Vol 0, No 27
30 March 1999
Documenting Freedom (Part I)
Judit Elek's Egy szabad ember - Fisch Erno elete
Andrew J Horton
Judit Elek is no stranger to connoisseurs of Hungarian cinema. She is largely known for her historical epics of the 1980s, such as Tutajosok (Memories of a River, 1989), which examined Hungary's Jewish past. Today, Elek continues to explore Jewish identity in Hungary through the medium of documentary, as evidenced by her latest film Egy szabad ember - Fisch Erno elete (A Free Man - The Life of Erno Fisch, 1998).
Elek, who was a contemporary of future Oscar-winner Istvan Szabo at the Academy of Theatre and Cinematography, has been making films since the 1960s. Following a long tradition of Hungarian directors who owe a debt to documentary film, Elek developed her own method called Direct Cinema. Under the influence of Truffaut, Elek used improvisation and non-professional actors to create films such as Istenmezejen (A Hungarian Village, 1974) and Egy tortenet (A Commonplace Story, 1975), two intense and powerfully involved works which were sufficiently deep to keep the audiences well away from them.
Egy szabad ember... sees Elek sticking to her documentary phase but also continuing her exploration of Hungary's, and indirectly her own, Jewish roots.
Erno Fisch has one of those lives that documentarists dream about. Born in a small Transylvanian town in 1903, Fisch grew up in an era in which the Austro- Hungarian Empire was still surviving, if not exactly in full swing. He went to a Catholic school for the delightfully pragmatic reason that it was closer than the Jewish one and Fisch's mother did not want her son to have too far to walk in the winter. There was little or no discrimination in those days, and the Fisch family considered themselves Hungarian first and foremost: they spoke Hungarian at home and young Erno knew little Yiddish. Like all Hungarians at the time, Fisch looked to the West. He travelled to Vienna to study and was flung into two worlds, mixing with both with Viennese low-life and the aristocracy, the latter of which he met through his landlady, Schubert's niece.
Historical vantage point
From the joint perspective of rural Transylvania and cosmopolitan Vienna, Fisch was able to witness the full drama of the unfolding century: Bela Kun's early experiment with Communism in Hungary in 1919, the right-wing back lash, the depression, the rise of fascism, Anschluss, the Beldevere award which gave Transylvania back to Hungary, and the lowest point - World War II. Fisch was the only Jew in his village to survive, having cannily fled to the hills just before the deportations began and played an instrumental role in helping to return life to some semblance of normality in the hectic post-war days.
Fisch is an amiable and friendly character and his story quite remarkable. Elek makes it very easy for us to sit back in our chairs and take in Fisch's tale. This is precisely the film's problem. For all the astonishing perspectives Fisch has had on this century, Elek has been unable to form them into anything which actively engages the audience. The effect is not unlike that of a great-grandfather reading a bedtime story to his great-grandchildren.
This in turn has repercussions for what Elek has to say about freedom. Fisch is, of course, a free man in the sense that he is still alive: he has had brushes with danger many times and at several points in his life could have had the freedom to live removed from him. Elek also paints him as a free thinker, a secular cosmopolitan Jew who has a brain between his ears but is not afraid of hard honest work or getting his hands dirty.
However, Elek seems to have a rather lower opinion of her audience. Throughout her film the medium works in only one direction, pouring facts from the screen into the audiences mind. Some of these facts do challenge - for example, the description of the Hungarian army entering Transylvania, causing revulsion as they go by, burgling and looting. The overall thrust of Elek's presentation of Fisch's life, however, gives the audience little freedom to think about and challenge our own view of the twentieth century.
Egy szabad ember... is a charming and fascinating film which fills in some interesting details in our picture of modern Hungarian history. It does not, though, attempt to redraw the boundaries of what we already know.
Andrew J Horton, 30 March 1999
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