Daily Archives: December 13, 2009

Kolkata IFF screening 7: The Unburied Man (A temetetlen halott) Hungary/Poland/Slovakia 2004

Imre Nagy and his wife are 'taken away' by soldiers in Romania loyal to the Soviet Union

The films of Márta Mészáros tend not to be released in the UK, so I was pleased to take this opportunity to see one of her recent productions. I don’t think I’ve seen one before, only knowing Mészáros as one of the East European directors that I should have been watching in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact she has been involved in filmmaking for over 50 years, documentaries first after film school in Moscow and later fiction features. Coming to the fore in Hungary (and also in Romania and Poland) in this period represented a double success – as a woman making films in an intensely patriarchical society and as a Hungarian socialist attempting to make radical films under the heavy weight of Soviet influence. In 1960 she married Miklós Jancsó, arguably the highest profile Hungarian director of the period and the one most associated with exploring Hungarian history since 1914. The marriage lasted until 1973 but Jancsó’s two children from an earlier marriage have both worked with her on films. Nyika Jancsó photographed The Unburied Man and Katalin Jancsó was costume designer. Mészáros herself had been taken by her parents to the Soviet Union in 1936 – a trip that would later turn out to be a tragic mistake. (See the interview in Senses of Cinema.) There is clearly a great deal about her story that hasn’t been properly explored in the West except in a handful of books of film scholarship – kudos then to the Kolkata International Film Festival for making her one of its ‘honoured’ directors and screening eight of her films. Unfortunately because of my difficulties in registering I wasn’t able to see any of the other seven films or to attend her Q&A session. I’m stuck with a response to The Unburied Man and I feel inadequate in dealing with a film that is both an important statement about Hungarian history and a deeply personal film.

The ‘unburied man’ of the title is Imre Nagy, the figurehead of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Nagy had been Hungarian premier from 1953-55 and he was called back in the brief moment of freedom before the Russian tanks rolled into Budapest. He had been captured by the Russians in the First World War and had joined the Red Army. He lived in the Soviet Union from 1929-44 and returned to Hungary with the Russian occupation. During the 10 days that he led ‘free Hungary’ he appealed to the West for support but was then forced to trust the Russians to respect his democratic ideals. After sheltering in the Yugoslav Embassy he was handed over to those Hungarian politicians who were prepared to work with the Russians. He was then separated (with his wife) from his family and his colleagues, detained in a Romanian farmhouse and eventually returned to Hungary for trial. He refused to confess to his ‘crimes’ and was executed in 1958.

I have to say that Variety‘s review from 2005 is spot on. The film falls between several stools. It is generally very well made and elicits the necessary emotional response with a strong central performance by the Polish actor Jan Noweki (also married to Mészáros at the time of this film). However, there is some suggestion that the script changes some of the facts in order to represent the story of a man who was literally ‘unburied’ for thirty years until he could be officially re-instated as a Prime Minister who should be publicly recognised. More problematic, I think, is the lack of contextualising material referring to Hungarian history generally and to the other two men also executed at the same time who were also part of the revolutionary government. It isn’t a dull or heavy biographical piece and there are some interesting stylistic flourishes plus a clever montage representing the events of 1956, but I don’t think that the narrative escapes from the familiar story of the man who stood up for his ideals in the face of Cold War realpolitik. I remembered a now largely forgotten film by Costa-Gavras, L’Aveu (France-Italy 1970) with Yves Montand in a role based on the real-life memoir of Czech politician Artur London who was arrested and eventually forced to confess (l’aveu = the confession) to disloyalty to the Party in 1951 – a falsity conjured up by the Russians to keep the Czech leadership in line. London was not executed but his memoir was one of the most successful in telling such stories about life under Russian domination. Many others have followed and the story of Imre Nagy is in one sense just another: terrible and tragic and important in Hungarian history (and to Mészáros personally) though it was, I think the film needs something else to attract a wider audience. Nevertheless, I’m glad I saw it and I will now look out for the earlier Márta Mészáros film, Diary For My Children (Hungary 1982) which has now been released on DVD in the UK.

Hungarian distributor website (in Hungarian and English) for The Unburied Man.

Kolkata IFF screening 6: Song from the Southern Seas (Kazakhstan/Russia/Germany/France 2009)

Vladimir Yavorsky as Ivan, the 'Russian' father

Another first for me – a film from Kazakhstan. It’s a not quite so dramatic as it sounds since there was material from Central Asia during the era of Soviet Cinema and, like many such ‘world cinema’ productions, this has French and German funding. It was directed by Marut Salaru who was born in that part of the Soviet Union that is now Kyrgyzstan (where I think some of the filming took place). The budget of €1.4 million mens that it generally looks good and it shares with many of the other films screened in Kolkata an interest in national identity and history.

The basic story is very simple. A man of Russian origin (at least he is blonde-haired and generally fair) and his Cossack wife live in a remote settlement where their next-door neighbours are a Kazakh couple. The film opens with the delivery of the Russian couple’s baby – a darker-skinned boy with obvious Central Asian genes. Fifteen years later, the boy often truants from school and has developed a sideline in horse-rustling that does not endear him to the true nomadic horsemen. Our Russian hero’s other problem is that his Cossack in-laws think that he is a wimp and try to persuade his wife to leave him. (Wikipedia describes the Cossacks as ‘military communities’ spread across present-day Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan whose origins are open to ‘scholarly dispute’).

There is also a sub-plot in which the local employer, a hydro electric plant-manager, tries to persuade one of his staff – like himself of German origin – not to leave for the West. So here in a neat little arrangement, we have the different groups within Kazakh culture – the Central Asians, the Cossacks, the Russians and the Germans. (The Germans, a community of over 1 million in 1989, were mostly deportees from Western Russia sent to Kazakhstan by Stalin who feared that they would be collaborators or fifth columnists in 1941. Since 1991 and the end of the Soviet Union, some 900,000 Germans have migrated to Germany from Kazakhstan – see this UN Report. )

The main narrative sees the Russian father, feeling abandoned by his son and wife, seeking out an elderly uncle and finally learning something about his own family background. There are a few nice twists in this final section. The other element in the film refers to the title. At various points in the narrative, the live action is interrupted by a sequence featuring the kinds of ‘shadow figures’ created by tracing outlines on paper cutouts that are then moved across a screen on the end of sticks – something I associate with the work of Lotte Reiniger and known generally as ‘silhouette animation‘. In these scenes a traveller approaches a female character in local dress who is Queen of the Northern Seas, Western and Eastern and finally Southern Seas.

There is an ending which in some ways explains each of the plot strands without offering a ‘resolution’ as such. It’s a short film and while not artistically exceptional, it is informative and enjoyable. I hope it gets some kind of European release. One thing it did for me was to reveal my enormous lack of knowledge about Kazakhstan – the ninth biggest country in the world (bigger than Western Europe). Global cinema certainly has the capacity to surprise us.