No film school pretentiousness, I promise.
5. Szindbád (1971)
Directed by Zoltán Huszárik in 1971, Szindbád is a a mind-blowing journey of the senses. An aging bachelor and Don Juan, Szindbád, embarks upon a journey to revisit all his former lovers – desperately struggling to find meaning and purpose in a sensous and decadent life that flashes before his eyes – and ours. The film brings to life the age and manners of bourgeois Hungary in all its autumn glory.
The dreamlike images are the work of cinematographer Sándor Sára. Just look at this legendary scene with Szindbád enjoying a five-course lunch like the dandy he is – while discovering that he shared a doomed lover with the immaculately polite waiter. As one critic put it, it is a “sensuous, sumptuous feast of marrow-bone and marjoram, Eros and poetry.” Gets better with every viewing.
4. Sound Eroticism – Egészséges Erotika (1985)
On a somewhat lighter note, Sound Eroticism is set in the Kádár-era of late communism with all its absurdity. The management of a factory installs a camera in the ladies’ bathroom in order to creep on them – but also to attract buyers for the hopelessly useless products of their “Lada-factory”.
Which is a pun and a swipe at socialist economic absurdity. They are not manufacturing cars (Lada) but very low-tech fruit crates (láda). Or more precisely, they assemble them at one end of the line and disassemble them on the other – pointing out the absurdity of central planning and full employment. In other words, this is how central planning pimps your ass out when it runs out of ideas and has nothing better to offer. Directed by Péter Tímár.
Fun fact: Some of the scenes were recorded in reverse, with the actors walking backwards for some reason.
3. Witness – Tanú (1969)
Legendary movie – can’t fathom how it made it past the censors. But here it is, mocking the hijacked justice system and staged trials of political enemies. The protagonist is a not-too-bright dam watchman, made to testify against a suspected capitalist agent in a show trial. To be precise, he has to claim that he saw the accused smuggling secrets as a frogman, sewn into a moleskin. It is quite complex so in one of the most quoted scenes his handler gives him his scripted witness statement for perusal before appearing at the court.
“Excuse me, Comrade Virágh. But this is not my statement, this is the verdict.”
Fun fact: The colour of governing party Fidesz is orange. It comes from an immortal scene from Witness when a high-ranking comrade bravely tucks into a lemon – which stands in for the oranges that socialist central planners wanted to grow in Hungary. (True story.) Naturally, oranges didn’t agree with the climate so when the proud moment came to celebrate the success of the Hungarian orange, they presented a lemon and pretended to not notice.
“It is smaller, and rather sour – but at least it’s ours”
…is now the go-to quip when something is of really poor quality.
2. Mephisto (1981)
The story of a German stage actor, vain and ambitious whose career coincided with the rise of the Nazis. Not wanting to leave his profession due to language barriers and in absence of a solid political compass he decides to collaborate. He rises to the top of his profession and gets to play the role he was born to play: Mephisto.
Director István Szabó knew a thing or two about collaboration. Long after the democratic transition he had fallen into disrepute for having been an informer to the communist regime in exchange for the opportunity to make movies. With hindsight, it is not hard to see how this moral dilemma had shaped his art.
1. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)
The director of Werckmeister, Béla Tarr, is most famous for one of the longest movies ever made (that has a plot). It is called Sátántangó (1994) and its first ten minutes is a slow tracking shot of some cows. When one of the cows went moo I nearly had an epiphany – but then I went back to sleep and was only awakened four hours later when the cinema served food and refreshments to prepare us for the last five hours. I wouldn’t recommend it for recreational purposes unless you are stuck in an elevator overnight with only your ennui to keep you company. (The whole movie is available here .)
But Werckmeister is something else entirely. It is based on The Melancholy of Resistance, a book by László Krasznahorkai, a poetic allegory of the birth of authoritarianism. It starts with an angry orator arriving in town and a decaying circus whale as a distraction. The angrier and nastier he gets, the wider his helpless following.
The film consists of just 39 single-camera shots, one longer and more elaborately composed than the next. Just look at the starting scene – an unblinking, beautifully choreographed, 10-minute shot. Let Valuska illustrate a total eclipse for you with the help of some village drunks and the wise and meditative music of Mihály Víg that’ll stay with you for a long time. In a good way.
Completing the cycle, evil descends. The mesmerized followers of the little dictator start a riot and destroy the remainders of the whale.
But then Víg’s music lifts you up from the depth of desperation. Listen to it – seriously.
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