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The Cinema of István Szabó

The Cinema of István Szabó: Visions of Europe

John Cunningham
Series: Directors' Cuts
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    The Cinema of István Szabó
    Book Description:

    István Szabó is one of Hungary's most celebrated and best-known film directors, and the only Hungarian to have won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, for Mephisto (1981). In a career spanning over five decades Szabó has relentlessly examined the place of the individual in European history, particularly those caught up in the turbulent events of Central Europe and his own native Hungary. His protagonists struggle to find a place for themselves, some meaning in their lives, security and a sense of being, against a background of two world wars (Colonel Redl, Confidence), the Holocaust (Sunshine), the Hungarian Uprising and the Cold War (Father, 25 Fireman's Street, Taking Sides). This is the first English-language study of all his feature films and uses material from interviews with Szabó and his collaborators. Also included are chapters on his formative years, including his time at the famous Budapest Film Academy and the relationship of the state to the film industry in Hungary.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-85070-4
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Beginnings
    (pp. 1-4)

    In my earlier book,Hungarian Cinema: From Coffeehouse to Multiplex(2004), also published by Wallflower Press, I stated my intention to follow-up the broad brush work of this historical overview with more specific, focused works on aspects of Hungarian cinema, not quite realising at the time that I may well have made myself a hostage to fortune with such a rash promise. The present work is an attempt, in part at least, to fulfil this pledge and in doing so not only focus on a director whose work I admire immensely but one who is central to the perception and...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Born into the Storm
    (pp. 5-14)

    After watching a number of István Szabó’s films from whichever period in his life, the viewer cannot help but notice the ongoing engagement with history, with Hungary, with Central Europe, with the larger concept of Europe and its various connotations (what might be called ‘Europa’) and with the struggles and plight of individuals caught within that rich but turbulent and often violent history. History is important to Szabó and only a few of his films are contemporary, although all of them are set in the twentieth century (only the opening scenes ofSunshineandColonel Redlare an exception). The...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Growing Up, Film School and 1956
    (pp. 15-24)

    As the last shots echoed through a war-torn Europe and the Red Army pursued the Nazis and their few remaining hard-core Hungarian allies to Vienna, the people of Budapest began to rebuild their city and their shattered lives. Tragically, at this very moment, when everyone hoped for a new beginning, Szabó’s father died on 3 April, only 34 years old. ‘My father died just after the war [officially, the Second World War in Europe ended with German unconditional surrender on 7 May] of an illness he had caught from one of his patients. He got diphtheria in the spring of...

  7. CHAPTER THREE The Early Films: The Age of Daydreaming (Álmodozások kora); Father (Apa — egy hit naplója); Lovefilm (Szerelmesfilm)
    (pp. 25-40)

    Normally, a graduate from the Film Academy would have to work as a director’s assistant on a number of films before s/he would be allowed to direct a film. However, this was not a hard and fast rule and a graduate who showed particular or outstanding promise could be ‘fast-tracked’, circumventing the system (which, as in this instance, was often not as rigid and bureaucratic as popular mythology would have it). This was certainly the case for Szabó who worked on only one film, János Herskó’sDialogue (Párbeszéd, 1963) as assistant director, one of the first films in the post-war...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR The ‘Budapest’ Films: Budapest, Why I Love It (Budapest, amiért szeretem); 25 Fireman’s Street (Tűzoltó utca 25); Budapest Tales (Budapesti mesék); City Map (Városterkép) and Confidence (Bizalom)
    (pp. 41-53)

    There are any number of artists and filmmakers around the world who are associated with a particular locality; in literature one thinks of James Joyce and Dublin while in the world of film Woody Allen’s affinity for New York is probably one of the most obvious examples. Szabó is, of course, well known for his deep attachment to his native Budapest, the place where he was born and has lived all his life, resisting any temptation there might have been to live and work elsewhere. With the partial exception ofLovefilm,which contains within its complex flashback structure many episodes...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Tales from Mitteleuropa: Mephisto; Colonel Redl; Hanussen
    (pp. 54-82)

    The 1980s witnessed what is still the most successful decade in Szabo’s career. I have chosen to consider his three feature films from this decade in one chapter, primarily because this adheres to the chronological framework I have adapted and because of the three films’ many thematic cross-overs. Szabó has protested against the widely held assumption that the three films make up a trilogy (see, for example, Robinson and Hames 2004) and it might be reasonable to assume, at least from a chronological point of view, that if they were intended as such, thenMephistowould actually be the last...

  10. CHAPTER SIX New Europe, New Hungary, New Problems: Meeting Venus and Sweet Emma, Dear Böbe (Édes Emma, drága Böbe)
    (pp. 83-94)

    In the 1990s there was much talk in Hungary and in the other countries of the former Eastern Bloc about ‘joining Europe’, which of course actually meant joining the European Union, as if this would somehow be the final episode in an untroubled, seamless transition from Hungary’s homespun and very much watered-down version of Stalinism to a full-blooded embrace of free-market capitalism. At last, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia (soon to split) and others would be returned to their rightful place in the European heartland, although the process dragged on until 2004, but as the poet Robbie Burns once famously wrote...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN ‘The man who comes from somewhere else is always suspect’; Sunshine
    (pp. 95-106)

    There is a scene relatively early on in Szabó’s next film,Sunshine,where, at the New Year celebration ushering in the twentieth century, lgnátz, one of the main characters, says: ‘This will be a century of love, justice and tolerance.’ At the end of the film (at around three hours, his longest to date), after the viewer has followed the tragedy of successive generations of a Hungarian Jewish family through revolution and counter-revolution, fascism and Stalinism, two world wars and the Holocaust, it is painfully obvious that this was never to be. It also becomes obvious that this statement and...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT To Go or Stay?: Taking Sides
    (pp. 107-116)

    Szabó’s next film,Taking Sides,was a powerful adaptation of a play originally written by South African-born, London-based Ronald Harwood, whose works includeThe Dresser(1980), and screenplays forThe Pianist(2002) andThe Diving Bell and the Butterfly(2007) to name just a few titles from a long and illustrious list.Taking Sidesfirst saw the light of day as a stage play in 1995, performed simultaneously at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester, UK (directed by Harold Pinter) and in Krakow, Poland (under the titleZa I Przeciw,directed by Tamasz Zygadio). This was followed by a ten-week run...

  13. CHAPTER NINE Adaptations: Being Julia; Relatives; and The Door
    (pp. 117-129)

    In 2002 Szabó, made a ten-minute short film,Ten Minutes After.This was part of a collection of ten-minute shorts made by a number of prominent directors titledTen Minutes Older: The Cello.First seen at the Venice Film Festival in 2002 and then at the Yamagata Film Festival in Japan, it was later issued on DVD, along with another set of films, with the collective title,Ten Minutes Trumpet, Ten Minutes Cello: Visions o f Time. The collection is divided up into a cello section and a trumpet section, with the former featuring Szabó’s film and offerings from such...

  14. CHAPTER TEN The Controversy Surrounding the Events of 1957 and After
    (pp. 130-134)

    Many people in Hungary and elsewhere (and here I must include myself) were shocked by the revelation, contained in the 26 January 2006 edition of the weekly magazineLife and Literature(Élet és Irodalom), that István Szabó had been a police informer in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Even the insularity of the British press, rarely inclined to comment on events in Hungary, was breached by this news as theGuardianand other papers covered it. The author of theLife and Literaturearticle, András Gervai, a Budapest-based historian, claimed to be ‘appalled that István Szabó, of all people,...

  15. CHAPTER ELEVEN Szabó, Hungarian Cinema and the Question o f Censorship — A Note
    (pp. 135-139)

    There has been a tendency on the part of some Western writers who comment on post-Second World War Central European cinema to put a certain amount of stress on issues of state control and censorship as if, somehow, censorship and the fight against it defines almost fifty years of widespread, often complex and diverse filmmaking. This has frequently, although not explicitly, been linked to the notion that, somehow, a censored or banned film is more ‘worthy’ or artistically or politically more interesting than one that has not been affected in this way. The April 2008 event at the London Barbican,...

  16. CHAPTER TWELVE Some Conclusions
    (pp. 140-148)

    Attempting to draw any conclusions and present a coherent overview of a director like István Szabó is not easy. Over the years his work has changed, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically and although it has a certain thematic coherence, in terms of narrative and style there is much variation, often from film to film, particularly in his early and middle work. In April 2005 Szabó, along with some others from the film world, gave a lecture under the general rubric of ‘Sources of Inspiration’. In this lecture he outlines one of his main ideas about cinema; he poses the question: ‘What...

  17. NOTES
    (pp. 149-151)
    (pp. 152-165)
    (pp. 166-174)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 175-182)