by Steven Kovács
Cut, no. 35, April 1990, pp. 97-101
At noon on October 23, 1989 in front of the Parliament building, the President of Hungary declared his country a democracy. The date auspiciously marked the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1956 Revolution which had abruptly raised hopes of liberation, only to have them crushed in less than two weeks by Soviet tanks. Now after 33 years, that Revolution has triumphed. The 1956 armed uprising not only changed all Hungarians' lives but also signaled the beginning of Soviet Communism's own end. This critical political juncture figures prominently in at least two recent films, Márta Mészáros' DIARY FOR MY LOVES and my own film, '68.
DIARY FOR MY LOVES is the diary of Márta Mészáros, the second of an intended three-film series which began with her DIARY FOR MY CHILDREN in 1982. In DIARY I, Mészáros gives a wistful portrait of her own childhood through the character of Juli Kovács as Juli grows up in the late 1930s and then spends the war years in the Soviet Union, where her father, a Communist sculptor, had emigrated in search of the Socialist paradise.
Juli/Mészáros' sweet memories of playing with her mother in fields of flowers become interrupted by the ominous appearance of state security policemen who take the father away. He remains Juli's model for the rest of her life — in political commitment, art, and confrontation with authorities. But his absence has another impact. Juli seeks out men who remind her of him. And she becomes drawn to women in positions of authority with whom she develops problematic relations.
After the war ends and Juli's mother dies, her stepmother Magda brings the teenage girl back to Budapest. The second part of DIARY I focuses on Juli's conflict with Magda, a colonel in the AVO, the state security police. Magda tries to dominate her stepdaughter with the militant forcefulness she acquired in the barracks. Through her, Juli also meets one of Magda's comrades, János, who becomes the one man she learns to trust and love in this family and country now so alien to her. Her attachment to János recalls and replaces her idealized relation with her father. The two men look alike and engage her in a similar quiet, understanding way. In this way, the film locates Juli between Magda, the embodiment of Stalinism, and János, whose political commitment stems from a deep human compassion. At the end of the first film Juli leaves her adolescence behind when she moves out of Magda's house.
DIARY FOR MY LOVES picks up with Juli setting out on her own, first as a textile worker, then a film student and later as a documentary filmmaker. Strangely, Mészáros no longer deals with a highly emotional story of personal growth through conflict with role models. Rather she turns to a more objective narrative.
Why such a shift in tone from Mészáros' first film? The first represented the diary of childhood where emotions override and distort objective reality. But the second deals with a mature, reasoning woman whose has as a goal is to become an observer, a documentarist of life around her. Here external events move into the foreground to which Juli becomes a witness. DIARY FOR MY LOVES seems an ironic title when love relations are almost incidental to the film? Mészáros understands by loves to mean her ideals, mainly her commitment to truth. But she also intends this second part of her diary to chronicle the turbulent era of postwar Hungary which shaped the consciousness of her entire generation.
DIARY II is sprinkled with clips from newsreels, documentaries, and an occasional fiction film — not surprisingly, since these works played an immense role in a future filmmaker's formation, one who started as a documentarist. Those "quoted" segments indicate another way that the movie is intended "for my loves." They represent the reality that Mészáros' generation experienced, one which her Hungarian contemporaries understand. In that respect, the film as a diary functions as a personal reminiscence best understood by those closest to the author. In the film clips lies a drama far greater than any work of fiction could evoke, and that supplies both the challenge and the artistic solution of Mészáros' second diary film.
DIARY II begins at the end of World War II with black-and-white footage of Soviet troops celebrating in the streets of Berlin. This "newsreel" footage turns into fiction film as an actor Stalin alights from a plane to shake hands with victorious soldiers. Such a meshing of reality and fiction keeps recurring in DIARY II. For example, as Juli departs for Moscow, the train station is shown in black-and-white as in all the newsreels. Shots of Imre Nagy, future leader of the 1956 revolution, addressing the government with a program of reforms after Stalin's death, are followed by a shot of Juli herself filming the speech.
With this apparent mixing of styles, Mészáros' aesthetic derives from neither movie magic exhibitionism nor a postmodernist inquiry into the nature of the medium. Rather, Mészáros' DIARY II accurately reflects an era and the life of an individual for whom traditional boundaries of fiction and non-fiction did not cohere. In Stalinist Hungary reality and the perception of reality were both shaped from above. No "objective" reality existed, only that interpreted by the Party. Nor did innocent fiction exist, especially in the sphere of narrative filmmaking. Even fictional film had to reflect supposedly material conditions.
Film's power to interpret and shape material reality had been recognized by Lenin, and his famous words — "Of all the arts the most important for us is film" — stare at Juli from behind the admissions board to film school. This is why Juli chooses to become a documentarist — she wants to take part in creating the new society. That is also why her professors find her first documentary unacceptable — her objective reporting does not fit Party guidelines. It threatens the program dictated from above. When asked by the admissions board why she wanted to make movies, Juli answered, "They are dreams as well as reality." For Mészãros as a filmmaker her craft blends reality and art, documentary and fiction. She herself started as a documentarist and developed into a fiction film director. Her most powerful fiction films have a strong sense of individual truth and contemporary social reality. They are the logical next step from her documentary work because they aim to show through stories what she has observed in life. She remains a Marxist filmmaker working to express society's general condition through the nuances of individuals' lives.
DIARY II is a carefully constructed work. It treats an entire epoch of Hungarian history — from the height of Stalinism after World War II to its violent rejection in 1956. Stalin embodies the Soviet victory over Nazism, as we see in the opening shots. Juli's story picks up immediately after that when we see her working in a textile mill. There, she is called to a factory meeting to hear the party secretary denounce Tito's maverick Communism. An overly zealous colleague echoes the fanaticism of that day by insisting that they all sing a Communist song in order to fuel the comrades' dedication to labor and fighting the enemy. People are taken away, including János, Juli's one true friend. Juli herself gets fired when the management finds out who her father was. She is living in a bizarre world of mirrors, attending a play in which Communist comrades bravely speak out against their Nazi captors at a German prison, while at that moment thousands of falsely accused people are being tortured in the prisons of the Hungarian People's Republic.
Juli seeks to fulfill her own ambitions by applying to film school. Although she is rejected by the Hungarians, she perseveres until she is accepted in Moscow. Here she forms a strong bond with the famous actress Anna Pavlovna, who comes to her rescue when a disciplinary board of her peers accuse Juli of leading a too independent lifestyle. Once the actress has saved Juli's skin, Pavlovna bawls her out, accusing Juli accurately of her one great fault, naiveté.
But political events overwhelm Juli's personal struggles. We see the intensification of Stalinism in the unveiling of his monstrous statue near Heroes' Square in front of party leaders and a crowd of hundreds of thousands — the very same statue which workers from Csepel will topple in October 1956. We see the growing despotism of the Hungarian Communist Party chief Mátyás Rákosi (an Adolph Zukor look-alike) who assumes the paramount post of President as he imitates the Soviet model.
Then it is March 2, 1953. In the somber tones of a radio announcer, we hear the news that Stalin has suffered a fatal stroke. In a washroom Juli's fellow students stand together in shock as they dutifully remember him with reverence and speak of his role in leading Russia to victory in the war. Juli has more personal recollections — her father's arrest, then a limbless soldier brought home from the front begging to be killed. Once again newsreels appear, depicting thousands of people in the streets of Budapest "mourning" the dictator's death. Mészáros intercuts shots of Magda and Juli with the newsreel footage. Magda is crying. Juli cannot take it any more and fights to get out of the oppressive crowd. The cold Russian winter begins to thaw. Imre Nagy proposes new reforms. János is released from prison. Newsreels show Bulgarin signing a pact with Tito, marking a new age of Soviet-Yugoslav friendship, followed by the honorary reburial of the remains of Lászo Rajk, the most prominent Hungarian victim of the previous anti-Tito purges. People begin to dare to speak out: a woman interrupts a stage rehearsal to accuse an actor of having reported her husband. Back in Moscow Juli is called in finally to be told about her father's fate. He has been "rehabilitated."
One night Juli learns about disturbances in Budapest. She rushes to the Hungarian embassy, asking permission to go home. The embassy official speaks to her across the iron gate: "There are comrades in Budapest who would be glad to be here." The film ends on a close-up of Juli's face as we hear the iron gate clang to shut her out.
It may appear strange that in this Hungarian film built on documentary footage, the political climax of a generation's history, the 1956 Revolution, is never shown. But for Márta Mészáros and her loves, those events remain deeply engraved in memory. The journey from May 1945 to October 1956 is her subject.
DIARY II recalls another important film about a woman's experiences in post-war Europe. The country is West Germany, the director Fassbinder, the movie THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN. That film, too, begins in WWII's final days and spans a period of nine years until the summer of 1954. This was the date of the famed world cup soccer match in which West Germany upset Hungary's "Golden Team," 3-2. The broadcast of that match plays loudly over MARIA BRAUN's final explosive scene. In this film, Fassbinder presents Germany's bitter years of defeat and painful reconstruction through the character of a freewheeling amoral seductress, a female picaro, who survives by her wits and charms in that destroyed nation. The film makes no explicit reference to specific events from those years, except for its opening and closing, which stand like bookends to define the period. Rather, the film makes postwar Germany's story poignant simply by evoking it, telling it through the life of a hardened operator/enchantress.
Compared to Fassbinder's film, Márta Mészáros' DIARY FOR MY LOVES appears colder, more detached, more like a documentary. It's heroine is not sexy. She is a serious film student. Mészáros' film does not involve the audience as emotionally as does Fassbinder's. The reasons for the differences are not merely differences in their authors' temperament. Rather, their styles derive from the experiences of two different nations: one in the West where the individual is emphasized, independent of the social and political forces of her society; the other in the East where political dynamics affected every individual's consciousness. For Márta Mészáros and her loves, the newsreel clips evoke the sharpest emotional and intellectual reactions.
Like every diary, DIARY FOR MY LOVES is an intensely personal statement, best appreciated by her colleagues and countrymen. I was one such viewer because I grew up in Hungary during those ten years after the war. My contemporary Eva Hoffman in her recently published memoir Lost in Translation has named the chapter on her years in Poland after the war, "Paradise," because
This is how I, too, recall the Hungary of my childhood. The idealism of the Communist regime after the brutalities of World War II only heightened my sense of living in an enchanted world. According to my child's version of history, I had been born at the best of all possible junctures, the birth of the Golden Age, when capitalism had finally given way to the final stage of evolution, Communism. I was in a privileged position — my father was a Party member, the general manager of a major state enterprise, and my mother's father had been a leading Social Democrat before the war.
My parents had no doubts that this was the correct way. They had not only experienced the injustice and oppression of a nearly feudal society before the war, but as Jews they had lived through the horrors of the war. I grew up on propaganda — revolutionary songs, Soviet films, huge parades. Stalin was the savior of my family, Jews, leftists, and the working class. I went to the Gorky school, attended only by the sons and daughters of the elite, where we learned Russian from the first grade. We had our ten o'clock snack in a library whose walls were inscribed with the words of Sándor Petöfi, the nationalist revolutionary, who exhorted his colleagues in "Poets of the 19th Century,"
Our family left Hungary after the 1956 Revolution because my parents were more dissatisfied with the regime than I had thought. Although they had acutely understood pre-war Hungary's class injustices and anti-Semitism, as white collar workers they had also experienced then a limited form of democracy and a limited form of economic opportunity. They were more comfortable with a free marketplace and preferred a free exchange of ideas and political views.
Our reception and perceptions of the United States do not fall into easily definable categories. Despite the fact that we landed in "the great melting pot," we had as tough a time as any other immigrant group in terms of fitting into the rituals of an alien society. Despite the fact that we had come to the "land of the free and home of the brave," the U.S. govemment sought to deport my courageous, freedom-loving father for having been a member of the Communist Party. Despite the fact that we were finally in "the land of opportunity," my parents started working at the minimum wage of $1 an hour. While we were better off in absolute terms, we lived at the bottom of the ladder.
The ignorance of most North Americans about the world at large and the provincialism of life in the Midwest were a shock to us who had lived in a European capital city and had experienced international politics on our skins. Cold War sloganeering tasted just as unpalatable on this side of the Iron Curtain as on the other. Maybe I was more aware of it here because I was older.
Having come from such a different place, I had a reaction very close to that of U.S. kids as this country emerged from that 50s Cold War mentality into the 60s with its political and cultural turmoil. All of us felt a breath of fresh air after the stagnation which had characterized domestic and international life. And this phenomenon was not limited to us. As the decade progressed, we saw our generation challenging the old order throughout the world — in France, Czechoslovakia, Vietnam, and Mexico, to name only the most obvious.
In the United States, the promise at the start of the decade was made by the youngest man ever elected President. Kennedy offered an alternative to the old cold warriors. He promised imagination, enthusiasm, an open-mindedness which we embraced with the idealism of our teenage years. I believe that much of the radicalism of the late 60s in the United States resulted from the frustration baby boomers experienced when that promise was shattered by assassins' bullets. 60s euphoria stamped our generation. Whether in political choices, music, drugs, or alternative life styles, we were moved and mobilized to action by following the paths opened by our imagination. The reaction of the 70s and 80s became all the more intolerable to us because we had grown up breathing the sweet air of possibilities.
To recapture that lost period and apparently lost ideals, I decided to make a film about the year that saw these powerful liberating forces culminate both here and abroad. I needed to make this film at once personal and general. In '68 I chose to depict a Hungarian family adapting to the "American way of life." In superficial detail the family resembled my own — '56 immigrants living in San Francisco, one brother gay, the other "political."
But I made the characters' situation more typical. I chose to show the emergence of political consciousness in the son of an autocratic, conservative paterfamilias, Zoltan Szabó, who sacrifices his humanity for the U.S. dream of running his own business. As did so many members of my generation, son Peter gains political awareness through the rough-and-tumble of everyday life in a politically charged year. A junior in college with vague ideas about his future and even fuzzier notions about freedom and democracy, Peter drifts from the classroom to journalism to motorcycles to rock music to grass to hero worship of Robert Kennedy.
In the film, political choices are ultimately personal. Peter's curiosity leads him to stay informed about the year's cataclysmic events, but his political awakening comes through personal realization. His involvement with a Chinese radical makes him more sensitive to the political issues and also brings out his father's racism. He breaks with his father at the end because Zoltán refuses to accept younger brother Sandy for being a homosexual. Peter takes a radical stand because of love.
'68 dovetails with Mészáros' DIARY FOR MY LOVES perfectly, but not because I planned it that way. Rather, the two films share our common formation. My film begins exactly where DIARY II leaves off, with newsreel footage of the 1956 Revolution. While Hungarians find that footage as familiar as the Zapruder footage is to North Americans, I had to include more highlights of that most memorable Cold War conflict for a U.S. audience.
But why start a film '68 with footage of 1956? The Hollywood Reporter quipped, "Oops, someone in the editing room must have sipped the electric Kool-Aid." However, electricity was in the events, not in the refreshments. 1956 informed and forecast 1968. The Czechs prepared their spring of reform with great caution because they wanted to avoid brutal suppression by Soviet tanks. Not that it did them much good. Similarly in the United States in 1968, there was a brief outburst of hope that would soon die out. McCarthy's "Children's Crusade" led to Lyndon Johnson's announcement he would not seek reelection, then came the heady campaign of Robert Kennedy, followed by his assassination, police brutality at the Chicago Democratic Convention, and the subsequent election of Richard Nixon.
I also chose to open with Hungary's 1956 Revolution footage because newsreels were to function as a significant narrative device in my film, just as they did in DIARY II. I felt what Mészáros must also have thought. Political events of that period played such a significant role in the characters' lives as well as in the lives of many in the audience, that I could best chart the characters' evolution in terms of the events which unfolded at various points in their lives.
The Tet Offensive and the Chicago demonstrations are designations as clear as their calendar dates. However, profuse reliance on documentary material creates an aesthetic problem. One of my models for '68 was Gustave Flaubert's Sentimental Education, in which he wrote about his own growing to manhood during the 1848 Revolution. In that work he set out to "write the moral history, or rather the sentimental history, of the men of my generation." He recognized one of his greatest problems:
Similarly, in the case of '68 Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. threaten to overshadow the two sons' concerns.
'68 opens with footage of demonstrations leading to the 1956 Revolution and it ends with Peter joining a demonstration against the Vietnam War twelve years later. The two actions of resistance against an oppressive regime are ironically aimed at the two rival great powers. That same apparent contradiction also characterized Hungary's 1956 Revolution itself. The teenage heroes of that conflict learned to make Molotov cocktails from Soviet films about the Great October Revolution. I also have vivid memories of watching a truck carrying armed civilians chanting "Russki go home" a couple of days after shooting began at the central radio station. They too became actors in history. They had had ample time to learn the lessons of revolution during ten years of Russian domination.
1917, 1956, and 1968 still have relevance for the 1990s. Clearly a system which cannot provide ample food, shelter, and basic consumer goods for its citizens after 70 years stands as a failure. Economic failure created the dissatisfaction leading to political reform which has recently swept the Soviet Union, Poland, and Hungary. All of Eastern Europe is now witnessing the most profound and exciting political changes since they were created as Socialist entities. They face the process of democratizing their political institutions. They are also experimenting with loosening economic controls in order to bolster their productivity and material wellbeing.
Yet to swing to the other extreme, of foreign-owned companies competing in unchecked trade, would also lead to impoverishment Unbridled free trade has produced great class inequities in the United States as well as in the Third World. Eastern Europe faces the challenge of instituting greater democracy and creating a healthy economy without betraying the ideals of Socialism. Neither can we be content with the United States today. The conservative reaction to the 60s still dominates government policy, as we can see in the Bush Administration's commitment to an excessive military budget, favoring tax cuts to the rich, weakening the social security system, and pursuing a foreign policy bent on destroying progressive foreign governments.
Writers, artists, and filmmakers have the role of fighting against the injustices they see in their own society. That holds true on whichever side of the rusting Iron Curtain they finds themselves. The only answer is to question, criticize and resist.