Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 4
19 October 1998

K I N O E Y E:
Avant-garde Film and Video in Hungary

Andrew J Horton

The early Hungarian avant garde quickly recognised the potential of cinema, and writers, artists, musicians and actors played leading roles in film-making. With such a broad-based tradition, the evening of Hungarian avant garde film and video proved to be the longest in the Festival of Central European Culture's country by country overview. And it was still only the tip of the iceberg.

Faced with the impossible task of reducing Hungarian avant garde cinema into one evening, curator Istvan Antal chose subjectively and focused mainly on only two themes. Even having limited his selection to 1970-86 for the first set of films and 1996-98 for the second, Antal still presented a gruelling 213 minutes worth of film. The first half explored the relationship between sound and image, a rich association in Hungarian film because of a cultural heritage with a strong emphasis on oral story-telling, lyric poetry and music.

Cim nelkul (Without Title, 1986) and Japan meniszkusz (Japanese Meniscus, 1996) by Lenke Szilagyi and Andras Szirtes respectively were both oneiric, metaphysical poems. The first (and I thought the better of the two) filmed to solo cello music and the second to a Japanese soundtrack. Four of the films related to the life or work of famous composers. Antal's own A hattyu (The Swan, 1986) is a film about Saint-Saens without music. Andras Baranyai in Kozos portre Jane Morrisszal (Jane Morris, 1984) enacts the feelings of the pre-Raphaelite muse to the music of Eric Satie. Jozsef Gujdar contemplates death in his chilling Studium (Study, 1970) - a hugely magnified candle burning out accompanied by Penderecki's "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima." Miklos Erdely uses the music of Schumann in the final part of his Alommasolatok (Dream Reconstructions, 1977), "Herakleitosz toredek" (Herakleit's Fragment).

Miklos Erdely's Alommasolatok (Dream Reconstruction, 1977)The last of these pieces is particularly worthy of mention. Examining the relationship between life, dreams and cinema, Alommasolatok bends our perception like few films can. The central character describes his dreams and his experience of electroshock therapy to a young interviewer who, only being projected onto a cinema screen, regrets she can not meet him in real life. Eventually their desire to meet is fulfilled as she bursts through the screen. Erdely's seductive visual style amuses while his faithful capturing of the texture of dreams keeps you involved in the film. Another work by Erdely, his one-minute zen performance Pihenes (Relax, 1983), was the only video of the evening.

Those of you who have always felt there is lack of films about overweight Hungarians ice-skating while wearing nothing other than the skates and a telephone, will be relieved to know that another highlight of the evening, Putyi Horvath's Hannah und Tarzan (Hannah and Tarzan, 1983), fills the genre admirably. Comic value was also provided by Laszlo Vidoszky, whose Aldrin (1976) describes a meeting with the American space hero at a party.

The second half of the evening concentrated on three longer works. Sebestyen Kodolanyi's Anatomia (Anatomy, 1997), by far the shortest at 13 minutes, is undoubtedly the best work of the nineties at the festival, and I wish I could see the avant garde producing work of this extraordinarily high standard more often. Kodolanyi was once a photographer (until he got bored with it), and this is reflected in this essay on the qualities of light, first in street scenes and then in portraits. The work is infused with dynamism and demonstrates the importance of a good soundtrack - in this case by Suzanne Brokesch - in achieving a total effect. The film has a strict purity to it, with only the slightly weaker second half depriving it of absolute perfection. Wisely, Anatomia finishes leaving you wanting more, rather than risking outstaying its welcome.

Sadly, few avant garde directors these days hold to this philosophy, as the world premiere of Antal's Varnai vagottkak (Varnai Clips, 1998) and Szirtes's A kisbaba reggelije (The Baby's Breakfast, 1996), amongst other films in the festival, demonstrated. The real tragedy is that these films are based on interesting ideas; the former on filming situations acted out from cartoons by the late blackly humorous animator, Varnai and the later on reinterpreting the invention of cinema though a series of home film clips which one of the Lumiere brothers shows his daughter. Antal and Szirtes seem to be so wrapped up in their work that they lose their sense of what captivates the viewer, although it must be said they are clearly trying. Antal lacks the careful balance of humour and despair that the original animations had and strips the ideas of much of their value. Szirtes's film suffers most, it stemming from a rather whimsical and pointless idea (albeit an original one) which is stretched out to forty minutes. Only the quotation of L'Arrivee d'un Train en Gare de la Ciotat, using an intercity train, has any real inventiveness.

Between them, these three films effectively prove that the avant garde at its best is the triumph of the individual over conformity, and at its worst it is the triumph of the rampant ego over basic aesthetic common sense. The festival audiences have generally enthusiastically applauded the older avant garde films and then walked out silently after the contemporary showings. This could be that audiences only appreciate avant garde ideas when their radical conventions have been collectively absorbed and become standard, as may be the case with the "classic" experimental films. I suspect that it is also the case that many directors are more concerned with making a film than having it watched and the audience is looked upon with as much contempt as are, linear narrative, continuity editing and happy endings. This, of course, is tragic, particularly since contemporary music and art for some time now have paid greater attention to the reception side of the artistic process.

The films of Antal and Szirtes are interesting though in that they explore new possibilities in story-telling, a much neglected field in avant-garde film-making and one of great interest to audiences. It would certainly be welcome if this proved to be a growing concern of independent filmmakers.

Andrew J Horton, 19 October 1998

In the same series:

Avant-garde Film and Video in Slovenia

Avant-garde Film and Video in the Czech Republic

Avant-garde Film and Video in Slovakia

Avant-garde Film and Video in Croatia

Avant-garde Film and Video in Poland



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