Second Run have long been purveyors of film from Central Europe (or Eastern Europe, depending on your categorisation), releasing numerous respected classics of Czech, Slovak, Polish and Hungarian cinema. The label is now mining the latter to produce a handsome new three-film limited edition Blu-ray box-set, entitled Hungarian Masters. Containing the films Merry-Go-Round (Körhinta), Current (Sodrásban) and Agnus Dei (Égi bárány), I got my hands on a copy to share my thoughts.
Director: Zoltán Fábri
Screenplay: Zoltán Fábri, László Nádasy
Based on a Novel by: Imre Sarkadi
Starring: Mari Töröcsik, Imre Soós, Ádám Szirtes, Béla Barsi, Manyi Kiss
Running Time: 96 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
In its native Hungary, Merry-Go-Round (Körhinta) is among the nation’s favourite films (it was voted the 8th best Hungarian film of all time in a prestigious 2000 poll) and the lead actress, Mari Töröcsik, is also among their most beloved. She died earlier this year, unfortunately.
The film was released a few months before the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and played into the public’s longing for change and desire to pull themselves out of the misery of Stalinist rule. Before this, many Hungarian films fit the socialist realism mould, acting as propaganda more than art or entertainment.
The film made an impact elsewhere too. It screened at Cannes and though it didn’t win any awards, a lot of important people complained that it didn’t, which helped its reputation nonetheless. Francois Truffaut was particularly vocal in his anger at the film winning nothing, whilst Lindsay Anderson gave it very positive reviews in Sight and Sound and The Observer.
Merry-Go-Round is a Romeo and Juliet style story, on the surface, that sees Töröcsik play Mari, a young woman who loves a local farmer named Máté (Imre Soós). However, Mari’s father, István (Béla Barsi), arranges for her to marry the boorish Sándor (Ádám Szirtes), without first consulting her. You see, István is leaving the farming co-operative, hoping to reap the financial benefits of doing everything for himself, and bringing the also independent Sándor into the family would be of great benefit to István.
Máté is still an avid supporter of the co-operative though, so obviously doesn’t fit with István’s plans. Mari, therefore, must choose between her heart and the reputation of her family.
Merry-Go-Round is a wonderful film that begins in a joyful fashion, full of energy, life and humour, culminating in its famous titular merry-go-round sequence, where our two lovers (along with the camera) spin around in a dizzying euphoria. Once István puts an end to their shenanigans, the tone darkens but a great passion remains throughout, as Máté refuses to let the love of his life fall from his fingers, whilst fervently defending his political beliefs, and István stands up for his new business practices too. Mari’s passion is more hidden, but it’s certainly there, under the surface, and bursts out in key moments.
There’s some remarkable photography and editing on-screen too. From a technical perspective, the film feels way ahead of its time. On top of the stunning merry-go-round mounted shot that must have been tremendously risky in the 50s, decades before GoPros existed, director Zoltán Fábri delivers other thrilling sequences that are as bold and impressive as they must have been those 65 years ago. Most notably, there’s a key dance scene that repeats the spinning sensation of the merry-go-round whilst amping up the tension of the socially daring act Mari and Máté are engaged in. These and some others are showy sequences, but the style and techniques always service the story and characters. There’s a wonderful control over tone and drama overall.
There’s a great use of sound too. This aids the strong rhythms of the film, adding monotonous drips and clock-ticking to add tension to key scenes. The film is about breaking from tradition and the monotony of life, so these repeated sound motifs reflect this.
It’s a story that, in basic terms, isn’t new, and wasn’t then either, but it’s exceptionally well told. With breathtakingly assured, often exhilarating direction, it’s a cinematic marvel that’s bursting with passion from start to finish. It may play it loud at times but never hits a bum note.
Director: István Gaál
Screenplay: István Gaál
Starring: Andrea Drahota, Marianna Moór, Istvánné Zsipi, Sándor Csikós, János Harkányi, András Kozák
Running Time: 86 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Current (Sodrásban) is considered one of the first significant films of the Hungarian New Wave. Its director, István Gaál, was well regarded among critics in the 70s, partly due to the strength of this film, but he quickly vanished from their collective memories. He’s now little known away from dedicated followers of Hungarian cinema. Hopefully, this release by Second Run helps reignite interest in the filmmaker as Current (Sodrásban) is truly something special.
The film is set during a hot summer in a small town in Hungary. A group of friends, all on the cusp of adulthood, meet during the holidays before they go their separate ways to work or study. They convene at the beach of their local river and goof around, the boys/men challenging each other to swim to the bottom of the river’s deepest point and come back up with sand from the bed. Much fun is had, until one of the girls in the group notices their friend Gabi (János Harkányi) is missing.
The jovial tone changes as they realise he likely drowned in the river. Over the next few days, the friends try to come to terms with what happened, whilst contemplating their own lives and relationships.
On top of acting as a coming-of-age story, as the synopsis alludes, Current examines time, with the river providing a metaphor for this, and takes an existential look at how we relate to each other and the place in which we live. We see how a range of people from different classes and backgrounds deal with a tragic event. As such, it becomes more than just a simple coming of age tale.
I can often be put off by such philosophical films, but this doesn’t have the plodding pace or literal on-screen discussion of such themes that don’t fit with my preference for more subtle or visual exploration. Using the metaphor of the river, it has a rich, compelling, flowing nature and, as such, feels more like visual poetry than philosophical discourse. Plus, the themes explored are universal and characters varied, preventing you from getting lost or bored in the existential debate.
The visual style is another reason the film won me over. Classics of Hungarian cinema are often known for their choreographed movement and this is beautifully demonstrated here, particularly in the camera movements, though the staging of the performers doesn’t feel forced. The drifting perspective reflects the flow of the river that takes away one of the party, as well as the way in which the characters drift apart from each other over the course of the summer.
The performances are possibly a little too understated, at least after the more raucous first act, but their low key nature fits with the quiet, ponderous nature of the film.
I’m partial to a good coming-of-age film, so this was an easy sell to me, but I think it could be one of the best. Poetic without feeling pretentious, natural but elegant, it’s a remarkably well-directed film and one that deserves to be better known.
Agnus Dei (Égi bárány)
Director: Miklós Jancsó
Screenplay: Gyula Hernádi, Miklós Jancsó
Starring: József Madaras, Daniel Olbrychski, Márk Zala, Lajos Balázsovits, Anna Széles, Jaroslava Schallerová
Running Time: 88 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Though I was bowled over by the first two films in the set, I approached the final one, Agnus Dei (Égi bárány), with some trepidation. Miklós Jancsó is a director with a strong reputation but my only prior experience with his work was a little lukewarm. As my review of the film in question, Silence and Cry, describes, I admired the craft behind it but found it too cold and distancing to engage with. I hoped having a better idea of Jancsó’s style might lead to a better experience a second time around though, so I took my chances.
Agnus Dei is the last of three films Jancsó made examining the events of Hungary in 1919, which saw the founding of the Hungarian Soviet Republic or the Hungarian Socialist Federative and its dissolution only 133 days later. It was a period of rapid unrest and confusion in the aftermath of WWI that proved fascinating to Jancsó.
In the film, we follow the trials of a group of villagers as their rule is passed around between various groups. The chaos and confusion of the film reflect that of Hungary at the time depicted. The locals in the film are herded around, subjugated and abused in various ways whilst different powers take turns in lording over them. Centring around much of this change is Father Vargha, a fanatical priest whose life is spared by the first group of oppressors, before helping lead the next. Eventually, a charismatic new leader enters the fray though, swiftly crushing the lot.
Looking back at my Silence and Cry review after watching Agnus Dei, I felt like I could practically copy and paste most of my points here. As before, there was much to appreciate on a technical level, but little to allow me to warm to the film as a whole.
These feelings were amped up even further for me this time around though. Whilst Jancsó’s carefully choreographed roaming camera and elaborate staging are as mind-blowing as always, I simply couldn’t connect with the film at all. My lack of knowledge of Hungarian history is likely much to blame. Though I did a little precursory research, knowing what I was in for, my skim through Wikipedia’s ‘Hungarian history’ page wasn’t enough to appreciate what Jancsó’s film was symbolising.
The depiction of the chaos of the situation is clear though, so I could loosely see what Jancsó was getting at. I just found little to latch onto whilst watching. The characters are largely empty vessels with few, if any, glimpses into their background or feelings. There’s a repetitive nature to it all too, as the villagers are passed from group to group and some are killed whilst Vargha continues to rant and rave.
The whole thing feels almost like a parody of arthouse filmmaking too, with most checkboxes ticked – slight but nevertheless confusing plot, gratuitous nudity, religious imagery and political allegory. As such, it takes a certain acquired taste to get on board.
So, whilst, as a piece of cinematic artistry, Agnus Dei is undeniably impressive, I unfortunately struggled to engage with it and found the experience of watching the film quite tedious. Perhaps with a better understanding of Hungarian history I’d appreciate it more but, to be honest, I think Jancsó’s films simply aren’t for me.
Hungarian Masters is out on 13th December as a region-free Limited Edition Blu-ray Box-set, released by Second Run. The picture quality on all three titles is very impressive, looking sharp but natural. Current looked a touch burnt out in places but this seems to be a stylistic choice to reflect the heat of the summertime setting. The very first shot of Agnus Dei is quite soft too, but it sharpens up as soon as it cuts to the second shot and stays that way for the rest of the film. It must have been due to the low-tech titling process of the time. Audio is decent on each film too, though I found the levels on Merry-GoRound a little inconsistent.
The Limited Edition Blu-ray Box-set features:
– Merry-Go-Round (Körhinta), Current (Sodrásban), and Agnus Dei (Égi bárány) – all three films presented from new 4K restorations by the National Film Institute Hungary – Film Archive.
– Award-winning Hungarian filmmaker István Szabó on the influence and cinematic legacy of director Zoltán Fábri.
– An archival interview with Miklós Jancsó (1987).
– Tisza – Autumn Sketches (Tisza – Őszi vázlatok, 1962):
director István Gaál’s acclaimed short film observing autumn whilst descending along the river Tisza.
– A newly filmed appreciation of Current by producer/curator Gareth Evans.
– Merry-Go-Round 1955 screen tests.
– A film on the history and restoration of Merry-Go-Round.
– Individual booklets with new writing on each film by authors and Hungarian cinema specialists John Cunningham, Peter Hames and Tony Rayns.
– New and improved English subtitle translations.
– World premieres on Blu-ray.
– Region-free Blu-rays (A/B/C).
It’s not a huge amount of extras, unfortunately, but there are some decent supplements in the set.
On the Merry-Go-Round disc, the screen tests are a rare find for a film of its age, particularly a non-Hollywood production. You get to see the chosen actors make their initial stabs at the performances as well as one or two who didn’t get the job, which is interesting to see.
The interview with István Szabó is quite short but passionate. It contains a few images of Fábri’s storyboards, scripts and expressionist paintings too, which are wonderful to see.
The restoration featurette has a short interview with the director as well as contributions from the restoration team.
On the Current disc, the short film Tisza – Autumn Sketches makes effective use of water, like its feature counterpart, as well as examining the cliffs and sandbanks affected by the river, and the people working and living around it. The film’s soft, low-grade stock look and technicolour processing give it a painterly look on top of the generally poetic approach.
Gareth Evans’ essay takes a short but deep dive into the film’s themes and approach. It’s an interesting piece and Evans is clearly impressed by the film, which he professes to not having heard of before Second Run picked it up.
The interview with Jancsó on the Agnus Dei disc covers his work as a whole, largely in relation to how politics affected different stages of his career. It’s an interesting piece but unfortunately does little to make sense of Agnus Dei.
The booklets are perhaps the most important parts of the set. These offer vital background on the films and their makers, as well as some analysis. I can’t state enough how good Second Run’s booklets are and these are no different.
Overall then, though I didn’t warm to Agnus Dei, the other titles in the set are fantastic and the relatively small but well-compiled extras add further value, so it comes very highly recommended. Jump it to the top of your Christmas list this year or treat yourself. You won’t regret it!