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 number 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 into 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 are 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 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 Gjis Naber playing the leading roles. 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 become more frequent in the future.


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 into 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 into 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 surprised if Helena Zengel walks away with a Silver bear though. Hopefully, she won’t throw it into the crowd, as Benni would have done.