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Szolnok Conference 04: Trans-Europa Express
Local and Global After-Worlds:
Trendy Coincidences
By Tibor Hirsch

There is a promising quality-increase of the Hungarian art film which might give us a chance to re-establish our importance within world cinema, lost at least a decade ago. On the other hand all the individual endeavors of young filmmakers are too diverse to show any kind of stylistic or thematic characteristics for a new Hungarian School. Of course, it is a question for all the fans of our national cinema that an apparently homogeneous new trend is really worth waiting for. The advantage of any homogeneous trend is that it makes our cultural homeland more recognizable from the outside, just like in the nostalgic sixties and seventies, as a strange but precious cultural fruit of the soft dictatorship. But one can accept that it is over, not just socialism but homogeneous trends too, and it is just all right to have some talented individual artists without common characteristics.

Nevertheless - even if there is no style, no common topic - there is a mysterious phenomenon forming slowly but surely, which might be considered something typical, not typically Hungarian, but typically Central-East European, even if New Hungarian Cinema could provide the best examples of it. It is not a real unity, not a trend, it's neither thematic nor stylistic. It is just a catalyzing factor, which might work in the same way in numerous films, no matter if they belong to a director of old age or to a director of the young generation.

The idea is quite simple. Eastern Europe is the best place to use as a modeling area for the rest of the Globe, or more precisely: for our brave new world of the early 21st century. Of course many of our contemporaries use other countries and regions for world-models, and general allegories - even if we accept that the Far East is still too unique for this purpose, we may remember how some great filmmakers used to choose very different key countries and regions - from Peter Greenaway's Britain and Netherlands, from Herzog's Third World, from Wim Wender's Europe-America corridor, from Bergman's, Fellini's, Tarkovski's own homelands to all the Paris- and New York-stories - we know very well that there are plenty of suitable geographical places offering emblematic circumstances for films of anti-utopian perspectives, with any pessimistic forecast for the whole mankind. And still, some signs may show that this particular area is now in a good position. We may say: it is Central-East Europe's turn to be used as an artistic world-simulator.

I cannot say that is an entirely Hungarian invention. For example the Polish can refer to some Kieslowski-pieces with a Polish topic but with the message of world-emblematic generalization, but in Hungarian cinema this approach is getting year by year more recognizable.

I think in this respect the crucial moment is the American premiere of Béla Tarr's last film Werckmeister Harmonies (Werckmeister Harmóniák, 2000). The premiere roughly coincided with the unbelievable falling down of the WTC twin-towers. After 9/11, the film was a tremendous art house success, with a very East-European spirit, East-European story, misery, visual environment, faces. And still it was considered by audiences and critics a very easily identifiable world-model with embarrassing actuality. If we think about Béla Tarr's oeuvre from the very beginning - or at least from the Almanac of Fall (1984) - we can find one gloomy keyword for all the films. This keyword can be used as a theological metaphor: the world is 'hell'. Hell is not mentioned in film-titles, which are actually the same as the titles of the novels the latter films are made upon, but some titles surely can help to support our guesses, like Damnation (1988), or the most famous Tarr-piece, the eight-hour-long Sátántangó (1994) or even Tarr's Macbeth TV-interpretation Macbeth (1982). Actually - even though not in a literary sense - in these films the 'devil' has always some role. There is the realm of the 'devil', there are some wicked projects of the 'devil', or there is just the fascination for the 'devilish'. Obviously if you see Tarr's Sátántangó or Damnation, or if you watch Hukkle (2002) from young Hungarian filmmaker György Pálfi, the story of the serial killer mandragora, or meet an invisible but horrifying creature in Forest (2003) by another young Hungarian filmmaker called Benedek Fliegauf, you can surely understand, that this 'devil' is more than a metaphor. It does mean that in Hungarian cinema some kind of new religious aspect is emerging. It means, that in Tarr's films, and in some other films - mostly by young Hungarian directors - the general 'evil', the manifold dark side of human fate, is not jus at present, it is an independent dramaturgical factor.

Of course there is nothing new and exceptional to research and depict, it is just the thousand year old job of art and literature, and a hundred year old job of cinema. It is new however to define the East-European face of misery and misfortune in a way that it would identify with the newest form of existence and behavior of Global Evil in our world after and around 2001.

The first question is: how does Satan's eternal game look like in East-European style, according to new Hungarian cinema? The first and maybe most important regional characteristic of demonic force is: there is no recognizable moment of attack. The typical and historically justified East-European type of 'angst' is about something which is just coming or due to arrive, or it has arrived already, but we are not able to identify. This was how Fascism, Stalinism used to begin in this region, this was the way how the existing Socialism disappeared, how political hatred began, this was the way how old and new waves of poverty, economical crises used to get in power, without any exact beginning or turning point. The expression one may use for this is 'creeping evil', not just a historical metaphor but again a dramaturgical solution, which works in Bela Tarr's films without exception. This mysterious 'creeping evil' is just doing a gradual and hidden work in Pálfi's Hukkle and Fliegauf's second feature film Dealer (2004) in which the audience is not in the position to find a real motivation for the drug-dealer hero for his final suicide, except from the plot-long accumulation of some unbearable misery, with no hint how and when it began. The accumulation of this indefinable 'evil' is surely something which has something to do with our new, terror infiltrated world, and on the other hand a typical new and (it may sound cynic) 'fashionable' structural pattern of new Hungarian film-art. The perfect example of this pattern is Werckmeister Harmonies in which one should be aware of the bigger and bigger crowd, wandering from town to town, without starting point, place and time, and without any satanic 'mission statement' without any self-reflection. The audience just ought to feel the angst when something is accumulating on the screen. Literary the crowd is larger and more aggressive in each new dramaturgical phase. That what we might call 'creeping evil': the unexplainable, undetectable work of the dark side. This creeping evil - we all know - used to be very important Hungarian and East-European regional experience in the past and is a very obvious global experience in the presence. Nevertheless, the first Hungarian experiments to make the regional behavior of Satan, as a part of our local political mythology began just after the changing of the system: as the dramaturgical pattern of 'creeping evil' is concerned for this purpose - you should remember Péter Gothár's films (not just one) but maybe the 1995 piece The Outpost. It's the best example of a plot with a fantastic, and horrifying graduation of personal misery of the heroine expelled-punished-rewarded at the same time in a nowhere-land allegory of Stalinism, but using the Stalinist environment as the only and ultimate world-model. And again there is the mysterious emergence of 'creeping evil' with no beginning, no explanation, not even a fixed point to define what the evil is, how it works.

So, 'creeping evil' is one aspect where the local and the global are able to meet and perhaps still establish something 'very Hungarian' in the near future. 'Creeping' means something hidden and slow. 'Creeping evil' is really a key factor in the dramaturgy of Shakespeare's Macbeth, which was Béla Tarr's choice even twenty years ago, as the best form of a global anamnesis and an eastern block experience at the same time. 'Creeping' supposes the slowness as a form, both in editing and in camerawork. It defines the now widely famous style of the Tarr films, but also defines how the young ones can manage the 'creeping' on the screen by the way of mixing unusual camera angles and long takes at Pálfi's film Hukkle , or almost personalizing the 'eye of evil', like a peeping camera, as it works at Fliegauf.

So, 'creeping' – as a gradually emerging evil - used to be the dramaturgical pattern for East-European fate from the early Tarr-pieces, and now due to transform for a very effective global metaphor. Obviously one should not forget the absolute pioneer in using Hungarian scene as an emblematic place for apocalyptic world-visions: he was Miklós Jancsó. He was the one using this 'creeping evil' scheme as the best approach to his homelands history and as early as the beginning of the eighties, with two 'creeping evil nightmares' Il Cuore del Tirrano (1981) and Season of monsters (1987).

Still 'creeping' is just one approach. As far as some other relatively new and very Hungarian vision of a damned world is concerned there is a second key which is dramaturgically characteristic of our historical, social, political, economical - private and public - hell: this is 'repetition'. No matter what happens in a trendy Hungarian film: it happens many times, it is a happening in going-around, in a form of seemingly infinite repetition. No wonder: from Dante's Inferno on 'hell' is described as endless circles, without any hope of breaking out. All the directors mentioned before, young and middle-aged, use repetition and this hopeless going-around. Fliegauf's first film even in its title refers to the situation we are circling in a Forest episode by episode with different but futile attempts to get out. Repetition, and punishing circles can be measured in the most absurd way, one may remember the chuckling old man at Pálfi's film Hukkle where chuckling is just giving pace and dramaturgical rhythm for the doom. But the first and most important example of this going-around is Tarr's Sátántangó. This film refers almost directly that we are in the 'hell' where dancing around is the form of existence: the long movie - as we all remember - is full of endless repetitive actions, just like punishing the audience, from dancing to walking and from drinking to cat-torturing. This film's title is again a text to take seriously: In 'hell' the devil is dancing tango with the damned souls, as a special form of punishment. It is again very 'East-European' in historical perspective, and up-to-date 'global' as a post-modern world vision. The 'devil' dancing tango means again the endless repetition-dramaturgy in 'tango rhythm': he shows some hope for the hopeless, than takes that hope away, than he is showing it again, and so on, in endless circles. The long plot of Sátántangó is a story of a fake-salvation with the promise that this is not the end for these miserable people, they are still alive so they have a chance to be invited in new and new pseudo-salvation projects, ad infinitum. Satan is just dancing tango with them, very Hungarian, very East-European people just like in Tarr's and his writer-friend and scriptwriter Laszlo Krasznahorkay's perspective, Satan is dancing tango with contemporary mankind generally, showing and hiding hope for a condemned world.

To finish it from a bit less gloomy perspective: there are filmmakers who can manage this fine new coincidence of the authentic East-European, Hungarian pattern with the emblematic-global view in a less pessimistic way, especially if they insist on happy ending and popular success. If one remembers Antall Nimród's success-movie Kontroll (2003), one can easily check that, all the above mentioned dramaturgical means are at present there, for the proper metaphoric description of East-European 'hell', and global 'hell' with its terror- and pollution infiltrated reality. There is 'creeping evil' in the plot, and there are also phases of repetition we are literary lost under the world, on the level of 'hell', where subway goes in endless circles, there are glimpses of fake-hope, and the withdrawal of the hope comes just after. All the schemes of Tarr's Sátántangó and Gothar's The Outpost, Fliegauf's Forest, Pálfi's Hukkle are appearing in Kontroll but with nice Hollywoodian break out: meet a girl and walk out to the sunshine.

For summarizing this: our directors use bad raged Hungarian scenes - urban or rural - as fine after-world patterns, and the audience can easily find a general post-modern interpretation for these. In these films of the new trend we are in Dante's and Orpheus' way meeting with the condemned. It is just an old trick form the classics: if there is an Eurydice or Beatrice we can break out for the sake of happy ending. Otherwise we are in Hell - global, East-European, Hungarian.

Tibor Hirsch
© FIPRESCI, 2004

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Szolnok 04

Hans-Günther Dicks
Danko Jesic
Angel Comas
Thomas Kurelec
Mariola Wiktor
Dana Duma
Daniela Bisogni
Tibor Hirsch
Balázs Varga