May 2017, arsenal cinema

Márta Mészáros Retrospective

KILENC HONAP, 1976

Márta Mészáros occupies a unique position in Hungarian film history. Born in 1931, she studied at the VGIK film school in Moscow and afterwards shot numerous documentaries, most of them shorts. In 1968, she made her feature debut with ELTÁVOZOTT NAP (The Girl), which was also the first Hungarian feature to be shot by a woman, thus introducing a defiantly female perspective to Hungarian and European filmmaking alike. The multi-award winning director, who also won the Berlinale's Golden Bear in 1975 for ADOPTION, is active to this day as a filmmaker. In her first features in particular, her cinematic style is marked by documentary realism and precise depictions of different milieus. She later moved towards a more opulent film language, often drawing on symbolic images while remaining faithful to her themes nonetheless. Women are always at the heart of her films – working women, as Márta Mészáros once emphasized in an interview – and their attempts to gain individual and social independence. They regularly rebel against the patriarchal order, but do so without grand words or plans. Relationships are usually of an ambivalent nature, marked by conflicts, and fail due to the men’s rigid understanding of roles, while the women are uncompromising when it comes to insisting on their autonomy and will not be forced into a passive role. What all her female protagonists have in common is their skepticism towards romantic promises and a pragmatism that has no room for illusions. In her early films in particular, Mészáros portrays how woman wrestle with independence and intimacy in unflinching fashion, even as her stance is marked by a huge amount of sympathy for her characters, despite the clarity and lack of sentimentality of her gaze. Márta Mészaros also always understands filmmaking as a reflection of her own biography and the history of her country. Subjects of hers such as the search for motherhood, dealing with loss, and trying to forget are all pervaded by personal experiences. Yet these personal feelings can never be separated from the political circumstances and their effects on the life of normal people – an experience which she as an Eastern European in the first half of the 20th century was unable to escape. This link is particularly evident in the "Diary Trilogy", which Mészáros made in the 80s and can be seen as the center of her oeuvre. In it, her alter-ego Juli Kovács experiences growing up in the politically dramatic times of Stalinism and the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Like Juli, Márta Mészáros spent her childhood in the USSR, to where her parents emigrated in the 30s. In 1938, her father, sculptor Lászlo Mészáros, was arrested by the Soviet secret police and disappeared without trace. Her mother died of typhus a few years later. Márta Mészáros explored the state-sanctioned forgetting of the Stalinist terror and its many victims most recently in 2004's THE UNBURIED MAN, a feature about the last years of Imre Nagy, who, as head of the government, stood up for democratic reforms during the Hungarian Uprising and was later arrested and executed. We are very happy to be able to show a selection of Márta Mészáros's most important films following the tribute to her at the goEast-Filmfestival in Wiesbaden and are opening the film series with ELTÁVOZOTT NAP accompanied by an introduction by Sabine Schöbel.

ELTÁVOZOTT NAP (The Girl, Hungary 1968, 13.5. with an introduction by Sabine Schöbel & 20.5.), Márta Mészáros’s first feature depicts the emancipation process of 24-year-old factory worker Erzsi in subdued, sensitive fashion, who wanders restlessly through her own life. After growing up in a home, she sets out in search of her biological mother, who gave her up after birth. When she arrives in the village she was born in, her mother is already regretting having agreed to a meeting and presents her daughter as a niece from Budapest in front of her family. The silent distance between parent and child is unable to be bridged and Erzsi remains a foreign body in her mother's family. On the train journey back, she reluctantly responds to the advances of a young man, but remains emotionally absent. It's only at the end that the possibility of a future connection shines forth.

A LÖRINCI FONÓBAN (At the Lörinc Spinnery, Hungary 1971, 13. & 20.5.) A documentary short that is a portrait of three female textile-factory workers outside of Budapest. Alongside scenes at work and at home, the women give accounts of their lives: their relationships with men, family obligations, their emotional connection to the factory, all accompanied by music that carries both longing and the promise of levity.

SZÉP LÁYOK, NE SÍRJATOK! (Hungary 1970, 14. & 26.5.) Lively beat music, a group of high-spirited young people on bikes: the first scenes of Mészáros’s third feature already set the tone for the rest of the film and carry an infectious mood of youthful awakening. Yet these young people still lead a structured life of monotonous daily factory work. It’s only at the end of the working day that they can let their hair down at concerts and parties. The taciturn Juli, who is actually engaged to a young factory worker, falls in love with the cellist of a band and follows him on tour. Yet it remains a brief escape: her fiancée tracks her down and gets her to return with him – whether it’s a happy ending or not remains open.

ÖRÖKBEFOGADÁS (Adoption, Hungary 1975, 16. & 27.5.) Two women, two generations, the desire for connection and motherhood. Kata is in her early 40s, a widow, and wants a child from her lover. Anna is 17, was abandoned by her parents, is growing up in an orphanage, and would like to marry her boyfriend as quickly as possible. A cautious relationship of trust and friendship develops between the two women, which enables each of them to find themselves. Sensitively, with a fine grasp of nuance, and a huge amount of concentration, Mészáros depicts complex emotional states. In lengthy shots trained on the faces of the women, she traces how they move towards a self-determined life, in which assumed happiness doesn’t necessarily represent redemption. Via her precise observations of the everyday, Mészáros succeeds in telling a truly piercing story.

KILENC HONAP (Nine Months, Hungary 1976, 17. & 27.5.) Juli comes to a new town to work in a steel factory. She only sees her young son from a previous relationship with a married professor at weekends, as he lives with her parents in the countryside. After some initial hesitation, she starts a love affair with foreman János and is soon pregnant. Already strained from the beginning, their relationship ultimately founders on his petty bourgeois grasp of roles. Juli chooses the path of no compromise, with solitude as its price. The film ends with the birth of Juli’s child, who she will bring up alone. Márta Mészáros filmed the real-life birth of actress Lili Monori, who was pregnant during the shoot.

NAPLÓ GYERMEKEIMNEK (Diary for My Children, Hungary 1982, Juli returns from the Soviet Union to Budapest with a group of Hungarian communists, where she is taken in by childless party functionary Magda. Juli feels suffocated by the strict Magda and her world of privilege. She prefers going to the cinema and dreaming herself into a more beautiful world, which stands in stark contrast to the present one, just like the flashbacks to her memories of the parents she idealized. She finds a father figure in her friendship with Communist resistance fighter and regime opponent János. While Magda tries to conceal the truth about her missing father, who fell victim to the Stalinist terror in the Soviet Union, János doesn’t want to forget the past. By exploring history and its effects on one person’s fate, Márta Mészáros succeeds in creating a fine balance between the collective and the individual.

NAPLÓ SZERELMEIMNEK (Diary for My Loves, Hungary 1987, 20. & 25.5.) Several years later: Juli applies to study at the Budapest Film Academy, but her application is rejected. She finally accepts Magda’s help to get a grant to study in Moscow. She feels at home there and visits the house she used to live in as a child with the help of a friend. Yet despite this, she still feels internally torn between her life in the Soviet Union and her life in Hungary. A documentary film about rural poverty is rejected by her professors: "a director should be able to look behind reality". Mészáros repeatedly shows the contradictions between official policy and the life of ordinary people and thus reveals the hypocrisy of the party apparatus. When János is released, who was in prison for many years for "betraying his people", she decides to make use of the means she has available and one day make a film that will recall this period.

NAPLÓ APÁMNAK ÉS ANYÁMNAK (Diary for My Father and My Mother, Hungary 1990, 21. & 26.5.) "Why do we have to lie? Why can't we think? Why are you scared?" These are the words with which Juli confronts her Moscow friends, who regard the Hungarian uprising of 1956 as a counterrevolution in line with Soviet propaganda. When she’s finally allowed to return to Budapest, she hardly recognizes the city and its inhabitants. Houses are destroyed, the dead are being mourned, and there is a climate of fear and mistrust. In this highly charged situation, Juli takes on the role of the observer, capturing events with her camera: making images as a way of preventing things being forgotten. Once again, people become victims of political circumstance; just as the images of her father being picked up by the police are burned into Juli’s memory, in this third part of the Diary trilogy, the camera can’t keep away from the eyes of János on the gallows.

KISVILMA – AZ UTOLSÓ NAPLÓ (Little Vilma – The Last Diary, Hungary/Germany/Poland 1999, 22. & 28.5.) This titular "last diary" returns to Márta Mészáros's childhood in Kyrgyzstan. It starts in the present: a woman travels by train to the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek to find out the truth about her father, who was killed during the Stalinist terror. Just like Mészáros herself, who only found out at the end of 1999 that her father was executed, she is allowed to see the official files and can begin a mental journey into her childhood and into the connections between Hungary and Kyrgyzstan. 

A TEMETETLEN HALOTT (The Unburied Man, Hungary/Slovakia/Poland 2004, 23. & 30.5.) A long-repressed chapter in Hungarian history was the Soviet suppression of the people’s uprising in 1956 and its victims, including then head of state Imre Nagy, who was executed in 1958 before being rehabilitated in 1989. Márta Mészáros’s feature concentrates on the last two years in the life of Nagy (played by Jan Nowicki, who already played the part of the central father figure in the Diary trilogy), showing him both as a politician and after his arrest, moving between childhood memories and life in the dark prison cell. The film is framed by a visit to Imre Nagy’s grave – an active act of remembrance. (al)

With kind thanks to Gaby Babić, Catherine Portuges (University of Massachusetts Amherst), Petra Palmer and goEast – Festival of Central and Eastern European Film.

May '17