Hungarian Film Week 2019

The beatiful Corvin cinema in Budapest was the venue for this year’s Hungarian film week. An opportunity to catch up on the Hungarian films that I missed last year, some of which I was quite eager to see. First up was Tegnap (Hier 2018) by Bálint Kenyeres. Even though it’s a first feature, the director has made a splash with his shorts Zárás (1999) Before dawn (2005 and A history of aviation (A repülés története 2009). The latter competed in Cannes. The Tegnap project has had a long and tortured gestation period but finally the film is now completed. The story concerns Victor Ganz, a businessman who has to go to Northern Africa to sort out some problems with a building project. Once there, memories creep up on him and past and present seems to be intertwined. He once had a lover there that disappeared without a trace. What starts as a film that feels highly derivative of works like The Passenger, or even worse the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet set in the region, suddenly crystallizes into something much more interesting and mysterious. I will get back to the film in a separate text.

When I saw Gábor Reisz’ first feature For some inexplicable reason (Van valami furcsa és megmagyarázhatatlan 2014) I liked it but I was not as crazy about it about some other people. It should be said that those individuals were way younger and way more Hungarian than I am, so I might have been an outsider to this description about life in Budapest at the time. I liked its quirky style and the adventurous approach of Reisz’ direction, with a film made on a very limited budget. Now he was back with Bad poems (Rossz versek 2018) this time around, playing the lead, as well as writing and directing. Tamás is 33 years old and has just been dumped by his girlfriend in Paris, of all places. To process his loss he looks back at his life and what lead to the situation he is in. Thus we follow him in a non-chronological rendering of his youth. What begins as a portrait of Tamás and his friends and lovers, turns in to a study of Hungary as well. The film is full of interesting directorial touches but sometimes I get the feeling that Reisz gets trapped in his own ingenuity. There are lots of things to like, and some of the humour is actually quite dark and poignant, not least the gags concerning politics. Still I feel that Reisz could have killed some of his darlings. The fourth wall doesn’t always have to be broken, let alone smashed. Even with those objections in mind, he is definitely a director I will continue to follow.

If Gábor Reisz’ second film shows promise, the same can, sadly, not be said for another second feature: X (X-the eXploited 2018) by Karoly Uj Mészaros. After helming the delightful Liza the fox fairy (Liza, a rókatündér 2015), hopes were high on the director’s sophomore work. This time around we’re presented with a detective story in the vein of recent Scandinavian thrillers. The result is a very generic work, even though the director tries to spark the viewer’s interest with some odd angles and, upside down, drone shots. There is not much to say about this film then to hope that it was a lapse of judgement, and that the first feature was not just a fluke.

György Pálfi might still be mostly known for his first two films Hukkle (2002) and Taxidermia (2006) Later he tried to mount a very ambitious project about Miklós Toldi, that eventually had to be scrapped due to lack of funding. His latest offering, His master’s voice (Az Úr hangja 2018) is loosely adapted from a novel by Stanisław Lem. Once again the word ambitious comes to mind. This is obviously a film with very lofty ambitions and literally cosmic in scope. The story line feels more grounded though. Péter Horvath is travelling to the US in search of his father who disappeared in the seventies to work on science projects, that might involve extraterrestrials. There are flashes of Pálfi’s usual visual flourishes. If some scenes in Free fall (Szabadesés 2014) felt inspired by Fringe ( the man stuck in the wall, to name just one) here they are more difficult to pinpoint. My feeling, admittedly after a single viewing, is that the grand ideas and ambition, are not connected to the, rather mundane, story. What sticks in the mind afterwards are rather a few moments that seems to come from a different film. Maybe a second viewing would open up new dimensions. This is of course not the first time that a work by Stanisław Lem has inspired a film, even in Hungary. Pater Sparrow made 1 in 2009. A wonderful, elusive film, expertly edited by Wanda Kiss. Luckily the whole film is available on YouTube.

Blossom valley (Viragvölgy 2018) is a film that revolves around the Instagram celebrity Bianka Berényi. She plays, or rather embodies Bianka. A sociopath who steals a baby on a whim, hooks up with the mentally disabled Laci, who actually seems to fall in love with her. There’s not much more to the story than that. In my mind there’s not all that much to the film either, even if it has a kind of edgy feel that might appeal to some, including the jury at Karlovy Vary. First time feature director, László Csuja apparently used quite a bit of improvisation during the shooting and that shows.

What if Lajka wasn’t the first living being in space but a gypsy called Lajkó? This question is posed in Lajkó Gypsy in space. (Lajkó cigány az ürben 2018) directed by Balázs Lengyel. Lajós Serbán is a pilot who always dreamed about space. In 1957 it seems he will get a chance to go there, due to the Soviet space program. As a child Lajós experimented with using human excrement as fuel. This resulted in a horrible accident that killed his mother, when a toilet took off into space with her inside. The way this scene is shot makes clear that this will not be a film with subtle humour. The sequence ends with the mother’s blood raining on Lajkó, his father and others witnessing the tragic event.

Thus the tone is set. The film is well-meaning and aims to tackle difficult and sensitive subjects, such as racism and homophobia, but far too often the film slips in to broad, not to say, crass comedy. Characters include closet gays, a Mongolian buddhist and an Estonian suicide bomber. The film outstays its welcome way before the end.

Laszló Nemes’ Sunset (Napszállta 2018) will be covered in a separate text.

Bait and cinematic form

Mark Jenkin is an unusual director in this digital age. To begin with he has a cutting room and that room has a floor. However he doesn’t leave anything on the cutting room floor. That is one of the things we learned during the Q&A of his latest film Bait when it had its world premiere at the Berlinale Forum. The film is shot on 16 mm, incidentally not the first film I saw in that format during the festival. Denis Cotés competition entry Répertoire des villes disparues (Ghost town anthology) was also shot on 16 mm and was one of my favourite films in the competition. Bait however, turned out to be the standout of all the films I saw during the week.

The film is set in a fishing village in Cornwall. Martin is a fisherman whose life has been overturned by the tourism trade. He has been forced to sell the cottage where he was raised to a London couple. His brother on the other hand has embraced the new reality and has started to use the former family fishing boat to take semi drunk tourists on cruises. Martin who is intent on making his livelihood on fishing, catches whatever he can and is set to save money to get his own boat. There is an obvious theme of old vs new, city vs countryside, and the film is highly topical in these Airbnb times. If one is so inclined one might add analogue vs digital to the mix. It’s worth noting though that the film doesn’t get overly didactic. Even though we might sympathize with Martin, does it mean that we have to resent his brother for adopting to the new circumstances? And while the Londoners may not come off as the most sensible people, Jenkin is still far from the simplistic moralizing that the tale might have slipped in to.


We’re working in an art form that is 120 years old, and we already seem to have given up on the discussion of what the form should be.

Mark Jenkin

If the characters are not black and white, the cinematography certainly is, with strong contrasts. Bait is not only shot on 16 mm, but also hand-processed which obviously lends a vintage feel to the project. Still it feels more archaic than nostalgic. Critics have mentioned Russian cinema and Kuleshovian montage. I guess it’s a veritable Rorschach test which director that comes to mind while watching the film. I clearly understand the references made to Eisenstein and also to Vertov’s The man with the movie camera (in particular the contrast between work and leisure.) To me though, the most obvious reference was Jean Epstein. Partly because his films occasionally used the sea as a location (La Tempestaire for instance) but most of all because of the cinematic means employed. Not merely his use of close-ups but also the editing and even the use of flash forwards. In Bait a flash forward including handcuffs is particularly memorable. I also thought of Marcel L’Herbier and his use of montage in L’argent. Whether that says more about me then about the film is an open question. In any case the film is much more than the sum of its cinematic lineage.

Obviously the Q&A at the Berlinale was in high contrast black and white as well.

It is refreshing with a director who is clearly interested in the formal aspects of cinema, and who is not afraid to make bold choices. At the Berlinale Q&A Jenkin lamented the lack of experimentation in contemporary cinema. Something that was all too visible at this year’s rather lackluster edition of the festival. It was a long time ago that I saw a film where every frame felt so purely cinematic. The grainy visual texture of the film with the jarring editing and extensive use of close-ups, felt like a breath of fresh air in a rather disappointing selection. At the risk of overlooking what Jenkin wants to say about class, power and gentrification, to me Bait is first and foremost a love letter to cinema, and it’s clearly handwritten.

Trailer for Bait.

Strange love in Hungary or: How I learned to stop worrying and love Ildikó Enyedi

Initially I was not a big fan of Ildikó Enyedi’s films. I saw her first feature, My twentieth century (Az én XX. Szäzadom ) on television in 1989, just a few months after it received Camera d’or in Cannes for best first feature. At the time I was mostly struck with the amount of intertitles telling us where we were in time and space, and the film literally seemed to me to be all over the place. My friend Lars was enthralled by the film, and tried to explain its virtues to me, but I remained sceptical. Even though I found much to admire in later works like Simon the magician (Simon Mágus 1999) it always felt to me that  the films were bogged down by a certain ponderousness. The director was obviously intelligent and well read, but some things always bothered me like the operatic grandstanding occurring in the use of music, whether it was Beethoven’s seventh symphony in Simon Mágus or the references to Weber’s opera Der Freischütz, in Magic hunter (Buvös Vadász 1994)  

Flash forward to Berlinale 2017. Eighteen years after her last feature film, Teströl és Lélekröl was screened as one of the first films competing for the Golden Bear. I was not sure what to expect. During the 18 year impasse Enyedi had only directed one short as well as numerous episodes of the TV show Terápia. I was charmed by the short First love (Elsö Szerelem 2008) with the director’s daughter in the leading role, but it was made nine years prior to the Berlinale entry, Thus it was with great expectations, but also with some trepidation that I walked in to the Berlinale Palast for the  premiere screening. It didn’t take long before I was completely immersed in the film, and my doubts faded away. The story set in a slaughterhouse about two co-workers sharing the same dreams, was told with a clarity and candour, that was absent from her earlier works. That goes both for the brutal depiction of animal slaughter, as well as the frank sensuality at play, and not least in its droll sense of humour.

Herbai Maté lensed several of the Terápia episodes and provides the film with contained camerawork that, thankfully, doesn’t reach for cheap effects. The recurring motifs never become too obvious. The editing is likewise subtle with consistent pacing, that doesn’t change even in the more dramatic moments. Beethoven and Weber is replaced by Laura Marling’s wistful What he wrote. The acting from first time (and last time, according to the director) actor, Géza Morczányi as well as by Alexandra Borbély and Réka Tenki adds significantly to the naturalistic atmosphere, with veteran actress Itala Békés delivering some of the funniest lines. How the film manages to combine those, more grounded scenes, with the dreamy or metaphysical ones, is the key to its success or failure with the individual spectator. For some it might feel like a rom-com wolf in an arthouse sheep’s clothing, but to this viewer everything came together beautifully. This is a strange love story if there ever was one but even though the main characters act weird and elicit laughter at times, there is still an obvious respect for them. Comments have been made that the depiction of the relationship doesn’t feel modern, and again it’s up to the single viewer, whether the film feels timeless or dated. It is certainly a work of a director who doesn’t worry about ticking all the boxes that might appeal to an audience more worried about what’s topical than anything else. Thus the Golden bear came as a huge surprise, but also felt well deserved. It’s not the kind of film that typically receives awards.

When I later returned to Enyedi’s previous films, I appreciated them more than before. The opportunity to see them on a big screen during the retrospective held by Nowe Horyzonty in 2018 enhanced those impressions. Thanks to the success of On body and soul, her upcoming film is already in the works. It will be an adaptation of Milán Füst’s most famous book, The story of my wife (A ​feleségem története). It is an international production with Léa Seydoux and Anders Baasmo Christensen playing the leads. Füst is of course no stranger to the director, since she made the short Téli hádjarat (winter warfare) in 1991 based on some of his texts. It will be her sixth feature within a 30 year time span. I can’t wait to see the finished result, and hopefully her films will be more frequent in the future.

The Butcher, the whore and the one-eyed man.

 

Coincidence has it that two Hungarian films revolved around slaughterhouses in 2017. Ildikó Enyedi’s Berlinale winner On body and soul (Teströl és lélekröl) and János Szasz’ The butcher, the whore and the one-eyed man. (A hentes, a kurva és a félszemü) The films are not exactly similar though, and the latter didn’t appear in Hungarian cinemas until January 2018. You can read more about Enyedi’s film here

Szász made a name of himself already in 1994 with his second feature, Woyzeck, shot in luminous black and white by Tíbor Máthé. With the exception of The Notebook (A nagy fûzet 2013), Máthé has lensed all of Szász’ features. Now they are reunited with The butcher, the whore and the one-eyed man, once again in black and white. Memories from Woyzeck creeps up on you pretty early on, when you see some of the camera movements. The feeling is reinforced when you follow the actual story. Other films that come to mind are Szürkület and Szenvedély by György Féher. Two great films that will be digitally restored in 2019.

It is a grim tale, set in post-war Hungary in the nineteen-twenties. Based on the famous case of Gusztav Léderer that occurred in 1925, it deals with people hit hard by the war. There was no choice but to resort to criminal acts to make ends meet (meat?). Women were forced in to prostitution. Initially we’re introduced to one such woman, Mici. Her appalling reality immediately becomes apparent. Dorka Gryllus rarely shies away from daring roles, but this might be her meatiest part yet. She manages to leave the brothel, even though it means that she loses all her money,  and hooks up with Léderer. The latter has a plan to approach his former friend, Kodelka,  who owes him money.  Instead of returning the money, Kodelka offers Léderer a job in his slaughterhouse. That is the begining of a love triangle with multiple twists and turns.

You don’t need a butcher’s knife to cut the noir atmosphere in the film, and the images will hold your attention throughout. One might feel that the abundance of abattoir references might overstay its welcome, and that the “meataphors” pile up more than necessary, in particular when a German presence enter the village. Those flaws are marginal though, and János Szasz demonstrates, once again that he is a director to reckon with, and even blogposts run the risk of dropping to many metaphors without fleshing them out.

Systemsprenger

Berlinale 2019

This year’s Berlinale competition, the last one under Dieter Kosslick’s reign, didn’t look so promising on paper. My first dive in was Systemsprenger (System crasher) by Nora Fingerscheidt. The script for the film already won numerous awards. Anyone lead to believe that it’s about a nine year old hacker, that breaks in to Deutsche Bank to untie their connections with Donald Trump, will be disappointed. It is about a nine year old girl though, and a very troubled one at that. Benni is the system crasher of the title. A term that refers to children that constantly break the rules, and don’t fit anywhere in the welfare system.


The idea of the film being about a hacker came from this tweet by Alex Billington.


Dardenne, German style

Benni (who doesn’t like her given name Bernadette) creates chaos wherever she goes. She commits violent acts frequently, and gets booted out of every institution. Due to a childhood trauma involving diapers, she doesn’t allow anyone to touch her face. Her aim is to be reunited with her mother, who is actually afraid of Benni, and doesn’t want her back. We follow her, as well as different social workers who are doing their utmost to help her. One of them, Micha (Albrecht Schuch) is getting closer than is professionally warranted.

The most obvious strength in the film lies in Helena Zengel’s performance as Benni, even when the script is less than subtle. The acting is solid throughout with Gabriela Maria Schmeide being particularly memorable as a childcare worker who never seems to give up. The best scene in the film comes, when she breaks down after yet one more of many failures, and Benni is the one who tries to comfort her. The cinematography by Yunus Roy Imer doesn’t offer much more than realistic colours and drab settings, in the Dardennes brothers vein, occasionally broken (smashed) by some cinematic flourishes, often in pink. The film also oscillates awkwardly between psychological realism, and cheap thrills. An example of the latter is a late scene, involving the above mentioned trauma. A scene that could have offered an opening in to Benni’s warped mind, but instead, the director chooses to ramp up the tension, almost to horror levels.

Even though it is a work that may provoke thoughts and discussions about the subject, it does not really work as a coherent whole, and the repetitive violence becomes numbing after a while. I wouldn’t be suprised if Helena Zengel walks away with a Silver bear though. Hopefully she won’t throw it in to the crowd, as Benni would have done.