If someone is looking for the American dream, Hollywood is a great starting point.
The national ethos is not only sought by Americans, but by many filmmakers around the world, including those Hungarian actors and directors, whose influence in Hollywood filmmaking is so often overlooked. With 3 eras and 5 directors in focus, let’s dive into the Hungary’s contribution to cinema in the past century.
The Golden Age – Michael Curtiz
From Béla Lugosi to George Cukor, the list of Hungarian artists present at the dawn of American film is endless, but the biggest influence during Hollywood’s golden age is credited to Michael Curtiz, director of one of the most famous movies in the history of filmmaking in general: “Casablanca”, known as the pinnacle of classic Hollywood storytelling.
The movie set in Nazi occupied French Morocco about fugitives was directed by an immigrant, but Americans love it the same way – no wonder, since it tells a tale filled with the Americans’ most valued virtues, from heroism to patriotism.
Michael Curtiz, born in 1886, Budapest, fled from his home at the age of 17, to join the circus. He spent his early years touring as a pantomime/actor around Europe, until 1912, the point when his love with movies truly developed in Nordisk, Denmark, where he made his first movie, “The Last Bohemian”. He returned to Hungary to direct his iconic silent film “The Undesirable”, but after the industry was nationalized in Hungary, he decided to leave in search for new opportunities in the west.
After directing “The Moon of Israel” in Vienna, Warner Bros. started to show interest towards him, and by 1926, Curtiz was working for the studio giant, as a well-known director of swashbuckler movies, like “The Adventures of Robin Hood”. To prove his creative diversity, he applied his knowledge of European filmmaking into his next gangster hit movie, “Angels with Dirty Faces”, an important precursor to the 40’s noir films.
By Hollywood standards, “Casablanca” was dealing with heavy topics, complex characters and story, an amazing achievement by which Curtiz earned his well-deserved recognition, when the film won 3 Oscars – including Best Director – at the 16th Academy Awards.
During his Hollywood years, he directed over 100 movies, leaving behind an immeasurable footprint in Hollywood, something that is perceptible even in today’s movie culture.
History and its victims – Jancsó and Szabó
Jumping ahead a few decades, Hungary is in a whole different historical situation. As the country’s filmmaking evolved, new possibilities became available for new talents – coproduction films introduced a new horizon to unknown and experimental visions for many directors. The names of Miklós Jancsó and István Szabó might ring a bell to expert film enthusiast, since both directors’ movie credits include epoch-making works.
Jancsó was searching his way and style during the toughest years of the 50’s, when mostly documentaries and short films were filmed, soaked in communist propaganda. His first feature film “The Bells Have Gone to Rome” kind of hid his true talent behind the era’s ideologies, but after his 1963 movie “Cantata”, he started to develop his trademark parabolic narratives, that culminated in his world-known historical drama, “The Round-Up”.
In the 70’s, Jancsó moved to Italy for a few years, to start his new, also strange and sometimes scandalous creative phase, that proved to be fruitful, but undoubtedly chaotic. His Italian feature film “The Pacifist” wasn’t appreciated by critics and audiences either, and it was a much more conventional, almost didactic film compared to Jancsó’s repertoire. The Italian-Yugoslav collaboration Private Vices, Public Pleasures saw the director’s return to his original style, even if it happened in a quasi softporn-like allegory.
Like Jancsó, István Szabó was always experimental in all his works, but ultimately turned towards popular filmmaking. His most productive years started at the peaking of modern cinema, which is recognizable in his early works. The “Ages of Illusions”, “Father” and “Lovefilm” are among the most influential films in the Hungarian new wave. The trilogy’s main figures are the children of war, in the period of 1956 revolutions, dealing with topics like individualis versus nationalism, and also love.
Szabó’s style went through many changes as time passed by, from surrealism to midcult, till he directed his second “trilogy” in the 80’s: “Mephisto”, “Colonel Redl” and “Hanussen”. The 3 movies share the same main character, Klaus Maria Brandauer, and all of them were made in coproduction. The heroes of these films are victims of the world around them, or as the director has indicated, “history’s shipwrecked”. After “Mephisto” won the Oscar for Best International Feature Film, he continued to use the same stylistic and narrative elements in his later works.
Miklós Jancsó and István Szabó are seemingly going in opposite directions, but rarely losing their own ways, and their works exemplify compromising without losing one’s identity.
New Beginnings – Nimród Antal and Kornél Mundruczó
Hungary‘s efforts in contemporary filmmaking may not be as visible as they used to be, but they are still clearly present. After the millennium, there were a few directors, who understood the importance of modern film genres and the past of Hungarian art films, which started to raise the international film industry’s attention. Nimród Antal and Kornél Mundruczó studied film in Budapest roughly at the same time, but their careers are basically opposites.
Nimród Antal was born in LA. His American attitude and love for Hungarian film resulted in an unparalleled combination in his first feature film, “Control”. The 2003 cult hit takes place entirely in the subways, mixing various genres with such success, that Hollywood basically greeted him with open arms back in the day.
His credits include studio films like “Armored” and “Predators”, and in the past years, he worked with actors like Luke Wilson, Jean Reno and Laurence Fishburne, not to mention his latest directorial credit in 2 episodes of Netflix’s incredibly popular horror series, “Stranger Things”.
After his 2013 Metallica concert film “Through the Never”, he returned to Hungary to make a film based on his own screenplay once again, The “Whiskey Bandit”. The story of Hungary’s infamous bank robber in the 90’s was told by Antal in a personal, touching tone, borrowing many elements from Hollywood’s gangster films, bringing American professionalism to the Hungarian theatres.
Compared to Antal, Kornél Mundruczó’s films are made for a different kind of audience. The director originally graduated as an actor, and it was years after when he discovered his love for movie making. He decided to study directing, and quickly made his way to the highest-ranking European film festivals, including Cannes, where he won the FIPRESCI award for his film “Delta”.
Mundruczó’s filmography reached its turning point with “White God”, the screenplay of which was written by Kata Wéber, his former actress, now wife and creative partner. Their collaboration created an exceptional story with “Pieces of a Woman”, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Vanessa Kirby. The powerful movie about SIDS and its impact on a couple is Mundruczó’s least radical film – in order to reach Netflix’s infinite base of subscribers, it was a necessary decision.
Not many directors, but the ones listed above have surely made their impact on filmmaking or are still in the process. It’s no exaggeration to say that Hungary is the center of international filmmaking in Europe right now, thanks to its reliable professionals and creative talents. With more and more Hollywood movies being filmed in Hungary, we will surely see new names added to the ever-growing list of Hungary’s great film artists.