In Uncertain Times - A bizonytalan időkben

The INTERFILM Seminar in Budapest 2023 – Introduction

The following text was published in the Journal of Theological Science "Sárospataki füzetek" (issue nr. 2/2023) edited by the Reformed Theological Academy in Sárospatak. The issue focusses on two Interfilm seminars dedicated to film and religion, the first organized by INTERFILM (international) in Budapest presenting and dicussing Hungarian films between the middle of the 1950s  and the beginning of the 2020s, the second organized by Interfilm Hungary in Sárospatak and dealing with screen images of priest and pastors, documenting the lectures of both events combined with additional articles.  

“Giving a Soul to Europe” was the name of a programme for which INTERFILM organised a series of film seminars between 1997 and 2004, primarily in the countries and on the cinematographies of Eastern Europe. The seminar “In Uncertain Times” in Budapest (26-30 April 2023) continued this series of events, this time looking at the cinematography of Hungary.

The lectures, film screenings and discussions of the seminar were dedicated to Hungarian film history from the 1950s until today. One focus was on the religious dimensions of the films. The lectures of Ingrid Glatz on István Szabó’s “The Taste of Sunshine” and of Gabriella Rácsok, who extended her considerations to films beyond the programme of the seminar, concentrated on this aspect. A second topic was the relationship of the films to Hungarian society and history, as well as their references to the European and global auteur cinema. The article by Péter Muszatics offers insights into the global context of Hungarian film history, whereas my own reflections in the following will attempt to bring up some aspects of the political and social background of the films presented in the seminar programme.

The INTERFILM seminar could not and did not ignore the current political situation. In a special focus entitled “The Maltreated Neighbour”, it dealt with Ukrainian cinema on the horizon of the Russian military aggression on Ukrainian regions since 2014 and on the whole country since February 2022. Claus Löser’s lecture honoured representatives of Ukrainian film art who are sometimes still wrongly attributed to Russian cinema.

The seminar was supported by the Reformed Church in Hungary by a considerably financial contribution, and by the Lutheran Church in Hungary. The opening took place in the Péter and Gitta Esterházy Library, the screenings, lectures, and discussions in the Corvin Cinema (Corvin Mozi) which supplied excellent conditions for the whole event.


The film programme started with Béla Tarr’s last film from 2011, “A Torinói ló” (The Turin Horse), which not surprisingly turned out to be a strong challenge for the audience. Tarr, actually still one of the most famous Hungarian filmmakers, declared that it would be his last film and remained faithful to his announcement until today. Radical in its reduction, relying on the subtle variation of recurring elements, the film provokes the expectations of viewers who insist on a more fulfilling cinematic experience instead of being confronted with ever less sensual impressions throughout two and a half hours till the end in total darkness – or nothingness. “The Turin Horse” presents an apocalypse without, and in contrast to, the grand rhetoric drama of the Bible (in the Revelation of St. John) and the action-packed Hollywood movies. On top of that, it denies the promise of the dawn of a new world and the salvation of the faithful and righteous. Instead, cinema itself terminates.

In the discussion, the film was called an apocalypse without God, even without any transcendence. It certainly is, but it’s more. In the beginning (and in its title), it recalls Nietzsche’s experience in Turin witnessing the torture of a horse by its coachman, shedding tears by embracing the suffering animal and falling into silence for the rest of his life, which he spent in a psychiatric hospital. For anyone familiar with Nietzsche’s mockery about, or even contempt for (Christian) compassion, this scene is a turning point which denies his own philosophy glorifying the human will as the driving force of history and a promise for a splendid future, overcoming the weaknesses and passivity of a Christian culture informed by endurance and the cult of suffering. In Tarr’s film, human will is reduced to a stubborn desire for survival, which is doomed in the face of the forces of nature and the course of the world in general. His protagonists, a crippled father and his daughter, experience a total dependency from events beyond their actions and wishes. The essence of “The Turin Horse” is a negative metaphysics. In respect to politics, I regard it as a prophetic allegory, pointing forward to – concerning the internal time of the film’s story – the totalitarian movements of the 20th century, and – concerning the time of its creation – to the new authoritarian, right-wing movements in many European countries.

Béla Tarr’s minimalist apocalypse was followed by a classic of Hungarian cinema, Zoltán Fábri’s “Körhinta” (Merry-Go-Round, 1955). It tells the story of the rebellion of a young couple against the patriarchal order of a village, and especially the bold resistance of a young woman against her father even when he tries to destroy her love by resorting to means of violence. A second storyline, which at least today arouses some sympathy for the father, is the conflict between his insistence on private peasant land ownership and the political intentions of most of the poor villagers to proceed to collective farming instead. The film opens with an iconic sequence in which the lovers whirl around in the air in the seats of a merry-go-round, an image of mutual attraction, enthusiasm, and freedom. Nevertheless, Fábri’s “Merry-Go-Round” remained controversial among the participants, with Hungarian viewers taking it as a propaganda movie and others as an indication of the growing desire for liberation from Soviet rule, which culminated in the Hungarian uprising in 1956.

Miklós Jancsó’s “Szegénylegények” (The Round-Up, 1965) can certainly be read as a reflection of the failure and the suppression of this movement. Situated in a prison camp in the emptiness of the Hungarian lowlands in 1860, it displays a choreography of power exercised by the ruling Austrian military against imprisoned members of resistance groups, maintaining their fight underground after the defeat of the Hungarian Revolution in 1848. A mixture of orders on the verge of absurdity, psychological terror, and only sometimes open violence and cruelty, the film combines disillusionment and a quiet exposure of the mechanisms of oppressive political governance.

A different approach to reacting to the same experience of a failed revolution marks István Szabó’s “Apa” (Father, 1966f), an early work of the probably internationally best-known Hungarian film director. His main character is a young boy who creates an idealised image of his father, a doctor, whom the child never really knew because he died shortly after the war. Only as a young man, he starts to explore the real life of the absent father figure. A dominating fantasy, a fascinating, self-created image instead of a missing reality and their gradual fading obviously point to the promises of socialist theory (or propaganda) and the disappointing reality of socialist rule; self-reflection and growing political awareness, even if remaining implicit, overlap.

A decidedly different world and a different worldview represent the films of Márta Mészáros, labelled the first feminist Hungarian film director. The seminar presented her 1975 film “Örökbefogadás” (Adoption), awarded the Golden Bear and the Otto Dibelius Award of the INTERFILM Jury in Berlin 1975. A mixture of documentary and fictional elements, it portrays Kata, a woman in her forties living alone and working in a factory, who wishes to have a child of her own and, after being rejected by her married lover, decides to adopt. The film avoids formal smoothness and coherence and instead focuses on the resolute and self-confident determination of a single woman who remains aware of the possibility of failure. Thus, the director prefers a sober pragmatism over a maybe more impressive heroism. The reactions of the participants differed between rejection (of a formally dissatisfying film) and respect (for a film following personal aesthetic and substantial choices). As a footnote, I would like to mention that dissent and openness to discussion belong to the essence of INTERFILM projects.

In chronological historical order but screened as the last film of the seminar follows Ildikó Enyedi’s “Az én XX. századom” (My 20th Century, 1989), another film by a female director but even more individual and stylistically challenging than Márta Mészaros’ “Adoption”. As a guest of the seminar, the artist answered questions and remarks after the screening, a real delight for the participants. The challenge of the film rests on treating the 20th century as a great promise based on technical inventions like electricity, long-distance communication by the telegraph, and entertainment like the cinema, inspiring the imagination instead of the age of frightening threats like the two World Wars, totalitarian regimes, and the atom bomb. History, the film insists if only phantasmagorically, is not determined but an open process. The heroes of the film, female twins, follow two totally different fates, one as an anarchist and a potential assassin, the other as a successful vamp. Humour, inventiveness, and reflection combine to create great cinematic pleasure. In the same year, when the film was published unexpectedly, the Iron Curtain fell apart, suddenly transforming hopes and dreams into reality.

The ambivalence of fulfilled dreams, at least in a certain respect, expresses a Hungarian film of the beginning of the 21st century, Nimrod Antal’s “Kontroll” (Control, 2003). It is also an example of the “globalisation” of Hungarian film, the director being born in the United States to Hungarian parents, studying film in Hungary in the nineties of the 20th century, and in 2005 returning to America. (Other, and earlier, examples of Hungarian film artists gaining fame abroad are mentioned by Péter Muszatics.) The film centres on a crew of ticket inspectors in the Budapest metro, despised by the passengers and developing a specific underground living style, marginalised and prepared for any disappointments. The metro in Antal’s film somehow figures as a second world of the hidden and unconsciousness of modernisation, initiated by the liberation from totalitarian oppression in the political changes of 1989/1990. One wonders whether this image of an underground world, beyond the officially visible Hungarian reality, is still valid today.

The latest Hungarian film at the conference, an international co-production with Latvia, Germany and France, “Természetes fény” (Natural Light) by Dénes Nagy (2020), awarded the Silver Bear at the 2021 Berlinale, deals with Hungary’s military cooperation with Nazi Germany during World War II and tells the story of a Hungarian unit fighting against Soviet partisans far behind the front line. The inhabitants of a village, whom they suspected of cooperating with their enemies, fall victim to their desire for revenge, awakened after an attack and heightened by insecurity and disorientation. The director, also a guest and discussion partner at the seminar, addresses the guilt also of those who were not directly involved in the murders. The “natural light” of the film’s title is a dim twilight that not only characterises the shadowy terrain of the rural, sparsely populated hinterland of the external plot but also the emotional and moral ambivalences of its protagonists.

When Dénes Nagy recalls the violence and cruelty of war in the past, the Ukrainian film of the conference, “Atlantis” by Valentyn Vasyanovich (2019), jumps into the near future of a war that was already underway at the time of its creation and spread to the entire country in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The film is set in 2025 in a devastated, no longer habitable region. There, the members of a humanitarian mission are searching for buried and forgotten war victims, who they exhume, try to identify and lay to rest in a dignified burial. It is a post-apocalyptic scenario that harks back to Béla Tarr’s meditation on the end of the world ‒ and at the same time, reveals that we have already arrived in an apocalyptic reality. However, Vasyanovich does not dismiss the spirit of humane resistance. It is manifested in the gesture of bestowing honour on the dead.