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Servants / Sluzobníci, Slovakia, Romania, Czech, Republic Ireland, 2020

Posted by keith1942 on June 25, 2022

This very fine drama was screened on Film 4 recently. It appears that this is the only release that the title has received in Britain. And it is available on All Four for the coming two and a bit weeks.

The movie is set in the 1980s in Bratislava: once part of the kingdom of Hungary: incorporated into Czechoslovakia after World War I: and part of the newly independent Slovakia in 1993. The action takes place in a seminary in the years of the suppression of a liberal regime in Czechoslovakia which has been replaced by a so-called communist regime subservient to The Soviet centre of Moscow.

Two young students enter the seminary and we follow their careers as they are caught between elements in the Roman Catholic Church that are attempting to co-exist with the regime: and dissident elements who favour resistance, represented in the film by Radio Free Europe.

Predictably this is a dark and gloomy story; the opening sequence is set at night, and opens with only audio and then the disposal of a corpse near a railway underpass. In fact, this action occurs somewhere in the middle of the narrative. Such Brechtian techniques occur several times and add to the ambiguity of the movie. It is not always easy to identify characters; their talk and actions are frequently unclear without revealed motivation. And the face they present to other characters and the audience can be deceptive.

This makes for a fascinating exploration, not just of the religious world of catholic clergy, but the wider cultures of conformism and resistance. One review made a comparison with the earlier Ida (1913). There are parallels, especially since both titles address the world of religion, though the earlier film is set in Poland and in the 1960s. One of the three writers for Servants also worked on Ida, Rebecca Lenkiewicz. And, like Ida, Servants is shot in excellent black and white cinematography and in academy ratio. The accompanying soundtrack uses Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, BMV: 1041 Allegro; its recurring passages are ideal for this tale.

The director, Ivan Ostrochovský, the other two writers, Marek Lescák, Ivan Ostrochovský, and the cinematographer Juraj Chlpik, are all new to me. But I will certainly look out for future work as all make fine contributions, as do the supporting craft people.

What catches a viewer from the opening sequence is the quality of the mise en scène and the cinematography. There is lustrous low-key lighting and chiaroscuro: distinctive camera work and excellent locations and sets: some of which offer recurring images that take on their own relevance. Everyday and ordinary actions become significant through repetition. The editing by Jan Danhel, Martin Malo and Maros Slapeta is sharp and frequently draws links through the cutting. All helping to create a grim, repressive and low-key sense of threat and doom.

The title is being distributed by Film Movement; available in some format in Europe, North America, China and Japan.. This page gives the aspect ratio as 1.33:1. For my money the title is in academy ratio; that is 1.37:1. There seems to be a lot of confusion about these ratios. 1.33:1 was the standard ratio for silent cinema; when sound cinema came in the addition of a sound track led to the adjusted ratio of 1.37:1. With digital cinema there is no longer a print and, therefore, neither the addition on the print of a sound track. I have come across some modern titles that are actually 1.33:1 but, by and large, titles using the older ratio seem to be 1.37:1. Film journals do not help; it is only recently that Sight and Sound finally dropped reviews which described these sound title videos as 1.33:1; if actually in that ratio the image frame was undoubtedly cropped. To complicate viewers investigations the stills on the Film Movement pages actually seem to be 1.50:1.

The title runs 74 minutes, [81 minutes in theatrical format]. The sub-titles are clearly legible. How accurate they are is, for me, a matter of conjecture. Currently the only way to see this title in Britain is on All Four; a sad reflection on the distribution of movies here. Note, it is only available for another eighteen days.

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A Wasted Sunday / Squandered Sunday / Zabitá needle, Czechoslovakia 1969

Posted by keith1942 on November 5, 2018

This film was screened in the ‘Time Frames’ programme at the Leeds International Film Festival. I had never come across this title before and it seems little-known. The film, a first feature, was banned on completion. The production had halted for a time because of the arrival of Soviet tanks and it was completed after the Soviet-led forces forced a change in government. The film was only released in Czechoslovakia in 1990 and here in Britain in 2016. The director, Drahomíra Vihanová, had previously made one short film, Fugue on the Black Keys (Fuga na cerných klávesách, 1965), in black and white and running 34 minutes. After this feature she was banned and only able to make short documentaries in the late 1970s and 1980s. Her next feature was not produced until 1994, Pevost. She died in 2017 so this screening was posthumous.

The film has a commentary in voice-over and frequent on-screen titles which offer what at times appear to be quotations, some of which have a religious or moral tone. The protagonist, around whom the whole film revolves, is Arnošt (Ernest – Ivan Palúch), a commander of an army unit stationed in a small town and backwater. We follow Arnošt through the Sunday, from his awakening to the end of the same evening. We see him in his mess of a room and with a friend and fellow army companion Ivan (Petr Skarke). We see him at the local army barracks; pretty desolate. And we see him drinking and socialising in a bar, though he is nearly broke. At times we watch what are flashbacks motivated by Arnošt; but there are also fantasies or dream sequences motivated also by him.

Much of the flashbacks and dream sequences concern women and sexual activity. Arnošt seems to be fairly manipulative in his dealings with men . But his dealings with woman are of a different order. I think the term misogynist is often an overused term: some male prejudices are not of the same order as real hatred or contempt for women. But Arnošt struck me as a fully-paid-up misogynist. There is one regular female companion, I think this is Irene (Irena Boleslavská), who he treats with real contempt whilst exploiting her affection for him.

Panelstory aneb jak se rodí sídliště

There is also a separate sequence that opens the film. This is a funeral in a local cemetery, and it seems to have been Arnošt’s mother. I am not clear how much this might be an explanation for some of his behaviour and actions in the subsequent film. I do not think we ever have a further reference to the loss.

The film has English sub-titles but quite a few of the Czech on-screen titles filled the frame and it was difficult to read the sub-titles, so I am unsure how much I missed and what was its import.

I have to say that I did not fully engage with this film. Arnošt is the most objectionable protagonist I have seen for some time; [Marcello in Dogman is a victim by comparison). And stylistically I found the film somewhat of a melee. A friend remarked that he thought that the director

‘had scoured the history of cinema for techniques’.

There are expressionist scenes, partly surrealist scenes, but also many that seem mainly realist. And at time we get editing that is almost Soviet montage. I did find that I found the film more interesting towards the end, perhaps I found the disparate strands coming together. The ending is worthy of a noir film. We have earlier seen Arnošt playing with his revolver and several scenes on shooting range. Almost predictably he shoots himself, off-screen. But we then see Ivan in the role of local commander.

The Festival Catalogue commented on the film :

‘Squandered Sunday is an indelible portrait of a man overcome by the banality of his existence, and a powerful political allegory for Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring was crushed.”

I though any political allegory was weak, but this was 1979 so overt parallels or symbolism were probably not possible. But since the film was in production at the time of the Soviet-led invasion it would seem that the film is more likely a comment on the situation in remoter places and the persistence of a social order that the reforms led by Alexander Dubček were meant to change. It also struck me that the cemetery scene, which seems distinct from the rest of the film, might have been added later in the production as a veiled reference to the suppression of the reform movement. This would explain an unusual facet; both Arnošt and Ivan are credited [on IMDB] as having separate actors acting and voicing the characters. A sequence added later would be a possible reason for this.

I have not seen Drahomíra Vihanová’s other films. However, her early short, Fugue on the Black Keys, focusses on a black African musician performing in Prague. He encounters racism but the most affecting moment is when he hears that his family back home has perished, [the cause is not given]. To the extent that I was able to find out the content of her other films it seems they frequently deal with relationships, isolation or exclusion and alienation. That would certainly tie them to this title, A Wasted Sunday. Perhaps her films bring together her own particular concerns with the larger concerns in a Czechoslovakia oppressed by occupation.

The titles on the film translated the Czech as A Wasted Sunday but it seems that Squandered Sunday is the circulated title. We were fortunate in viewing a good 35mm print. Shot in black and white in academy ratio it has excellent cinematography by Zdenek Prchlík and Petr Volf. The editing was by Miroslav Hájek who presumably was fully occupied with the cutting of the film also well done. The music by Jirí Sust is often discordant, which fits the narrative. The screenplay was by Jirí Krenek from his own novel and involved the director in the writing. The film was screened at the 2017 Cinema Ritrovato which presumably gave it exposure. It is good that the Leeds Festival also gave an opportunity to see this little-known film.

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1945, Hungary 2017

Posted by keith1942 on October 21, 2018

This is a fine Hungarian film that, so far, does not appear to have enjoyed a proper British release. I was fortunate to catch it at the Sheffield Showroom. It was screened at the Berlin Film Festival, where it was popular with audiences, and it has screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Now Filmhouse, the Edinburgh based exhibitor have made it available. So far there is not a Sight & Sound review.

The film is set on August 12th 1945, commencing precisely at 1100 as a train arrives at the railway station in an unnamed village. The location seems to be south of Budapest not far from the Danube river.

The train deposits two figures dressed in black and accompanied by two large boxes. They have already arranged for a carter to collect the boxes and taken them into the village. Among the onlookers is a jeep containing three Soviet soldiers, signs of the Soviet occupation of Hungary following the defeat of the Nazi occupation. Whilst they are tangential to the plot the jeep constantly re-appears, reminding viewers of the state of Hungary at this moment in time.

The station master immediately identifies the two stranger as Jews. He races in panic to report this to the Town Clerk, Szentes István (Péter Rudolf). As the opening suggests this visit will bring up memories amongst the townspeople, and they turn out to be memories of apprehension, fear and guilt.

In the course of a couple of hours we watch as the two visitors follow the cart at a slow pace to the small town and to a disused Synagogue. Whilst this happens the town’s people are preparing to celebrate the wedding of Istvan’s son Szentes Árpád (Bence Tasnádi). But his bride-to-be finds that her former lover has returned after apparently serving in the Soviet forces; he is clearly characterised as leftist whilst István is a grasping entrepreneur. Árpád has a suppressed conflict with his father and relates strongly to his mother. But she, alienated in the marriage, appears to be addicted to ether sniffing.

István seems to have the strongest feeling of apprehension and guilt, shared by the town policeman and the local orthodox priest. As the film progresses viewers get a sense of what haunts these people from the past, though this is not fully explained until near the end of the film. Jewish inhabitants were taken away by the Nazi Gestapo in 1944. But prior to that István, the policeman and and the priest, were involved in a scam with the fascists to appropriate Jewishness property. The key property is a village store and pharmacy which is now run by István. The store sells perfume, an item which the station master believes may be in the visitor’s boxes; a use of props which is an example of the way the film uses signs to power the plot line.

What the inhabitants know and fear is only gradually revealed whilst the film never really gives us access to the feelings or motivations of the two Jewish men. Thus the viewer is caught up in the developing tensions in the town, whilst the characters wonder what the events signify. In the short space of time conflicts, suppressed emotions and, for some characters,, hysterical fears develop. There is illicit sex, a suicide and finally arson.

By the resolution both the inhabitants and the audiences find that their expectations have not been met, the outcome seems unexpected. But the internal conflicts of characters and town produces a dramatic resolution which is an apt punishment for the sins now exposed. With a fine formal logic the film ends as the two Jews and another character leave the station on another train, watched once more by the Soviet soldiers.

It is probably apparent that the film is influenced by classical Western. The obvious parallel would be Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) but there are also traces of High Noon (1952). This is empathised by the fine black and white cinematography by Elemér Ragályi. The flat Hungarian landscape, reminiscent at some points of the films of Miklós Jancsó, provides a suitable canvas for the varied journeys to the town. And the town itself, with its centre the village square where is sited the contentious shop, resembles a cauldron. The wedding preparations take place outside, on a hot summer day. But even with the interiors one senses the stifling atmosphere of a sultry day.

The director, Ferenc Török, is experienced but this is the first of his works I have seen. He displays an excellent control over the acting, the setting and such craft work as the editing. The script is by Ferenc Török, a writer of novels, stories and screenplays: this is an adaptation of one his own stories, ‘Homecoming’. The other contribution that struck me was the musical soundtrack by Tibor Szemző, a musician and composer with quite a few film titles to his credit. In the early stages of the film the music sounded rather slightly anachronistic but in the later stages the themes came together, suiting the revelations which the film had also withheld.

I think this film will take some effort to access at a cinema. But it will repay all such efforts.

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Ida Poland, Denmark, France, Britain 2013

Posted by keith1942 on September 29, 2016


This film received high praise on its release. I included it in my top five new releases when it arrived in the UK. Pawel Pawlikowski directed the film from a script by himself and Rebecca Lenkiezewski. Pawlikowski has worked in the UK for a number of years and this is his first film set in Poland where he was born and spent his early years. Praise has also been heaped on the design, cinematography, editing and music. The film was shot on digital and then processed to create a black and white image in Academy ratio. The film has a distinctive look with the grainy surface found on celluloid whilst the predominately static camera and minimal non-diegetic music create an atmosphere of silent contemplation.

The film opens on Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young novice in a Convent about to take her vows – poverty, chastity and obedience. She was bought there as a child and is now 18. The Superior sends her out into the world to visit her only surviving relative, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza) who lives in Lodz. Ida’s visit leads to her discovering that her parents were Jewish and died during WWII. Wanda drinks and has occasional affairs despite being a judge. These two seemingly ill-matched women embark on a journey to find out more about Ida’s parents and their fate. Along the way they seek out people where the parents (Lebensteins) lived and also meet with a young jazz musician, Lis (David Ogrodnik). Wanda’s life changes drastically following the odyssey, what Ida’s future will be is ambiguous.

S&S notes the film is set in 1961, presumably from information in the Press Pack. The film is opaque on both dates and to a degree places. But we are in the so-called Polish Socialist society of the early 1960s. The Regime has hardened into a fairly repressive society whilst the economy seems to have little developed since the end of the war. One character invites the protagonist to join him on a visit to Gdansk, clearly a reference to the future and Solidarity.

The class viewed the film and then discussed it. What follows is my record of the many comments and the incomplete consensus on the film, though all enjoyed and/or were impressed by it. Students commented on the film’s feel of grim scarcity, both material and emotional. There are a few moments of liveliness or even joy: the dance at the hotel where the women stay: moments Ida’s spends with her fellow novices: and, though less certain, a jazz club. Whilst Wanda offers frequent extrovert behaviour Ida is mainly placid. There are a few moments of emotion: a silent laugh in the Convent refectory, but unexplained; a tear as a fellow novice takes her vows; and another as she bids farewell to Wanda.

Everyone was impressed by the style of the film. Much of the feeling generated and our sense of the characters is communicated visually. The film features a number of shots with characters set against windows. Then, at the climax we see a character by an open window.  And the film also works through the music. Suitable for Ida is a Bach theme whilst Wanda enjoys a Mozart symphony. And Lis plays a piece by John Coltrane.

It seemed clear that Ida is an outsider in this Polish society. This enables her to offer a rather detached viewpoint. Intriguingly nearly everyone she meets behaves slightly differently with her, as she wears her nun’s habit for most of the film. The Catholic religion is a key component in Polish culture; even to this day, so religion also offers a separate set of values in the film. And this is enhanced by the presence of Jewish characters and our awareness of the persecution during war years: a persecution in which many Poles were complicit.

There was some discussion of the camera work in particular. The film adheres for most of its length to static camera shots. Even when there are tracks, six or seven, these also use a fixed camera on a car, tram or dolly. However, and this suggests the ambiguity at the end of the film, our last sight of Ida, again wearing her nun’s habit, is in a reverse hand-held [or simulated on a Steadicam] camera. There are also several notable and impressive shots. One is an acute low angle, through a balustrade, as Ida reaches an agreement with a man who knew her parents. Another is a high angle shot of the hotel stairwell as Ida ventures down to the dance below. And there is a stunningly ambiguous shot as Ida wraps herself in a lace curtain after a particular tragic sequence. One aspect of the film is how it revisits the style and approach of the Polish and Eastern European cinemas of the 1960s: often subversive views of their societies.

One intriguing suggestion was that the film could be seen as a road movie. Certainly the film offers an odyssey for Ida, who meets a range of characters to whom she responds in different ways. And the end the film poses the question – has she arrived or does the road continue.

Production Design by Katarzyna Sobanska and Marcel Slawinski. Cinematography by Lukasz Zal and Ricard Lenczewski. Editing by Jaroslaw Karminski. Music by Kristina Selin and Eidnes Anderson.

Running time 80 minutes with English subtitles.


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Films by Vĕra Chytilová

Posted by keith1942 on April 11, 2015


Chytilová was one of the important filmmakers in the Czech New Wave and one of the outstanding women filmmakers in Europe at that time: fortunately less of a rarity now than then. Her most famous film is Daisies (Sedmikrásky. 1966). The film is a collage of colour, editing and avant-garde techniques: it follows the adventures of two young women. The film appears anarchic and Chytilová ’s work is often described as ‘Dadaist’. Certainly this was the most radical of the films to emerge in 1960s Czechoslovakia: the authorities tried to prevent its release. It subverted the prevailing cultural and gender politics, though Chytilová resisted the label of ‘feminist’. The film was screened at an earlier Leeds International Film Festival: unfortunately this used a DVD rather than film or DCP, and one of the screenings had a live musical accompaniment! But Chytilová ’s use of sound is equally important as her play with images.

So it was a pleasure when the Hyde Park Picture House screened two of her earlier student films, courtesy of the Czech Centre London and the Czech National Film Archive. The films have been restored from the original camera negatives by the Imagine Ritrovato in Bologna; fast becoming the foremost European laboratory for the production of such work. The result looked and sounded good and the two films [both from 1962] were an absorbing but also entertaining 85 minutes.

The first film was A Bagful of Fleas (Pytel blech). This was set among a group of young women working in a cotton-spinning factory and housed together in a women’s dormitory. The film opens with the arrival of a new worker [‘fresher} Eva. And she is the narrative voice of the film, whilst the focus is a young and unruly worker, Jana. The film takes in the highly organised ‘socialist’ culture and working environment. There is a disciplinary meeting involving not just manager and foremen, but other workers. The title of the film comes from a disparaging comment by an older man, some sort of supervisor, on the group of girls. We see the girls at work, in their leisure and with their interests in popular song and [predictably] men.

What gives the films its distinctive quality is the form and style. Much of the film has that fresh, observational use of the camera, which was one of the hallmarks of the Czech New Wave. But the film also has a mainly subjective viewpoint. We see characters and events from Eva’s point-of-view: her voice provides an intermittent commentary on the soundtrack and sequences are often shown through a subjective camera. In fact, only at the end of the film do we see Eva herself. One can see here already some of the tropes and motifs that were to appear in Chytilová ‘s mature films.

This cinematic approach was even more apparent in Ceiling (Strop). This film follows approximately 24 hours in the life of a medical student also working as a model, Martha. We see her modelling and on the cat walk: at mealtimes and with friends, and at parties. The film in some ways parallels Agnes Varda’s very fine Cleo From 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 À 7, 1961). However, the Czech film differs in two important respects: Cleo, and the audience, learn of the problem that preoccupies her throughout the film right at the outset: whilst with Martha it is over halfway through the film that we learn of her pre-occupation. In addition Cleo encounters a sympathetic young soldier: all of the man in Ceiling struck me as unsympathetic.

The style with both films is also very different. Ceiling uses the elliptical editing that was also apparent in A Bagful of Fleas and which is the hallmark of Chytilová ‘s later films. Whilst Ceiling still has an observational feel there is a greater use of camera and sound techniques which typify avant-garde film. There is a restless camera, jump cuts and a range of angles and distances. The sound ranges through the diegetic and non-diegetic, both with noise and music. And some of the film has a strongly subjective feel and some a more distant presentation. Some critics have made comparisons with the films of Michelangelo Antonioni: what I was most reminded of was L’Eclisse, which itself only came out in 1962. And there is an impressive night-time scene as Martha wanders the urban spaces, which reminded me forcibly of Claude Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes  (1960). This is not necessarily a question of a direct influence. There are common stylistic and thematic tropes across the European New Waves, as they responded to often common and dominant cinematic conventions and common cultural restrictions.

Dina Iordanova (2003) suggests that the Czech New Wave, whilst often quite divergent, did share certain common traits;

The specific manifestations of the Czechoslovak New Wave style can be reduced to an idiosyncratic combination of several characteristics. These include the interest in contemporary topics (often tackled with documentary authenticity), the subtle humour (often bordering on the absurd), the use of avant-garde and editing techniques (often deployed with astonishing persistence) and the attention to psychological detail (often better revealed in the exploration of interactions within a group rather stand in studies of individual protagonists).

Of course, Iordanova is writing about more than style here, but much of her description can be seen in these two films by Chytilová. The one point to emphasise is that A Bagful of Fleas is very much about group interaction whilst Ceiling is a study of an individual protagonist.


Someone remarked after the screening that it was ‘worth turning out on a Sunday to see these films’. Absolutely. The Hyde Park, a month of so later, also screened one of Chytilová ‘s major features, Fruits of Paradise (Ovoce stromu rajských jíme,1970) on April 30th. Possibly her most avant-garde work, the film uses an extraordinary mix of unconventional imagery and sound: whilst the ‘plot’ offers a symbolic treatment of gender issues. The title is variously translated to include either ‘Paradise’ or ‘Garden’. The former makes more sense because the wealth of illusions include quite a few with biblical resonances. We are in a garden with a central focus on a tree, referencing the book of Genesis. The film spends a lot of time focusing on fruit and vegetables and is reminiscent in style of the Czech Mannerist movement. There are a cat and an owl and mirrors, stones and bikes. At times it as if we are in Alice in Wonderland and then Through the Looking Glass. In this tale one protagonist is a serial killer: the dark centre of so much of modern cinema. There is a shadowy noir mansion. As with her earlier films Chytilová offers impressive visual and musical tropes, which fill out the settings and symbolism. The colour palette is dominated by reds and whites. And finally we find characters buried on a beach recalling Un Chien Andalu. This is appropriate because this film feels more Surrealist than Dadaist. Whilst at times it seems to delve into dreams it is also constructed very much around desire. The excellent Time Out concludes on this film with:

It is both of its times and outside the clock in its intent.

It did not go down well with the establishment of the time: Chytilová was banned from filmmaking for six years.

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The Last Report on Anna / Utolsó Jelentés Annáról

Posted by keith1942 on April 4, 2011

Anna with Peter

Hungary 2009, Hunnia Filmstúdió. 103 minutes [apparently the version released in Hungary is shorter, only 90 minutes]. Colour, Hungarian with English subtitles.     Director: Márta Mészáros. 

Screened at the Bradford Interntional Film Festival, 2011.

Mészáros has had a long career in the Hungarian film industry. She started working on documentary in the 1950s and moved to features in 1968. She has made over two dozen features: though many have not been seen in the UK. Earlier films have won prizes at the Berlin and Cannes Film Festivals. She deals very powerfully with issues affecting women, but also shows a recurring concern with the troubled history of her country in the C20th. A series of semi-autobiographical films focused on the tragedy of the 1956 uprising. This new feature deals in part with that story.

Unfortunately instead of a 35mm print we viewed a version on Digibeta. The image quality was not particularly good and also variable in clarity: meanwhile the aspect ration, probably 1.78:1 showed signs of cropping and squeezing, [possibly down from 1.85:1:] this was especially noticeable in the frequent large close-ups. This rather limited my appreciation of what appeared to be some extremely well crafted sequences.

The film story connects actual history with fictional reconstruction. The female protagonist, Anna Kéthly (Enikö Eszeyi) is a figure from the historical record, a member of Imre Nagy’s government. The key male figure, Péter (Ernie Ferkete) is invented. In an opening sequence he confesses to a younger brother how he worked as a State Security informant in the 1970s. His task, in which he failed, was to inveigle the exiled Anna to return to Hungary. His tale revisits earlier traumatic times in Hungary’s history, and also the repressive regime of a Soviet satellite. But the prime focus is on exile and lost love; Péter is the nephew of Faragó (György Cserhalmi), Anna’s lover who remains in Hungary, [the younger version is also played by Ferkete].

The story opens in a café in 1991, a television is covering the withdrawal of Soviet troops as the Soviet Eastern Empire collapses. The younger brother is leaving for the United States, and Péter, fearful of the exposure that will follow on the collapse of the regime, confesses to his past.

He starts with his recruitment by the State Security. He worked as a Lecturer in Literature and the carrot that was dangled before him was a trip to Brussels to lecture on his main interest, the troubadours of Walloon. His preparation for the trip and his task enable to the film to briefly lay out the career of Anna, the first Social Democratic woman MP in Hungary, and a committed opponent first of 1930s fascism, and then of 1950s Soviet repression. When Péter leaves for Brussels he takes with him a box for Anna from his uncle Faragó. We later find that the box contains a coloured scarf and a small volume of poetry.

In Brussels Péter is briefed by his Embassy contact. She is a forceful and attractive woman who in a later scene leads Péter off by his tie, presumably to ‘have her way with him’. He visits Anna and despite her suspicions and the stronger ones of her sister Magda (Zsuzsa Czinkóczi), Anna develops a relationship with him. He clearly reminds her of Faragó, from whom she has been separated for over fifteen years. The separation followed on from the failure of the 1956 uprising. Anna has remained in the West first as a delegate at the United Nations, then as a key member of émigré opposition to the Soviet puppet regime.

The early scenes in Brussels are in a sunlit park, where hippies play and sing. This expresses the delight of Péter as he enjoys the unusual freedom of his position. However, increasingly the days are wet and windswept, as the darker aspects of the past resurface. Anna is torn not only because of her feelings for Faragó but also because of the separation from Poland. The subtitles [not always reliable] repeatedly refer to ‘emigrants’ in terms of Anna and her group. I assume this emphasised the separation they endured. And her last words to Péter are the wish that ‘she should be buried in Hungarian soil’.

One aspect of the plotting in Brussels is the evidence of Anna’s status as a critic of the Hungarian regime. A late scene shows her birthday celebration where telegrams with good wishes include one from the Belgium King. It is at this party that she learns that her old love Faragó has died. A related example is a visit from a woman in an expensive car with diplomatic plates. Golda, [it is in fact Golda Meir is an old friend from the United Nations. I found this slightly odd at first, given that Israel’s action in Palestine paralleled those of the Soviets in Hungary]. However, Anna points out in conversation that whilst she has lost a homeland Golda has achieved one. This points to the films major limitation, which is a lack of analysis of political positions. Mészáros tends to privilege the personal over the political. So all we learn of the 1930s fascists is their introduction of anti-Jewish laws. There is no real discussion of the politics of the Social Democrats or the Communists in Hungary. Likewise little is learnt about the émigrés: Péter mentor at the Embassy claims that the CIA at one point funded them, but this is not developed.

The personal continues with a parallel in the relationship and separation between Péter and his wife Kati (Gabriella Hámori). The reward for activities on behalf of the state means that she also obtains a passport and joins him in Brussels. However, she is appalled when she discovers his subterfuge and proposes that they stay in the west. Shortly after she leaves him and moves to Paris.

Poetry is important in the narrative. The small volume of poems exchanged between Anna and Faragó appears three times: [I assumed these were by an actual Hungarian poet]. A stanza of one poem is spoken several times: it acted as a signal between the lovers. But its metaphor of ‘tired legs’ seems also to refer to their situation of Anna.

The film ends once more in the coffee bar in 1991. Péter has now unburdened himself and his young brother leaves for his new life. Péter sits in the bar and raises his glass to an older woman at a nearby table. The same woman sat in the bar in 1971 when Péter had his first meeting with State Security. It provides a reassuring continuity amongst all the pain and separations. And she seems to have outlasted the departing Soviet military, once again seen leaving in the Television coverage.

In keeping with Mészáros earlier films the style is restrained, though she uses very large close-up very frequently to examine the characters and their emotions. The final shot of Anna is through rain and soft-focus as she walks in her garden. There is one emphatic overhead shot at the close of the flashback. The film also makes frequent use of old newsreels, which are generally well integrated. There are also recreations of ‘dour bygone Budapest’, though some of these were less than convincing, and seemed out of period.

I found it an absorbing film, which I should like to see in a good print. The travails of Soviet occupation across Eastern Europe have been covered in a number of films now. This has a parallel feeling to Margaret von Trotta’s The Promise (Das Versprechen, 1994).  Mészáros’ feature repeats a major theme of that film: that it is the woman who escapes the repression and that it is the man who stays behind and becomes a cog in the system.

In 2004 Mészáros’ film about Imre Nagy, A temetetlen halott (The Unburied Dead), was released, but does not appear to have been exhibited in the UK.


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