Retrospective of István Szabó’s films

Steeped in history: The works of Hungarian film-maker István Szabó

Print edition : December 17, 2021

Istvan Szabo . “In-betweenness” in geographical, cultural and personal terms was a constant phenomenon for Szabo. Photo: by special arrangement

A still from the film ‘Final Report’.

A retrospective of the Hungarian director István Szabó’s films reflects the awareness of the life of a generation that has been constantly exposed to challenges.

“Have you ever eaten snow because you were thirsty?”

“No, but my father ate snow in Auschwitz.”

“And my father ate snow at the Don river.”

THIS is a seemingly playful dialogue between Éva and Jancsi, a young lawyer and an engineer about eating snow when they were thirsty. Éva and Jancsi are the main characters in The Age of Daydreaming, the Hungarian film director István Szabó’s first film, which he made in 1964 at the age of 26. It is a generational film that confronts the viewer with the two main traumas of Hungary in the 20th century; the Auschwitz concentration camp that had about five hundred thousand Hungarian victims and the bank of the Don river in Russia where more than hundred and fifty thousand soldiers of the Hungarian army perished in the winter of 1942-43 at the time of the Red Army offensive.

The India International Centre, the Hungarian Visiting Lecturer Network and the Liszt-Hungarian Cultural Institute paid tributes to Szabó by holding a retrospective of four of his films in New Delhi from November 8 to 15. The films screened were Budapest Tales (1977), Father (1966), Hanussen (1988) and Colonel Redl (1985), two of Szabó’s early films and two from his later period. Szabó (along with Martin Scorsese) was awarded the Satyajit Ray Lifetime Achievement Award at the opening ceremony of the 52nd edition of the International Film Festival of India in Goa on November 22.

The Age of Daydreaming was one of the films that Dr Balázs Varga, professor of the Film Studies Department of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, presented on the second day of screening. Apart from the scheduled films, Balázs screened excerpts of Szabó’s full-length films and a number of short films and documentaries, which had never been screened earlier in India.

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Each of the four films is deeply embedded in Hungarian and East-Central European history of the “short” (1914-89) and “long” (1870-2000) 20th century and they reflect the awareness of the life of a generation that has been constantly exposed to challenges. As Balázs pointed out, for Szabó, like for Hungary, “in-betweenness” in geographical, cultural and personal terms was a constant phenomenon.

Szabó was born in 1938 in a middle-class assimilated Jewish family, which, like the Sonnenshein family in Sunshine (1999), left behind its family name and faith sometime before the First World War, but nevertheless was exposed to the deteriorating legal and existential situation, although at first the Szabó family did not feel endangered by the anti-Jew laws. Szabo’s father and grandfather were well-known professionals, doctors. Medicine was a professional path Szabó would have taken had he not become a film director. “I think my childhood was beautiful. Certainly the first five years were wonderful,” he said in an interview to József Marx.

Love for Budapest

Budapest Tales and Father centre around the community in a local context in Budapest, while Hanussen and Colonel Redl, very much like Mephisto (1981), the first film of the trilogy, focus on the rise and fall, the fate of an individual on a wider scale in Austria, Hungary and Germany.

Budapest Tales begins with archaic documentary pictures of ruined Budapest where the tram becomes home to people who join alone or in twos with their bundles, clocks, bed sheets and pictures, inviting and welcoming one another: mothers with pregnant daughters and couples, with the man paralysed, all without names, but all individuals with powerful characteristics. The tram becomes home to all and it moves on towards the river, to the depot and to the other side of the river the Danube because journey and progression are important for the community. The camerawork focusses on the character delivering his part rests on the importance of situations. The stories need to be imagined in the plural even if each person is a distinct individual.

Father deals with the growth and vulnerability of a fatherless generation, of those who, like Szabó, lost their father during the War. Takó keeps daydreaming about his father until he becomes an adult and he can only act when he imagines his father in a similar situation performing heroic or romantic deeds. While Father and Budapest Tales along with Szabó’s diploma film Koncert, 25 Fireman Street and The Age of Daydreaming show his intimacy and love for Budapest’s houses, streets and bridges, the trilogy—Mephisto, Hanussen and Colonel Redl—deal with a non-average outstanding individual.

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Resolutions of conflicts and dilemmas were based on compromises and indecision not only at a personal individual level, but also at the level of government and state politics in Hungary. This was how Hungary, first hesitant about its alliance with Hitler’s Germany, drifted into the War in exchange for getting back the territories it lost in the Versailles Treaty after the First World War.

In Hanussen, Klaus Schneider, a soldier in the First World War, on the verge of passing away, prevents a crippled, angry soldier from blowing up the ward by hypnotising him. Later, Schneider is renamed Hanussen and becomes a powerful clairvoyant predicting the Nazi takeover of Germany at the 1933 election and forecasting their violence.

Colonel Redl, the titular character of the film, is a similarly powerful personality; the son of a Ruthenian railway clerk who becomes the number one security person of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy before the First World War. As the Archduke Franz Ferdinand looks for a scapegoat in a show trial with a plan to “wake up” the monarchy from its complacence, Redl is targeted because of his ethnicity and his homosexual interests. Redl obliges the Archduke out of loyalty to the ruling house and commits suicide.

Each piece of the trilogy released in the 1980s presents the fragility of the individual in historical crises.

The ability to enter into pacts with proto-fascist or pre-fascist forces even when originally the person stood in opposition is relevant today.

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