An excerpt from

"István Szabó"

By David Paul
Published in Five Filmmakers, ed. Daniel J. Goulding
Indiana University Press, 1994


István Szabó is a consummate Hungarian who has successfully broadened his film audience over the years without losing his cultural identity. Szabó began directing international coproductions in the 1980s after nearly two decades' work with MAFILM in Hungary. His first coproduction was a triumph — Mephisto (1981), the result of a collaboration between MAFILM and Manfred Durniok of Berlin. Further coproductions followed — Colonel Redl (Oberst Redl / Redl ezredes, 1984) and Hanussen (1988). In 1991 Szabó completed his first English-language movie, Meeting Venus, filmed in Budapest but produced solely by Enigma of London. Unlike the other directors who are the subjects of this book, Szabó has continued to reside in his native country and shuns all thought of emigration.

The evolution of Szabó's films, both stylistically and thematically, follows a pattern consistent with the increasing internationalization of his career. His earliest features, from The Age of Daydreaming (Álmodozások kora, 1964) through Love Film (Szerelmes film, 1970), present distinctly Hungarian stories, albeit with hints of a broader message. The films from Szabó's second period, from 25 Firemen's Street (Tüzoltó utca 25, 1973) through Confidence (Bizalom, 1979), show Szabó reaching for more universal themes while still working within recognizably Hungarian settings. His films during the 1980s take a step further thematically; the setting moves to Nazi Germany in Mephisto and ranges across the expanses of Central Europe in Colonel Redl and Hanussen. These three films constitute a "Central European trilogy" that makes a complex statement about the cultural affinity of that rather ill-defined region the Germans call Mitteleuropa. Szabó brings to these stories an acute consciousness of Central European history and a sensitivity to the region's social complexes.

With Meeting Venus, Szabó extended his reach further. Meeting Venus, a story about a multinational European opera production, is a comedy about human cooperation and the creative impulse. It represented a logical next step for this director who chooses his projects deliberately and embarks on new ventures with caution.

Szabó is a disciplined artist who thoroughly researches the contexts of his stories and thinks their implications through. Szabó wrote all of his early screenplays himself; today he works with other screenwriters but continues to initiate the stories and co-authors the scripts. His themes embrace deeply humanistic concerns. His stories are driven by probing, and often profound, questions about personal identity, community, and security.


Szabó's Life and Career

István Szabó was born in Budapest to Jewish parents one year before the outbreak of the second world war. To this day he carries memories of hiding in cellars during the siege of Budapest, when Soviet troops fought in door-to-door combat against the last German holdouts. Thanks to the help of family friends, Szabó and his parents escaped the Holocaust. Just as the war ended, however, the elder Szabó died of natural causes.

István Szabó's father was a physician, carrying on a family tradition that can be traced back to the end of the eighteenth century, when the first Dr. Szabó practiced medicine in Budapest. Young István grew up expecting to do the same, and today he sometimes expresses regret that he could not have become both a film director and a physician. Instead, he has written into nearly all of his films the role of a doctor who is invariably a positive character.

At the age of sixteen, Szabó performed in a student play. He enjoyed the experience but didn't feel he was cut out to be an actor. Then he read a book about the cinema by Béla Balázs, the great Hungarian film pioneer and theorist; Szabó started going to the movie house every day, and thoughts about film filled his head. Eventually he applied to the Budapest Academy of Theater and Film Art and was accepted. He graduated in 1961.

Young Szabó did not need a wild imagination to invent stories; his life experiences were replete with material. As he grew up, Hungary stumbled through postwar recovery and plunged into revolution. He had not yet reached puberty when his country first experienced the horror of Stalinism. He was eighteen when a popular revolt was crushed by Soviet tanks, and in his early twenties when the regime took its first cautious steps toward de-Stalinization. While still in his youth, Szabó had seen his world change radically several times. Heroes rose and fell and rose again; myths were destroyed and recreated; truth became falsehood and falsehood, truth.

Szabó began exploring these experiences in his short film, "Variations on a Theme" (Variációk egy témára, 1961), completed shortly after his graduation from film school, and he continued to reflect upon recent history as his work matured. Hungary's tragic past remained at the center of Szabó's attention throughout the 1960s and 1970s.


In the final scene of Father (Apa, 1966), a man in his mid-twenties contemplates his father's grave. The young man, Takó, lost his father as a small boy and grew up amid grandiose myths and illusions about exactly who hs father was. Takó attempted to model his own life and measure his worth in comparison to those myths — an impossible standard, of course. By the film's end, however, he has learned enough of the truth about his father to escape the power of the myths and accept himself as an autonomous individual.


"Every film I've made is about the same thing — it's about the individual's search for security."
— István Szabó, 1985


At the end of Szabó's later film Mephisto, the protagonist, Hendrik Höfgen, finds himself in Berlin's newly constructed Olympic Stadium. It is the Nazi era, and Höfgen, officially celebrated as Germany's greatest actor, will soon perform in this monumental arena built to herald the triumph of German culture. Suddenly the spotlights come on and he is blinded. He hears his name echoing from the loudspeakers around the empty stadium and begins to stagger in confusion. His image bleaches and fades into the whitening screen. Far from understanding and accepting himself, Höfgen is lost, for he has sold his great talent to the Nazi state.

In style, these two movies are a world apart. Father, filmed in black and white, conveys in soft tones its story about an average Hungarian boy growing up in the aftermath of World War II. András Bálint, the actor who plays Takó as an adult, understates his character and wears a poker face that constantly masks the emotions raging underneath. In contrast, Mephisto is filmed in color and directed with a flair for the story's drama. It is about an extraordinary man driven by the lust for acclaim. The mercurial protagonist, Hendrik Höfgen, is played by an equally mercurial actor, Klaus Maria Brandauer, in a dazzling performance that established Brandauer as an international star.

On the surface, it is hard to identify these two films as the work of the same director. Besides the divergence in style and tone, the endings suggest a difference of philosophy: one hopeful (or at least ambiguous), the other apocalyptic. And yet, both films speak to the subject that has obsessed István Szabó throughout his career: the individual's search for identity and security in a world dominated by powerful impersonal forces.

Consistency and growth have marked Szabó's filmmaking throughout. His awards, both at home and abroad, are too numerous to discuss here in detail. Suffice it to say that they have included honors given in Budapest, Moscow, Berlin, Cannes, and Hollywood.

Szabó was the youngest of the Hungarian directors whose New Wave created an international stir in the mid-1960s, and despite the fact that some of his most interesting work was produced during the 1970s, his reputation then was still eclipsed by that of his elder colleague Miklós Jancsó.

Following the critical success of Confidence and especially Mephisto, however, Szabó came to be widely regarded as Hungary's foremost director, and the judgment held throughout the 1980s. This was no trivial honor among a group of award-winning Hungarians who now included Márta Mészárós, Károly Makk, Pál Gábor, Zsolt Kézdi-Kovács, Gyula Gazdag, and others.

Jancsó, meanwhile, faded from the film world's attention. His was a revolutionary cinema that stirred the critics of the 1960s and 1970s, when bold and challenging narrative styles were celebrated. By 1980 international cinema had come to favor more conventional narrative styles, and the increasingly high stakes of the market dictated that films appeal to mass audiences if they were to be bought by distributors. Jancsó's singular aesthetic now appeared quaint, and critics said he had failed to grow.

They could not say the same of István Szabó, whose style has gradually and steadily evolved.

As a young director, Szabó borrowed from other artists, especially those of the French nouvelle vague. His early shorts and his first two features are straightforward and simply narrated. By the time of his third feature, Love Film, Szabó had grown bolder and more experimental, playing with time sequence and consciously manipulating a complex set of symbolic images.

Szabó's exploration of new narrative forms continued with an artful series of short films without dialogue produced under the overall title of Budapest, Why I Love It (Budapest, amiért szeretem, 1971). These were followed by 25 Firemen's Street, which is built on a rich, collage-like effect, and Budapest Tales, a semi-abstract allegory whose simplicity belies the story's profundity.

Then, beginning with Confidence, Szabó returned to more conventional narrative approaches. This is not to say that his style ceased to develop, nor that it became undistinguished. Rather, Szabó after 1979 settled into forms that rely on greater realism while allowing room for complex, and sometimes subtle, symbol systems.

True to the overwhelming trend in his country's filmmaking traditions, Szabó tells predominantly dramatic stories rather than comedies. (Meeting Venus marked his first effort at a comedy.) His films are never without wit and irony, however. There is a place for playful banter among the young friends who populate The Age of Daydreaming. There are visual jokes and humorous juxtapositions in Budapest, Why I Love It. And there are lines of witty dialogue almost hidden within the tragedy of Hanussen, there as a reward to the viewer who pays close attention.

Szabó's career has stayed consistently centered on film directing. In 1990, he served as artistic producer for The Book of Esther (Eszterkönyv), a film directed by Krisztina Deák. This he appears to have done as a personal favor to Deák, who is the wife of András Bálint, Szabó's close friend and erstwhile onscreen alter ego. It remains to be seen whether Szabó will take on any further roles as a producer. Szabó has done a very limited amount of work on television plays and directed a stage production only once, at the Paris Opera. About stage directing he expresses some distaste, preferring the more natural tones of cinematic dialogue — in which talk is talk and whispers are whispers — to the "shouting," as he characterizes it, of stage dialogue.

– end of excerpt –



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