Hungarian Cinema

By John Cunningham

werkmeister-harmonies-bella-tarr-1.jpgWerckmeister Harmonies, 2000

From coffee house to multiplex

Hungarian cinema has often been forced to tread a precarious and difficult path. Through the failed 1919 Revolution to the defeat of the 1956 Revolution and its aftermath, Hungarian film-makers and their audiences have had to contend with a huge range of social and political issues and challenges.

The following piece is extracted from the first book in English to discuss all the key aspects of Hungarian cinema and its place in the development of Hungarian society. The book focuses on film-makers as significant as István Szabó (Mephisto, Sunshine), Zoltán Fábri (The Storm, Fourteen Lives Were Saved) and Béla Tarr (Satantango, Werckmeister Harmonies), and also covers avant-garde film-making, animation and representations of the Gypsy and Jewish minorities.

In 1994, the uncompromising Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr made his 450-minute magnum opus Satantango, to international acclaim. Shot in black-and-white, with the ‘trademark’ Tarr mise-en-scène – everything is grim, isolated, dilapidated and bare, using extremely long takes (often the full reel), with the camera only moving very slowly and often remaining static – Satantango might seem a painful seven-and-a-half hours to sit through. It is, however, strangely and powerfully compelling. Although it would be highly questionable to suggest that Satantango has anything approaching a coherent narrative, it concerns a group of people on a run-down former state farm, the complicated consequences of a crime, the subsequent betrayal over dividing the loot and the arrival of two characters, Irimias and Petrina (the latter thought to be dead). Tarr lingers on scenes far longer than is necessary for purposes of narrative – the opening shot, which is around ten minutes long, consists of a group of cows and chickens trudging slowly through a muddy, rain-soaked farmyard.

werkmeister-harmonies-bella-tarr-2.jpgWerckmeister Harmonies, 2000

One of the most remarkable scenes in the film occurs when a group of drunken villagers dance and cavort in the local bar to a repetitive tune on an accordion. The camera, which is situated at one end of the bar-room, moves only slightly left and right and there is some use of the zoom but, again, this is subdued. Otherwise Tarr lets the scene progress. As Peter Hames suggests, “It is the logic of events that determines what we see. Tarr has remarked that most contemporary cinema provides no time or space to understand people, why they behave the way they do, ‘what’s going on under the surface.’” [1] Since its release the film has developed quite a devoted band of admirers, all the more remarkable given the fact that it has, not surprisingly, had extremely limited distribution.

Audiences had to wait some years for Tarr’s next feature, Werckmeister Harmonies, released in 2001 after backing from France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. A mere 145 minutes in length but four years in the making, the latter is based (as were Damnation and Satantango) on a novel (The Melancholy of Resistance) by László Krasznahorkai, who also worked on the screenplay. Whether or not the Hungarian cinema can continue to accommodate such polar opposites as Satantango and the likes of Dolly Birds remains to be seen, but at the moment signs are promising that a cinema of real diversity is sustainable.

Given the uncertainties of the time, the annual Hungarian Film Weeks were eagerly followed by critics and commentators hoping for signs of revival. The 30th Hungarian Film Week in 1999 was considered by many to be an indicator that the industry was now on the path to recovery: “It’s been a long time since we have had such a good year”, wrote Erzsébet Bori, the film critic for the Hungarian Quarterly[2] and, as already mentioned, old hand Miklós Jancsó was back on form with his much praised The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest, although it fared badly at the hands of Film Week judges.

Of the newcomers, Csaba Horváth made an immediate impact with his commando-adventure yarn, Europa Express. In all, there were 15 features released in 1999, plus two offerings on video. These drew in 593,000 admissions (it had been 404,000 for 1998), still small compared to the figures for Hollywood films but at least maintaining the upward curve.

werkmeister-harmonies-bella-tarr-3.jpgWerckmeister Harmonies, 2000

One encouraging development is the growing number of independent production and service companies in Hungary. By the end of 1999, no less than 84 companies were in operation, working in everything from feature films to instructional videos and commercials, with the vast majority of these based in Budapest. This may be too many to be sustainable and almost inevitably there will be some casualties. The production of films is, in some respects, less of a problem than getting them distributed. Of the films made in 1998, eight were still waiting for a distributor the following year and, ironically, more films are now ‘shelved’ than was ever the case under the former regime.

Of great significance however, is the new feeling of cautious optimism in the air. There appears to be a sense that the worst is now over and the films shown at the 31st Hungarian Film Festival in 2000 evoked praise for the freshness of their approach and novel themes. Many new talents emerged and their attitude was praised by András Jeles in the pages of Film World: “Today’s directors do not see themselves as occupying a privileged place as ‘artists’”, he commented, while fellow journalist Gusztav Schubert spoke of “the velvet revolution of the indies.”[3]

A number of established names demonstrated their continued ability: Márta MészárosLittle Vilma – the Last Diary premiered as did Krisztina Deák’s Jadviga’s Pillow, set during and after the First World War in Slovakia, where romantic rivalry becomes entangled in the struggle for independence. With restricted financing opportunities, a number of directors were now trying their hand at low-budget productions, such as Péter Gothar with Hanged.

The 2001 Film Week was newsworthy for at least two events, the first being the row that blew up when it was decided to hold the event in a multiplex in a brand new shopping mall. Béla Tarr refused to allow his new film, the second major event, to be shown there and it was moved to the Atrium cinema. After the impact of his previous films Tarr disappointed no one with Werckmeister Harmonies. Again shot in black-and-white in yet another bleak setting, the film is visually stunning and even more unsettling than his previous works. Although this film has a much more straightforward sense of narrative than Satantango it is, nevertheless, challenging and elliptical.

werkmeister-harmonies-bella-tarr-4.jpgWerckmeister Harmonies, 2000

The arrival, in a small Hungarian town, of a travelling exhibition featuring a dead whale rouses considerable interest, not least because the whale and the mysterious ‘Prince’ who travels with it, seem to bring with them a wave of social unrest and violence, which culminates in the ransacking of a hospital and physical attacks on the patients and others. The Prince is never seen, except in shadow, speaks in a foreign (Slavic) language and evokes a meglomaniacal sense of evil and power. A group of citizens, including the musicologist György Eszter (Péter Fitz), assisted by the local postman, Valuska (German actor Lars Rudolph), attempt to prevent trouble erupting. They are unsuccessful but the rioting dies down almost as quickly as it flared up.

The film ends with troops stationed on the streets and the whale exhibition destroyed. Joska, however, has descended into some kind of mental instability and in the final scene he is visited in a mental institution by the musicologist but, apparently in a catatonic state, does not respond. It is the kind of film which is open to, and indeed provokes, a variety of interpretations, encouraged by the perhaps biblical allusions of the whale, or the work of Eszter who is investigating a complex question involving Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier and the work of Andreas Werckmeister, who laid down a number of principles which form the basis of much of western music. Tarr, however, is not prepared to offer his own interpretations or help his audiences.

In all, 27 films were premiered at the Film Week, including a number of documentaries, many low-budget titles, some shot on video, and virtually all of them made under difficult financial constraints. Newcomers continued to make an impact and Ferenc Török’s impressive debut Moscow Square won Best First Feature. The main prize went to Chico, directed by Ibolya Fekete, an unusual film about a ‘Spanish-Hungarian, Catholic-Jewish Communist’ fighting in the Balkans.

werkmeister-harmonies-bella-tarr-5.jpgWerckmeister Harmonies, 2000

Given the political flux that is post-1989/90 Hungary, it is hardly surprising to find that cinema became embroiled in controversy. Despite promises to the contrary, all the major political parties, when in power, have, in one way or another, continued to manipulate the media as an arm or an extension of the state. While none of the parties has stooped to the measures adopted by the pre-1989/90 regime, there have been only half-hearted and piecemeal efforts to secure a non-partisan, open and accountable media. The most obvious manifestation of this was the media war (previously discussed in the book). Although the flames from this conflagration have long since died down, the arguments were re-enacted when accusations were made that Viktór Orbán’s Fidesz government was encouraging and financially supporting a number of films which suited its political stance and programme. All these films have treated historical topics with a decidedly patriotic slant which, it is alleged, Fidesz has tried to link with its own political posture.

The first to come under criticism was Csaba Kael’s Bánk bán, released in 2001 and, in the same year, Gábor Koltay’s Sacred Crown. Most controversy has, however, surrounded Géza Bereményi’s The Bridge Man, released on 11 April 2002, just four days after the first round in the Hungarian General Election. It concerns Count István Széchenyi, the most prominent of a generation of reforming and modernising Hungarians of the early to mid-nineteenth century; his most visible legacy is the Chain Bridge (Lanchíd), the first permanent crossing over the Danube, joining Buda and Pest. Apart from the somewhat obvious attempts to create a Széchenyi-Orbán link, what angered many Hungarians, particularly in the film industry, was the amount of money the picture had received at a time when film-makers were struggling for funds. The film cost Ft2 billion (approximately $7.5 million), vastly exceeding the annual state subsidy for the entire Hungarian film industry.


[1] Peter Hames (2001) ‘The Melancholy of Resistance: The Films of Béla Tarr,’ Kinoeye, 1, 1, 3 September;
[2] Erzsébet Bori (1999) ‘A Hopeful Run’, Hungarian Quarterly, XL, 153, Spring, 149–56 (pg 149).
[3] András Jeles (2000) ‘Szemléldés’ (Contemplation), Filmvilág, XLIII, 4, April, 4–6 (pg 4). Gusztav Schubert (2000) ‘Sodrasban’ (‘In the Current’), Filmvilág XLIII, 4, April, pg 4.

John Cunningham taught film and media studies in Hungary for nine years, returning to Britain in 2000. He now teaches film studies at the University of Notre Dame (London Centre), Indiana, and at Sheffield Hallam University.

Hungarian Cinema: From Coffee House to Multiplex is published by Wallflower Press.

Magyar Magic: Hungary in Focus is running throughout 2004. See