More than many filmmakers, Istvan Szabo understands issues of fear and trust viscerally. He and his parents, both of them Jewish doctors, survived the Holocaust in Hungary because friends hid them.
After the 1956 uprising, he was blackmailed by the Hungarian state security forces into working as an informant for a year, making reports on his fellow film school students. Yet when the story broke in 2006, he held a press conference with several of the filmmaker colleagues on whom he had reported at which they reaffirmed their friendship with him.
Small wonder, then, that his best film is an underrated drama that bears the title “Confidence,” the opening film in a new series “The Jewish Experience in Hungarian Cinema” on Jan. 30. Although his subsequent films deal more directly with the situation of Hungarian Jews and questions of collective and individual guilt around the Shoah, this 1980 film, unavailable on DVD in the U.S. is perhaps the most refined, intricate and troubling working-out of the larger human issue. In a crisis, whom can you trust?
At the film’s outset, we see a newsreel from the later stages of the war, with a preternaturally chipper narrator urging viewers not to become anxious at the sound of aerial bombardment. After all, he cheerily points out, a single bomber flying close to you makes as much noise as a whole fleet, so you could be mistaken about the magnitude of the attack. The camera pulls back to reveal a nearly empty movie house, out of which emerges Kata (Ildiko Bansagi), who heads for home through the utterly deserted, desolate streets of Budapest. Just before she turns onto her own street she is shoved (literally) off course by a young man who turns out to be a colleague of her husband, a fellow member of the Resistance. She can’t go home, the Gestapo and local police are at the house. He sends her to a contact at a local hospital who, in turn, places her in a safe house with Janos (Peter Andorai) whose wife she must pretend to be.
From there, the film turns into a tug-of-war between Janos and Kata as they go through spells of total distrust punctuated by moments of emotional and literal near-nakedness. At every turn, Janos’ fear, which fuels his inability to surrender to his emotions, is a stumbling block to their intimacy. Szabo plays out this chamber drama in an intricate network of exchanged glances, almost rhapsodic cross-cutting and startling moments of complete stillness, with his favorite cinematographer, Lajos Koltai, assisting him in the use of light to create spatial separations within the few rooms in which these scenes are played out. The result is the creation of a universe in which everyone seems to be playing out a limitless and kaleidoscopically shifting range of roles, so much so that some of them, most prominently Janos, have begun to lose track of who they really are.
Szabo explores that phenomenon in even greater depth, albeit without the claustrophobic concentration that gives “Confidence” so much force, in his most famous film, the 1982 Oscar-winning “Mephisto.” It is based on Klaus Mann’s novel, which was, in turn, based on the life of stage star Gustaf Gründgens, the novelist’s brother-in-law. Gründgens advanced his career by cozying up to the Nazis, in effect selling his soul in a Faustian pact. In the film, the central character, Hoefgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) makes the same dubious trade, rising to his pinnacle as Mephistopheles in a production of Faust. Neither Mann, nor screenwriter Peter Dobai nor Szabo are interested in the subtle interplay of roles that “Confidence” offers. But as sheer spectacle and on the strength of Brandauer’s hugely accomplished performance, which takes Hoefgen from raw provincial novice to highly polished classical actor, “Mephisto” is a memorable feat.
One person who certainly was paying attention on the sets of Szabo’s films was Lajos Koltai. One of the world’s great cameramen, he made an impressive directorial debut in 2005 with an adaptation of Imre Kertesz’s “Fateless,” also a part of the series. By this time, the Holocaust film had become a veritable genre, with its own visual and narrative tropes. To the immense credit of Koltai and Kertesz, who wrote the screenplay, “Fateless” manipulates these elements for maximum effect while avoiding the clichés and narrative pitfalls that plague most films about the Shoah.
The story itself is familiar enough. Gyorgy’s father is rounded up for transport to a “labor camp.” The 14-year-old boy (Marcell Nagy) is captured in another roundup of Hungarian Jews who are finally sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The fortunate ones, Gyorgy among them, are then passed along to Buchenwald and “a small, poor provincial concentration camp,” as he dryly calls it, named Zeitz. There he is slowly starved, beaten and worked nearly to death, eventually liberated by American troops and finally sent back by a circuitous route to his home in Budapest, where he encounters thinly veiled hatred from most non-Jews and stupefaction from family friends who were lucky enough not to be sent to the East.
Koltai has found a perfect tone for this material, giving the film a slow, almost meditative rhythm, making excellent use of deliberately paced tracking shots that seem to end prematurely and, most important, allowing the camera to run for a moment after the main action of a scene has taken place so that the last thing we see before the image fades to black is Gyorgy or one of the other Jews looking on in bleak acceptance tinged with complete incomprehension at the irrational violence that is being played out upon them.
Very few directors of films about the Shoah have attempted such a strangely stately rhythm. If anything, “Fateless” resembles a Robert Bresson film more than, say, “Schindler’s List” or “The Grey Zone.” And Kertesz’s screenplay, with its minimal dialogue in the camp scenes, complements Koltai’s visual choices, or perhaps vice versa. Either way, the result is a film that finds an almost religious mystery in the sheer materiality of the camps, a mystery that is otherworldly not in the hellishness that marks an accomplished work like “Zone,” but in an inexplicable foreignness, an unexpected mixture of physical reality and existential resignation. Koltai’s concentration camp universe is as maddeningly arbitrary as the one presented by Primo Levi yet simultaneously haunted, like the blasted landscape of a Samuel Beckett play.
“The Jewish Experience in Hungarian Cinema” opens with Istvan Szabo’s “Confidence” and “Mephisto” on Sunday, Jan. 30 at 1 p.m. at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place). The rest of the series will screen on Sunday, Feb. 6 and Sunday, Feb. 13. For more information, call (646) 437-4337 or go to www.mjhnyc.org.