International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 39, November 2004







Peter Ruppert


Hungarian Rhapsody:

On Cunningham's _Hungarian Cinema_



John Cunningham

_Hungarian Cinema: From Coffee House to Multiplex_

London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2004

ISBN 1-903364-79-5

xiii + 258pp.


The subtitle of John Cunningham's comprehensive introduction to Hungarian cinema suggests a straight trajectory from the art house to mainstream. But the actual story of this national cinema, as Cunningham effectively tells it here, more closely resembles a roller coaster ride with its peaks and troughs.


Marked by disruption and discontinuity, the story of Hungarian cinema parallels Hungarian history in the 20th Century, a troubled narrative that includes the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, two world wars, failed revolutions, and the rise and fall of communism. No other national cinema, Cunningham suggests, has had to endure the devastating impact of a fascist dictatorship, the complete destruction of its facilities, state control, and censorship, and a 'systems change' in 1989. And no other European film industry, with the possible exception of Germany, has had to contend with the periodic emigration of its most talented filmmakers (after 1919, in the late 30s, after World War II, in 1956 and after). And yet, as Cunningham also shows, Hungary has had moments of exceptional filmmaking, producing exciting and innovative films that are deeply engaged in social and moral issues and that attempt to come to terms with this troubled past.


Structured chronologically by decades, Cunningham's book provides a concise and accessible overview of Hungarian cinema from the first screenings in Budapest in 1896 to the impact of the 'system change' after the fall of Communism in 1989 and beyond. Rejecting past efforts to explain Hungarian culture in terms of Hungary's linguistic isolation or its pivotal position between East and West, Cunningham shows that Hungarian cinema cannot be reduced to the cliché of angst-ridden allegories about suppression and repression. 'It is important', he writes in the Introduction, 'to understand Hungarian film as films in their own right and not just as we may wish to see them, as anti-totalitarian allegories or metaphors of Stalinism . . .' (2).


In the 13 chapters that follow, Cunningham focuses on Hungarian film culture in its historical, political, and social complexity. He writes informatively about the basic structures and organization of the industry, provides insights into Hungarian film writing and theory, stresses the important role of the Film Academy and film schools, and includes important information on box office, stars, and audiences. There is also an excellent chapter dealing with Hungarian documentary, animation, and experimental films, as well as a fascinating chapter on the representation of 'Jews, Gypsies and Others'. Equally fascinating is his analysis of the of Hungarian football (*foci*) films, a genre deeply enmeshed in politics and prejudice. And for those willing to make a special effort, there's even a 'Guide to Hungarian Pronunciation' (xi).


To situate the uneven 'start/stop' development of Hungarian cinema within its historical context, Cunningham suggests a schematic division into four major periods, each one determined by important historical events.


1. From the first film screenings to about 1920, the development of Hungarian cinema followed the pattern of other European countries. With the growth of the industry a film culture developed rapidly and Hungarians were apparently among the first to take film seriously and discuss it as an art form. The first Hungarian narrative film was screened on 14 October 1912, possibly directed by Mihály Kertész (later to become famous as Michael Curtiz, the director of _Casablanca_). Here Cunningham also cites early film writings by Alexander Korda and contributions to the philosophy of film by Marxist scholars György Lukács and Béla Balázs.


2. The defeat of 1919 and the Treaty of Trianon led to artistic decline and an exodus of major filmmaking talent. With the establishment of the increasingly right-wing Horthy regime, Hungarian cinema reached a low point that continued until the end of World War II and the destruction of the major studios. Although there were occasional highlights during this period (Cunningham cites the films of Fejös and Szöts), interventionist governments and the rise of Nazism led to another wave of emigration of filmmakers, an exodus that was repeated after the failure of the Uprising in 1956.


3. The long postwar period (1948 to 1989) was dominated by the Soviet model. For a brief period after the war, Hungarian cinema reflected the Moscow party line and the official style of Socialist Realism. But after the death of Stalin and the de-Stalinization of the arts, the situation for filmmakers improved dramatically. By 1960, Cunningham claims, Hungarian films had moved beyond the boy-meets-tractor stories and the theme of heroic resistance of the people against the Nazi hordes. Influenced by the French New Wave, Hungarian films became individualized, dealt with ambivalent social and moral issues, and experimented with a variety of film styles. Although the industry remained under state control, the control was more relaxed -- paternalistic rather than totalitarian, according to Cunningham. This unique mix of state control and artistic freedom, along with diminished censorship, a revamping of the studio system and a more open policy of the Film Academy, led to a flowering of Hungarian cinema -- a 'new wave' in which movies were overtly critical of the political power structure. The 60s became a decade of triumph. Leading filmmakers such as Miklós Jancsó experimented with long takes, superb compositions, and graceful tracking shots to make complex movies that interrogated Hungarian history and its implications for contemporary audiences. Surprisingly outspoken, focusing on ambivalent moral issues, and open-ended in their conclusions, many of these films remain underrated in the West, where only a handful of Hungarian films were exhibited. Although some filmmakers -- Jancsó, Károly Makk, Márta Meszáros, István Szabo -- managed to attract audiences at home as well as international audiences, many films have not been distributed in the West, and Hungarian audiences, like other European audiences, have always preferred Hollywood products.


4. After the fall of communism (1989) there was a significant decrease in the role of the state, especially in terms of state subsidies, and a concomitantly greater stress on entrepreneurial skills in a capitalist market. Nevertheless, as Cunningham notes, Hungarian filmmakers do not operate in a pure free market. Subsidies still exist today, although the amounts are smaller than they used to be. But when you take into account that in 1991 the average Hungarian feature film cost about Ft25 million (3,000 US Dollars), subsidies remain a significant factor. Cunningham also argues that 'there is no dividing wall between post- and pre- 1989' (196). Still, changes can be seen in the greater diversity of subject matter in recent films, along with a preference for comedies and films dealing with gangsters and crime, indicating a greater concern for box office.


Cunningham ends his study on a mixed note of gloom and promise for the future. Hungarian cinema, he observes, seems to have weathered the transition to a free market, but in the process it has bifurcated into 'parallel industries' (159) -- the big international co-productions on the one hand, and on the other a domestic industry existing in a cultural ghetto and catering mainly to local audiences. What the future holds is unclear. Now that Hungary has joined the European Union one thing is certain: production costs will rise. Avoiding a Manichean judgment on the future of Hungarian film, Cunningham concludes by citing Gramsci's prescription for a dose of 'pessimism of the intelligence and optimism of the will' (196).


Cunningham's unambiguous purpose here is to familiarize Western audiences with a rich, if uneven tradition of filmmaking. His goal, first and foremost, is to write 'an accessible account' that appeals to a wide range of readers. 'I consider much contemporary film theory to be inadequate and confusing,' he writes, 'particularly when gobbledly-gook of the Althusserian variety or Lacanian psychobabble predominates' (3). He describes his approach as 'unashamedly empirical, roughly chronological and written in manner that . . . is comprehensible to all' (3). Thus Cunningham avoids theoretical analysis and pares down his discussion of individual films and directors' biographies in order to focus on broad historical developments. And so as not to deflect our attention from developments within Hungary, he limits consideration of those filmmakers who emigrated and worked in other film industries, e.g. Michael Curtiz in Hollywood, Emeric Pressburger in Britain, Béla Balázs in the USSR. (There is, however, an impressive list of émigrés and exiles in the Appendix (197-199), entitled 'The Hungarian Film Diaspora: From the Beginning to 1989'. Although incomplete, the list includes Hungarian actors, scriptwriters, directors, cameramen, and composers like Béla Lugossi, Ferenc Molnár, Charles Vidor, Lászlo Kovács, and Miklós Rózsa, among many others.)


_Hungarian Cinema: From Coffee House to Multiplex_ is informative, informed, and a pleasure to read. Cunningham writes in a lively way about his subject, seamlessly combining his knowledge of cinema with his considerable knowledge of Hungarian history. The reader can't help but learn a great deal about each. Although the book can be used as an introduction -- a sort of guide for the uninitiated -- I think it will also benefit those more familiar with the subject. Of particular interest is the chapter that deals with the darker side of Hungarian history: the historical persecution of Jews and Gypsies and the general failure of cinema to provide adequate representations. Cunningham notes that before World War II only a few Hungarian films made reference to Jews and even fewer could be labeled as anti-Semitic. After the war, as was the case in Germany, there was a pervasive silence about the Holocaust. With the exception of two films by Zoltán Fábri in the 1950s, it wasn't until the 1980s that the historical persecution of Jews in Hungary received serious treatment. The most ambitious treatment to date, according to Cunningham, is István Szabó's _Sunshine_ (1999), which charts the history of a Jewish family through three generations and three historical regimes -- the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazi occupation, and the long period of Communism. The representation of Gypsies, 'Europe's most loathed people' (180), has not fared as well. In feature films, if Gypsies are represented at all, they are usually there to provide humor or music of folksy manners. This situation is reminiscent of the obsequious black 'Step'n'Fetch it' character familiar from Hollywood films. More recently, Cunningham points out, there has been a welcome increase in the number of documentaries and ethnographic films about Gypsies.


Cunningham's emphasis on being comprehensive and accessible does entail some limitations. There is, for example, the usual cataloging of obscure and run-of-the-mill films followed by cursory discussion and plot summaries. While this may avoid the canonical approach, most readers have not seen the films under discussion and may find the commentary perfunctory and tedious. Moreover, with a few exceptions (Zoltán Fábri's _Merry-Go-Round_ (1956) and Szabó's _Sunshine_), there is little of what I would call critical analysis of individual films. Also, since Cunningham has intentionally pared down his discussion of genres, directors' biographies, émigrés, and auteurs (Szabó, Jancsó, Makk, and Mészáros) on the premise that their work has already been covered by other writers, some readers may be disappointed by the limited attention they receive here. Readers who are interested in history of Hungarian film, however, and the role that cinema has played in Hungarian society and culture, will find this an intelligent and compelling book


A recurring historical problem for Hungarian cinema, as Cunningham observes, is the effort to walk the tenuous path between box office appeal on the one hand, and on the other films that feed off the personal visions of the director who relies on state subsidies. This art/popular dichotomy, certainly not unique to Hungarian film, is evidenced in the contrast between the awards and accolades showered on Hungarian cinema at international film festivals and their meager appeal at home. The individualistic and uncompromisingly grim films of Béla Tarr (often compared to Tarkovsky) have attracted a devoted band of admirers but have had limited circulation. And past attempts to make Hollywood-style films have apparently been disappointing. A better direction, as Cunningham suggests, may be indicated by a greater diversity in subject matter evident in the post-1989 era, the increase in comedies (proving that Hungarians are not manic-depressives), and gangster films (possibly reflecting the increase of organized crime). At this pivotal point in time it's impossible to predict the future of small national cinemas like Hungary's. It may be that in our postmodern era of corporate globalization the cinemas of small nation-states will be gobbled up by the big player nations. On the other hand, having survived the cataclysmic events of the 20th Century history, the odds are that the Hungarian film industry will endure and continue to make films that are engaged and relevant.



Florida State University

Tallahassee, Florida, USA



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2004



Peter Ruppert, 'Hungarian Rhapsody: On Cunningham's _Hungarian Cinema_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 39, November 2004 <>.











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