childhood that made her fall in love so much with him that she can't love anyone else. One of their best childhood friends come to visit them. He is now a US soldier stationed in Germany, and they look down on him for living in the country that oppressed and massacred their people. Jansci asks Kata to go back to Hungary with him. She guesses that he has a girl in Hungary. In any case she has her job and is not willing to sacrifice it for him. Jansci even realizes that the kiss in the streetcar in the snow (one of his dearest memories) was just a dream. He decides to go back home. All he sees of Paris (they kept talking about spending a romantic weekend there) are a few minutes while waiting for the train to depart. Later Jansci married his girlfriend Jutka, and Kata married an Englishman. In a post office people of all ages and sexes are writing letters to their friends and relatives who left the country; their voices become a cacophony; and Jansci's is only one of them. Kata and her husband visit Jansci and his wife.

Tuzolto Utca 25/ 25 Firemen St (1973) disposed with the temporal order and created a blend of voices in a plethora of formats (stream of consciousness, autobiography, dialogues, etc). A hot night keeps the neighbors of an old building awake and they start remembering and meditating. The wildly surreal film, one of the most intricate flashbacks in the history of cinema, photographed by cinematographer Sandor Sara, is one long delirious collective stream of consciousness that takes place on a hot summer night, introduced by the explosion to demolish a residential building. The film is the story of the families that lived in that building, told by the survivors in random order. There is additional time distortion as scenes and dialogues mix past, present and future (the characters tell us what will happen to other characters).

There's a middle-aged woman having sex with a boy, a girl who swims in her living room while asleep, a young woman who loves a young man who doesn't talk to her and watches as a gorgeous woman sleeps naked, and especially Maria, a middle-aged woman who can't fall asleep even if she's so tired. Maria remembers the two men of her life, first viewed as two faces in one. French soldierslooking for "reds" A Mitteleuropean intermezzo replete with neoclassical ballet and rococo decor shows the young Maria and her suitors: a Russian anarchist and a nice doctor. She can read their tragic future. After the cryptic scene of an old man taking care of lots of children in a cramped room, we shift to winter, with a carpenter working in the street. And then back to Maria's wedding banquet, while a man in the streets sells gas masks and soldiers parading comically in the streets. Every now and then someone leaves for Australia or Canada. A granma dies and her body is taken away by a queen's carriage. Everybody packs their belongings in suitcases and assembles in the street, but a girl commits suicide by jumping from the balcony. The persecution of the Jews by the fascist regime has begun: Maria's family is given just a few hours to pack and join the other Jewish families. The Jews are stripped naked, disinfected and imprisoned. A woman, the owner of a bakery, risks her life to shelter deserters (and after the war her beneficiaries will testify to it), surviving several police raids. The Russians are approaching. Partisans and fascists fight. Maria's first husband dies of heart failure surrounded by nuns. An old man with two girls repairs clocks. The war is finally over. Now everyody is trying to prove that they were antifascists and asks the woman who sheltered escapees to testify for them. The Jewish family returns. The cmmunist nationalize the bakery of woman who sheltered antifascists during the war, but then the very communist woman who nationalized her bakery comes asking her to hide in the attic, evidently persecuted by the communists herself. Now it's the nobility and the higher middle-class that has to fear the new regime. There's Maria's second wedding banquet. Another cryptic scene with objects in free fall on a courtyard. There is poverty againa: rich families have to sell what they have to ragmen. The old clock-repair man is starving and even eats plastic. All the characters line up outside and watch their building (like the actors at the end of a theatrical play).

Budapest Mesek/ Budapest Tales (1976) is an allegorical story set in a dilapidated tram full of refugees that slowly advances.

Bizalom/ Confidence (1979) is an psychological drama set in a surreal landscape in which the other people in the streets don't speak: they either stand in endless lines (waiting to get some food) or walk briskly away. The film attains a marriage of Bergman and Kafka: a Bergman-style domestic drama set in a Kafka-style human landscape. The apparent slim plot is wrapped in a tangle of loneliness and fear. The woman falls in love with two men and at the end she herself is not sure whom she truly loves.

A woman is watching newsreels in a movie theater during the war and the German occupation. When she walks outside in a deserted street, a man approaches her and tells her that she cannot go home. He tells her that he belongs to the "movement" like her husband, and that her husband is in trouble. She follows the stranger to a hospital where she is given a new identity. She has to memorize her new name Katalin, and her daughter's name. Then she is delivered to her new husband, Janos, who is also a member of the resistance in hiding. They pretend to be husband and wife in front of the old lady who takes them him as refugees, and they pretend that their child is at the hospital. Katalin almost goes crazy with the terror of what may have happened to her real husband and her real child. Janos makes things worse by not trusting her: he subjects her to cruel psychological tests to make sure that she will not betray him. If she makes a mistake, he is dead too. She keeps begging for news about her husband and finally one day Janos delivers to her a note handwritten by her husband that says he is ok and he misses her too. One day as she is sitting alone in a upper-scale care, Katalin is approached by a blonde who claims to know her well and calls her a coward for not being willing to hide her. But Katalin truly doesn't remember her and cannot trust her. Janos begins to feel sorry for her situation, a woman who has been separated from her family and is surrounded by suspicion and fear. And one night, out of the blue, she offers herself to him, and he takes her passionately. The following day she seems amused that she now has a lover. They can only see one person, their contact with the resistance: a lieutenant named Pali, an old acquaintance of his who tells her that Janos used to be a womanizer. Every step they take outside the house they have to be paranoid because anybody could be a spy. A German soldier stops Janos: they used to know each other. The German soldier is eager to chat with somebody. He seems to be honestly lonely and unhappy. Back home she find the landlady in her room and the landlady tells her that a young man looked for her. Janos explains why he is afraid of everybody: he had a girlfriend in Germany who seems to love him a lot and she betrayed him with the police. Now Katalin seems to have a new mission: to restore his trust in humanity. She is the one who wants to have sex with him. She admits to him that she is in love. They start dreaming of a future together. Unseen by her, he reads a letter from his wife Judit, in which his wife sends him her tender love and tells him of how much she misses him. He walks outside and calls his real wife: he quickly tells her that he misses her too. Pali brings a gramophone while Janos is away, and dances with Katalin. When Janos arrives, Pali tells him that Katalin has been called to a secret appointment and that the situation is tense because the resistance staged a new sabotage attack. Katalin walks through deserted streets to a building that looks empty, knocks at a door and... her real husband Tamas opens. It is only a temporary apartment. She complains that he never told her anything about his revolutionary activities, treated her like a child. They make love. Then she has to return to her fake husband. When he disappears for one night, she gets angry and makes a furious scene. They make love. She tells him that she wants a child from him. Suddenly, the bombing begins. Pali comes to report that anarchy is spredaing in the streets, with widespread looting and killing. Instead of giving them hope, the events create tension. One day he simply tells her that he has to leave. The war ends with the victory of the revolutionaries, but Janos has disappeared and her identification papers are gone. At the government office they interrogate her about the mysterious Janos who was supposed to be a revolutionary but is unknown to them (Janos was not his real name). She returns home to find her real husband Tamas and hugs him crying. Unbeknownst to her, Janos is looking for her outside the government office that she has just left: he must have been told of a woman looking for a revolutionary named Janos.

Mephisto (1981) stages the relationship between art and power.

In the 1930s Dora is the star of an opera. She gets a standing ovation. In a room backstage Hendrik (Klaus-Maria Brandauer) is devoured by jealousy. He is only a provincial actor. His black dance teacher, Juliette, is also his lover: they make love like children who fight for play. Juliette is the only one who knows his real name, Heinz. Hendrik's partner in the play that he is performing is Nicoletta. Hendrik falls in love with her best friend, Barbara, who comes from a wealthy aristocratic family. Hendrik steers his company towards Marxist theater. He provokes Miklas, a minor actor who is a nazi, and then tries to have him fired. His career takes off when Dora introduces him to a famous producer. He becomes famous for his communist ideals as well as for his acting, dancing and singing skills. At the peak of his career he plays Mephisto, the devil who offers Dr Faust a pact. That night Dora announces that she is leaving for the USA, before it is too late. Hendrik, whose career is soaring, lives in denial of what is happening (Hitler's rise to power). His wife Barbara decides to leave too and settles in Paris. Hendrik goes to Hungary to make a film. He has the chance to go in exile, but he knows that his career would never be the same abrod. So he goes back to Germany. Lotte, an actress who is the lover of a powerful nazist, restores his reputation. He has a chance to play Mephisto again. He has to work with Miklas, his old nemesis. He has to pay homage to Lotte's lover, the prime minister, who becomes an admirer of his. He even poses as a model for a female sculptor who is imbued with nazist fervor. Juliette is again his lover, but Juliette, unlike him, cannot change her situation: she is a black living in a racist society. Hendrik becomes a celebrity, Germany's most respected actor. When Miklas (the original nazist) leads a protest, Hendrik (the original proletariat) is the one who doesn't want to hear about it. Hendrik has sold his soul to the devil (nazism) in return for fame and glory. Miklas is summarily executed. Hendrik's staunch loyalty to the nazists gains him a promotion to director of the opera theater. However, the nazists have found out about his relationship with a black woman. Hendrik begs that they let her leave the country unharmed. As the director of the theater, Hendrik has to accept further compromises, such as firing old friends and Jewish workers. He visits Juliette in Vienna, the only woman to whom he confesses, and then Barbara in Paris, to whom she says he's married to the theater. As he walks around Paris, he meditates what job he could have in such a country (certainly not director of the national theater).
Back in Germany, Hendrik divorces and marries Barbara's best friend Nicoletta, an actress who, like him, has remained in Germany. When his old friend Otto disappears, he begs the prime minister, but he is treated like a slave. Lotte later tells him that Otto "committed suicide". Hendrik goes on to stage Hamlet, another wild success. The prime minister congratulates him and invites him to see his brand new stadium, and asks him to run to the middle. Hendrik is blinded by the lights and wonders what else they want from an actor.

Redi Ezredes/ Colonel Redl (1984) is a period drama set in the 18th century's "Mitteleuropa" about the rise and fall of a sneaky and ambitious officer all the way to his suicide.

Hanussen (1988) is another historical drama set in World War II.

Edes Emma Draga Bobe - Vazlatok Aktok/ Sweet Emma Dear Bobe - Sketches Nudes (1992) is a powerful drama of an innocent who, surrounded by corruption, is losing faith in her own values.

The pro-Russian communist regime has collapsed and life is rapidly being westernized in Hungary. Emma has a nightmare of rolling down a ravine. She wakes up. There is noise of a tram and of an airplane. She shares a room in a hostel with another girl, Bobe. Both are teachers at a nearby high school. That day Emma witnesses the children burning the books in the Russian language, that are no longer required learning. She is distracted by the headmaster, a middle-aged man with whom she is having a relationship. He treats her coldly in public but she loves him madly. That night she goes to bed alone dreaming of walking in the woods with the man. Instead she hears her housemate making love with a man. The Russian teachers Emma and Bobe are no longer needed and they are sent to study English in the evening. She brings a birthday present to the headmaster, who invites her to spend the weekend with him in the countryside, but at the same time is concerned about their future. On the tram the teachers have to listen to the rough vulgar language of a group of punks, while the older generation sits silent, well-dressed and polite. On the way home she is attacked by a pervert who holds a knife at her but she manages to run away. At the police station she is interrogated and humiliated by a young cop who obviously had no interest in prosecuting the case. Emma, being a teacher of the Russian language, is humiliated by the other teachers. She is now teaching English to her class. The headmaster cancels their date because he has important meetings but hands her the keys to spend the weekend at the dacha with her housemate. In the wonderful cottage they see traces of the man's married life. They play like children inside and outside. A small airplane flies over them. At night, however, her friend tells her that she knows. She knows because the headmaster hit on her too, and told her about Emma wanting him. Her friend scolds Emma for being so gullible and romantic. Bobe is, instead, a cynical girl but they both have the same problem: try are desperate to find the right man. At first Emma yells at Bobe that she's a whore, but then they make peace and smile again. When the two girls are appraoched at a cafe by two German tourists, Bobe is ready to do anything with them but Emma runs away. She keeps having the nightmare of rolling down a ravine. Bobe reads an ad in the newspaper: a filmmaker is looking for extras. They have to undress for a bathing scene and dance. Bobe, Emma and some other friends decide to go. Emma is the only one who refuses to undress. The others want the money. She finally confronts the headmaster. He tells her that he can lose his job any time because he belongs to the old regime and the last thing he needs is a sex scandal. Rejected, she walks away but first leaves a flower on his car's windshield. He can't resist and lets her in. Emma cleans his parents' home and then visits her granma at the hospital. The old woman asks Emma to go and pray for her at the church. Emma walks to the church but, instead, prays for herself and her impossible love. Looking for Bobe around the hostel, Emma ends up in a party and meets a young male teacher, Szilard. They dance and hug tenderly. He takes her to his room. They have sex silently while his housemate wait outside till midnight. Returning to her room, Emma finds the police. They have arrested Bobe, her roommate for seven years, for prostitution and drugs. She is shocked to find out what, unconsciously, she has always suspected. The captain who interrogates her sounds more like a psychiatrist and a philosopher, intruding in her private life and private thoughts. When she returns to school, the headmaster asks her if she's a whore too, and she leaves crying. Then in class she loses her temper when the children make a dirty joke and physically assaults one. Two months later Bobe returns. Emma has been assigned a new housemate. Bobe picks up her stuff, takes a shower without taking off her dress and then kills herself jumping from the window. An airplane takes off just like in the first scene. Emma runs downstairs and hugs the dying friend. Emma ends up selling newspapers in the underground.

Sunshine (1999) is a period drama that follows three generations of a Jewish family.

Szembesites/ Taking Sides (2001) is based on the controversial life of Berlin's classical music conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler.

Being Julia (2004) is an adaptation of Somerset Maugham's 1937 novel "Theater".

Relatives (2006) is another allegorical political drama.

Az Ajto/ The Door (2012) is an adaptation of Magda Szabo's novel "Az Ajto/ The Door" (1987).

The fundamental theme of his films remained memory, but at the individual level and at the collective level.

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(Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )