On 2 November, students and teaching staff watched Károly Makk’s 1971 film Szerelem (Love), winner of the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival that year, and arguably one of the greatest Central European films of all time. Two short stories by Tibor Déry (1896-1977) form the basis of Szerelem, for which Déry also wrote the screenplay. ‘Szerelem’, written in 1956, follows the encounter between B. and his wife, upon B.’s release from prison after a seven-year stretch. The reader observes B.’s hesitant reactions to life outside, as well as his anxiety about re-uniting with his wife, and seeing his son for the first time. ‘Két asszony’ portrays the tense but close relationship between Luca and her mother-in-law, an elderly lady of Austrian origin, now bedridden. Luca brings letters from János, her husband, and apparently a famous film director in the US, to the old lady who, while anticipating his return to Hungary, eagerly interweaves the details of her son’s fantastic life with her own memories. It is only after she dies, and in the last sentence, that we discover János is in prison.
At the age of 62, Déry was imprisoned in 1957 for his activities prior to and during the 1956 Uprising, and was released in 1960 in the first post-1956 amnesty, when he wrote ‘Két asszony’, based on the letters Déry’s wife wrote to his mother during his imprisonment. Like the old lady in Szerelem, Déry’s mother was of Austrian origin, and after he was allowed to publish again in 1962, he published their correspondence under the title Liebe Mutter! Younger followers of writers who, like Déry, were deemed polgári or individualista, also found it difficult to publish in the 1950s, and essentially stayed on the margins until the 1970s.
In an interview on the Second Run DVD of Szerelem, Makk recalls that when he told Déry in the early 1960s of his plans to combine the two stories into one film, Déry replied, ‘Te egy reménytelen csacsi fiú vagy, egy young angry man!’ The film could only be made after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which Makk describes as a decisive turn, at least in terms of cultural policy in Hungary. He also expands on the prison subtext: it was only once permission was finally given ‘from above’ that the studio director, who had served time inside with ‘culture dictator’ György Aczél, could accept the film. In the two weeks following its first screening, the wives of high-ranking commanders complained to their husbands for sitting on Szerelem until then, for they too had undergone the same distress while their men had been in prison: ‘a nők diadala is volt’ (Makk).
Makk gathered the inimitable ensemble of Lili Darvas as the elderly lady, Mari Törőcsik as Luca, and Iván Darvas as János; and chose János Tóth as cinematographer. Tóth’s method of blending past and present (in Makk’s words, ‘múlt és jelen külön is legyen, de együtt is szóljon’) was to use flashbacks which, as our guest Dr Cesar Ballaster noted, was a popular technique throughout the Eastern Bloc in the 1970s. Flashbacks demystify collective memory by means of individual memory, and introduce uncertainty as a counter to the monologic narratives of the Party-state. Such an emphasis on subjectivity, and the juxtaposition of shots reminiscent of black and white photographs, create a dreamlike, timeless quality which, as the old lady tires, becomes further and further removed from reality. Luca is fired from her teaching job because of her husband’s incarceration, while the old lady dreams of her son’s life in a French castle on the highest mountain in New York. After her death János, who has until now been present largely in his absence, is released from prison and returns to the flat, which his wife now shares with co-tenants.
When Szerelem was awarded the Cannes Jury Prize in 1971, one of the jurors apparently told Makk that although the film, and in particular the actors’ virtuoso performances, had greatly moved him, János’s incarceration required explanation, for it was highly unlikely that such an individual would have committed a serious crime. It is precisely the pointlessness of the prison sentence that constitutes one of the major narratives of the film: János’s release is never explained, neither to him, nor to the viewer. In the taxi on his way home, the driver asks, ‘Politikai?‘ , a question János need not answer.
Discussion included the ways in which cinema placed broader historical concerns within ensemble dramas of individual lives, beginning with Szerelem and continuing throughout the 70s and 80s, and whether the viewer can pinpoint the era depicted in the film. Our conclusion was that, despite the use of terms such as kitelepítés (forced relocation, usually from cities to the countryside) and társbérlők (co-tenants), which would suggest the early 1950s, one cannot say for certain that Szerelem was not a contemporaneous document of Hungary in the late 1960s. Indeed, the trauma suffered by the characters could easily have taken place at any point in the interwar years. In any case, Makk and Tóth’s deliberate transpositions of past and present undermine any attempts to tie the film to any specific point in time.
Déry Tibor, Szerelem és más elbészélések, Budapest, Szépirodalmi, 1963;
— ‘Szerelem’ in Irodalmi forgatókönyv. Filmkultúra, 3, 1967, 4, pp. 102-29.