Hyppolit the Butler (1931)
Hyppolit the Butler (1931)

A Book Review by Robert Buckeye.

In Jean-Luc Godard’s Les Carabainares (1963), a soldier at a cinema for the first time sees a woman on the screen, leaves his seat to meet her, and walks into the screen. What he sees he believes to be real, but he does not understand that what we see may not be what is. “The cinematographic window of the visible,” Jacques Ranciere writes, “is itself, to start with, a frame that excludes” (31). The story of popular Hungarian cinema from 1929 to 1947, as Gabor Gergely tells it in Hungarian Film 1929-1947: National Identity, Anti-Semitism, and Popular Cinema (Amsterdam University Press, 2017), puts into the frame what should be there but is not: a presence that speaks of an absence.

The defeat at Mohacs in 1526 put much of Hungary under Ottoman rule for a hundred years through the long centuries in which Hungary was subservient to its partner, Austria, including the failed 1848 revolution for independence, to the Trianon Treaty in 1919 after World War One, in which Hungary lost two-thirds of its land. Hungary’s need for reunification and restoration of its national sense of greatness manifested itself in a cult of martyrdom, the myth of a people defending Christian Europe from Islamist invaders and an affirmation of a racially conceived national identity.

HungarianHungarian films from 1929 to 1947, “a period,” Gergely writes, “in which the narrative of Hungarian victimhood attained the force of a national cult” (16), become, in Gergely’s reading of them, a template for national consciousness, an assertion of Hungarian identity. “It is one of the aims of the book,” Gergely writes, “to show how cinema intervenes…and reinforces and normalizes a representational strategy that excludes Jewish Hungarians from the nation” (96).

Ethnicity, family, church, and the rural are valorized in what became genre films developed in service of the national enterprise. Rural films celebrated the “restoration of greatness, family estates and one’s birthright” (Gergely, 125). Mountain films reminded Hungarians of the mountains they no longer had post-Trianon. Titles were directive: People on the Mountains, Homeward, Homeland. As the Horthy government passed anti-Semitic laws, Hungarian films became increasingly anti-Semitic, and Jews who had been integral in the industry could no longer work or did so under pseudonyms. Hungarians Istvan Szekely and Bela Gaal directed 44 films that were not considered Hungarian films because they were Jewish. As early as 1919, Dezso Szabo’s The Swept Away Village placed the blame for national traumas on modernity: “the Jews.”

In Hungarian Resurrection (Kiss and Csepegly, 1939), of which only an eleven-minute fragment remains, the story of lovers, separated by the new borders the Trianon Treaty established, intercut with documentary footage of Hungarian troops reclaiming Hungarian land it had lost to Slovakia, is characteristic of the national imperative. At one point in the film, Horthy rides through Kossa on a horse, a city that had been Hungarian until the Trianon Treaty ceded it to Czechoslovakia, where it was renamed Kosice.

Hyppolit the Butler (Szekely, 1931), the most successful Hungarian film of the thirties, was remade several times, most recently in 1999, as well as staged 24 times. In 2000 it was voted one of the dozen best films in Hungarian history. It is the story of Schneider, a petty bourgeoisie, who becomes wealthy through hard work and hires a butler, Hyppolit. Hyppolit imposes his will on the family to civilize them. Schneider must dress for dinner. He must drink brandy instead of palinka. His over-weight wife is put on a diet. The Schneiders cannot adapt to the ways of the modern world and revert to who they are. “I’ll grow a moustache again,” Schneider says. The film is seen by the West to be, “a satire on middle-class pretentiousness,” (Petrie, 4), but is understood by the East, Gelgely argues, to be also “a cautionary tale about the impossibilities of turning a ‘Jew’ into a gentleman” (109).

Hyppolit the Butler begins with a long tracking shot of the camera moving past lorries blocked by a horse-drawn carriage. There are the sounds of horns followed by the first human voice in Hungarian cinema: a curse. It is a curse that stretches back to Mohacs in 1526 and forward today to Urban’s Hungary. Schneider’s moustache is its analogue. This was, as Nietzsche says. “It is part of a certain history,” Ranciere writes, “it is history” (4). A history that has never been forgotten and must always be reclaimed. One manages to make evident one’s resistance however one can.

Somewhere in Europe (1947)
Somewhere in Europe (1947)

In Somewhere in Europe (Radvanyi, 1947), a group of children orphaned by war band together to stay alive, however they can. They raid untended farms and fields. At one point they take the boots from men hanged by the wayside. In a castle they occupy, they sing, dance, and drink, but are stopped from putting the owner of the castle to death by one of their own. A transformation takes place. The owner of the castle, an elderly musician, becomes the father they do not have. He teaches them how to live with one another. The local villagers discover the children are in the castle and attempt to put them in prison for the crimes they have committed. In an impassioned speech the musician shames the village. It had created the circumstances in which the children found themselves that had forced them to do whatever they could to stay alive. “A film that deserves to be much better known than it is,” Graham Petrie writes, “and at least to rank alongside such Italian neo-realist works as Open City and Bicycle Thieves” (7).

People on the Mountains (1942), directed by auteur Istvan Szots, is a story of class conflict between forestry workers and their landlord, mitigated by the beauty of its opening and closing scenes. After a logger has baptized his son, he takes him through the forest, introducing him to the trees and birds, the flora and fauna with whom he will live. As they move through the forest, neighbors appear with gifts for the boy. After his wife dies, the logger kills his landlord. His fellow loggers are unable to prevent him from being jailed, but in a moment of compassion and community they perform a Nativity play they have written for the boy. “The quality of the film,” Petrie writes, “comes from the sobriety of its treatment, its rejection of melodrama or overt pathos, its steady concentration on facts rather than emotions (6).

That the modern world has not only made orphans of Hungarians but also compromised the natural world in which they live cannot be missed in the films of this time. This is the main focus of Gergely’s study, though often scattershot and too concerned over disputes with other writers. While he’s more interested in Hungarian consciousness than its cinema, the history portrayed in the films has never been forgotten and must always be reclaimed. One manages to make evident one’s resistance, however one can.

Robert Buckeye is author of nine books, including Still Lives, a novel about the Kent State shootings, and Fade, a novel of Bratislava, and has written articles on literature, art, and film. He divides his time between Vermont and Bratislava.

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