Hungarian Cinema: From Coffee House to Multiplex by John Cunningham

[6 April 2004]

By Patricia Allmer

Hungarian films tend to achieve world prominence at moments of historical crisis. Post-1956, French critics writing for Cahiers du Cinema celebrated Hungarian representations of the revolution such as Zoltán Fabri’s Twenty Hours (Húsz Óra) (1965). Post-1989, Hungarian films have repeatedly explored communism, its collapse and its aftermath, and also analysed Hungarian society and history in relation to the country’s emergence into modern capitalism, as is the case in Miklós Jancsó‘s Lord’s Lantern in Budapest (Nekem lampást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten) (1989).

John Cunningham’s Hungarian Cinema: From Coffee House to Multiplex offers a scholarly, well-written account of these and other dimensions of what can now be seen as an important national cinema. It is an important contribution to familiarising English-speaking audiences with Hungarian film. Although Hungarians have played a prominent role throughout the history of film—one only has to think of historical figures such as George Cukor, Michael Curtiz (formerly Mihály Kertész), Emeric (Imre) Pressburger and Béla Lugosi—Hungarian films produced in the country itself have not yet received the level of critical and popular attention they deserve from audiences and academics abroad.

Hungarian film has, until now, remained a “specialist” subject (due variously to Hungary’s political situation, a reluctance of the “West” to translate and promote these films, the notorious difficulty of the Hungarian language, and other extraneous factors), despite attempts by writers such as Catherine Portuges’ monograph on the Hungarian director Márta Mészáros (1993) or István Nemeskürty’s Word and Image (1968).

However, this is the place where Cunningham sets out his project to open Hungarian film to a popular foreign audience. His emphasis is on making Hungarian film, its history and its meanings widely accessible to English readers, and this book offers a wide array of themes and perspectives without ever being inaccessible. Cunningham refuses to follow the trend of much contemporary film theory, the “gobbledy-gook of the Althusserian variety or Lacanian psychobabble”. The themes he explores range from tracing the history of Hungarian film through different decades, to analysis of the prominence of football (foci) films in Hungary, and includes attention to genres such as documentary, animation and avant-garde film.

The book is an introduction, an initiating guide to Hungarian film, but one which presents its topic in all its historical, political and social complexity. Cunningham masters the tightrope walk between introducing Hungarian cinema to newcomers and being highly informative for specialists already familiar with the topic. This book is also absolutely up-to-date, covering more than a century of Hungarian cinema, from the first film screening in 1896 in the capital city of Budapest, to recent films such as Károly Makk’s A Long Weekend in Pest-Buda (Egy hét Pesten és Budán) (2003).

Cunningham distances himself from purely political readings and explorations of the films (for example, the tendency to read them as political propaganda for or against totalitarianism), in order to draw attention to and “understand Hungarian films as films in their own right.” History and politics, however, return in a different way, revealing how much filmic production lies at the mercy of these two terms. He explores political and historical influences such as the Soviet domination from 1948 until 1989, and the current emphasis on “entrepreneurial skills in an increasingly unrestricted capitalist market” and the removal of state subsidy of the film industry, thereby showing how interlinked cultural production and history have become.

Through this approach, Hungarian Cinema not only presents film history but maps out the last 100 years of Hungary’s history and culture in some detail, offering a good starting point for anybody interested in this country’s history and politics and their links to its cultural production.

However, this book doesn’t leave out the “darker” sides of Hungary’s own political crimes, namely its historical oppression of ethnic minorities like Jews and Gypsies. This is discussed through an analysis of some of the ways the film industry repeatedly managed to avoid addressing these topics. For example, Cunningham observes that “it was not until the 1980s that Jews began to feature in Hungarian films in any major way,” and still worse is the treatment of Gypsies: No member of a Gypsy culture “has yet been in a position to make their own films about themselves”, and

such is their almost complete marginalisation that they do not even appear as the cardboard cut-out villains (men), temptresses (young women) or shamans (older women) as they do in, say, a number of British or American films. This is hardly surprising: the amount of hatred, fear and abuse directed towards Gypsies in Hungary, and in Eastern Europe in general, is quite astonishing.

Cunningham manages to outline, in a book on film, many of the film-producing country’s very specific political problems, and he offers through this a thorough insight into recent Hungarian political history.

Hungarian Cinema includes such useful information as a “Guide to Hungarian Pronunciation,” “Notes” which give further details about historical events and films, and a valuable list of “Resources,” which range from information on cinema attendances and related themes, to books on Hungary’s history, to journals, websites and other media addressing Hungarian cinema. We’re also provided with a list of Hungarian émigrés working in various areas of the film industry.

Hungarian Cinema documents Hungary’s cultural, intellectual and political development over the last 100 years. It offers a thorough insight into Hungary’s manifold and uneven culture, and it introduces some aspects of a nation and its culture soon to join a Europe more or less united, if still beset by problems of national, cultural and political identity. But then again, as the Hungarian might say: “So, we are going to join Europe. Will someone tell me where the hell have we been for the last thousand years?”—reminding us that actually what we are reading and learning in this book has always been a part of European history and culture.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/hungarian-cinema/