A great movie from Macedonia

I’m not sure that “Before the Rain”(“Pred dozhdot), a 1995 Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film, written and directed by Milcho Manchevski, is a good movie, but have no doubt that it is a great one. It is comprised of three episodes: the first two near the coast of Macedonia, the middle one in London. What happens in the third one follows the second one and seems to precede the astonishing opening one… but the second one also temporally follows events in the first one. “The circle is not round” is proclaimed in all three parts and in some ways the movie is more a Moibus strip than a circle. The Balkans is a region in which the past never seems to be past, in which outrages five or ten centuries ago are believed to cry out for revenge.

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Fierce hatred of Greek Orthodox Macedonians and Muslim Albanians bubbles over repeatedly throughout the course of the movie. The kind of ethnic warfare that was going on in Bosnia at the time the film was being shot broke out in 2001. It could have surprised no one who had seen “Before the Rain” before then.

I don’t like to regurgitate plot unless I can do so in ways that comment on it. I think that “plot spoiling” is exaggerated as a crime against readers generally, but in the case of “Before the Rain,” telling pretty much anything of what happens is at least a disservice to those who have not seen the movie — and that is, alas, a far-too-large population!

In the first part of Kiril, a young priest played by Grégoire Colin (Beau Travail), who has taken a vow of silence (getting around the actor not speaking Macedonian) harbors a Muslim (a feral Labina Mitevska whose character’s name is eventually revealed to be Zamira) who is being hunted by the Christians. Colin radiates compassion, which turns out to be a very dangerous feeling in all three parts of the movie.

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The second part is set in London, introducing a Macedonian photojournalist, Aleksander (Rade S[h]erbezija) who has just won a Pulitzer Prize for work in Bosnia. He invites a married (and pregnant) London picture-editor, Anne (Katrin Cartlidge), to accompany him on a return to his native village. She stays to ask her husband for a divorce.

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In the third part, Aleksander discovers “you can’t go home again,” all the more so if “home” was Yugoslavia, and all the more if you want to see the love of your youth who is of a different ethnicity (the Albanian minority in this case). Haunted by what he saw in Bosnia and desperate to prevent similar fratricide (among those who have ceased to consider themselves “brothers”), he takes action, which involves Zamira — who may be his daughter.

The writing is very impressive, the cinematography by Manuel Teran (Savage Nights, Banlieue 13), especially of the first part, is more than impressive. Each of the three parts has a different look. The first part is in the company of parts of “The English Patient” and “Beau travail.”

Katrin Cartlidge (Naked, Breaking the Waves) stands out in the middle section as someone knowingly disappointing both her husband and her lover and pained by the knowledge. As Aleksander Rade Serbezija is tormented by guilt for a prisoner who was shot after Aleksander complained of not having anything to photograph. At “home” after nearly being killed by family members and the son of his old flame, he takes a stand against ethnic violence. Well, more than a stance — he intervenes. That he fails to stop the violence is something anyone with the slightest familiarity of the history of the Balkans during the last two decades knows.

DVD extras

The Criterion edition transfer to DVD is outstanding even for Criterion, which is to say superlative. This was obvious watching the feature, and underlined by watching the 1993 “making of” featurette, which is quite interesting. The disc also includes a 2008 interview with Rade Serbezija about the movie, which paralleled his own experience as an ethnically Serbian prominent person raised in Croatia — and who had just made it out of Sarajevo before the Serbian military began the siege and carnage. Serbezija (whom I remember most vividly as the Greek trickster in “The Truce” and the police inspector in “The Quiet American,” but is probably best known for his mentoring role in “Batman Begins”) recalls people who were fans of his (as the biggest film star in Yugoslavia) and a year later wanted to kill him (Croatians with whom he grew up for being “a Serb,” Serbs for being a “traitor” in condemning the violence). The movie shows, the bonus features tell (the way it’s ‘spozed to be!)

There is also five minutes of miscellaneous videos from the movie’s making, 15 minutes of soundtrack selections, and Manchevski’s 1992 Grammy-winning (black-and-white) rap music video “Tennessee” (the Arrested Development song).

 

©2009, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Cutsey animals recalling eastern European communism

I consider Slavenka Drakulic one of the best explicators of what it was like on the ground under and after communism. Yugoslavia was somewhat less totalitarian than the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries, though its dissolution was the bloodiest. Her 2009 book titled Two Underdogs and a Cat has serious message under the cutsey animal narrators. One of the “underdogs” is a mouse in a Museum of Communism in Prague. The exhibits contain material from Russia as well as Czechoslovakia (the focus is communist times, before the peaceful fission), though what is most salient — the pervasive atmosphere of fear, the shortages and endless queues — cannot be displayed. There is very little mousiness/mouse perspective. The analyses repeat what a Professor Perlik’s lectures said. But even a mouse observing museum visitors notices that “something mean and suspicious, something hypocritical still lingers within the people… as if people have not changed that much, not in their minds.”

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The oldest dog in Bucharest has concerns with the plight of stray dogs in the Romanian capital, dating back to the destruction of central city neighborhoods for Ceaușescu’s “Palace of the People (pictured below last month) and the grand avenue leading to it that he insisted must be bigger than the Champs Élysées in Paris. Displaced people abandoned many of their pets, and the population of stray dogs multiplied. Like the mouse, this dog sees a continuation of mentality: “Generally speaking, people still believe that there will always be someone ‘up there’ to take a decision in their names whom they can blame later on. Yesterday it was Comminism, today it’s the [EU] bureaucracy in Brussels. Leaving everything to the higher-ups, not taking the initiative, not willingly acting in the common interest is what our problem is. What to do when there’s not even an idea of common interest, a common good?”

The cat, who seems to me more feline than the dog is canine, belongs to the general (never-named, but clearly Wojciech Witold Jaruzelski) who declared martial law to put down Solidarity agitation in 1981. The cat wholeheartedly supports the general’s contention that the alternative to martial law was an invasion by the Soviet army (which many contend Brezhnev was not planning, and which General Jaruzelski at one point seemed to invite). The cat accepts her owner’s rationale, though when General Jaruzelski was charged in 2006 it was for illegal imprisonment rather than for declaring martial. I am surprised that — even in the guise of a long letter to the state prosecutor from a cat — that Drakulic seems so sympathetic to the plight of the Polish dictator. Though many Poles considered Jaruzelski a traitor, the Polish Quisling, a 2001 poll found more than half the populace (and even AAdam Michinik) accepting the rationale of an alternative to Soviet occupation.

The philosophical (sophist?) cat observes that “after all, most Poles did not choose to live under Communism they merely went along with it,a ccepting the military regime as reality. It is not in their interest to go back and wash their own dirty linen.” In contrast, Draulikc supported the trials for war crimes and crimes against humanity by both Croatian and Serbian leaders of the later violence through which she lived (They Would Never Hurt a Fly).

Drakluic’s would be Aesopian anthropomorphism verges on insipidness, and seems to me cutesier than, say, the 2016 Disney “The Jungle Book” with its array of talking animals.

Having recently been in Croatia (and Serbia), I’d like to know what Drakulic thinks about life after the dust of civil war has settled with a generation that not only does not remember communism but does not remember the carnage of ethnic cleansing among the southern Slavs.

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Overestimating the interest in her writing about communist eastern Europe through phony animal voices, Drakulic added another five monologues for a 2011 expanded reprinting with the title one of the original three, “A Guided Tour through the Museum of Communism” (the mouses’ observtions and overhearing. These include more attempts to make the autocrats of your sympathetic, including Albania’s General Mehmet Shehu, whose suicide was viewed by the psychoanalyst mother of the raven narrating an “unusual case.” There is an extended riff on the incomprehensibility to moles of burrowing under the Berlin wall to get into what the moles regarded a prison (in that West Berlin was surrounded by walls) that grates quickly, a pig writing a cookbook and explaining the differences between goulash and gulag, the last gypsy-owned dancing bear in Bulgaria (now retired), and an extended account of a foppish womanizer Marshall who is obviously Tito, from Drakulic’s native Yugoslavia. Since she is Croatian (his mother was Croatian, his father Slovenian) this is the account closest to home. It treats the Marshal with bemused affection without being as much an apologia for him as General Jaruzelski)’s cat offered. The parrot talking about his foibles hits on a major matter: that the Marshal was able to conceive that he was mortal. So, he ignored doctors’ advise and died sooner and with no successor groomed to hold things together after he was gone.

There are more records in the adde stories of authoritarian personalities lost without a dictator and lacking the guaranteed minimums of food and housing offered by the communist overlords. “Like every autocrat, the Marshal ruled by fear. But could you, please tell Koki how elese one could rule people around here. Tribes need a leader, an authority that has the power to punish them. The big boss in uniform with rows of decorations, that’s what they wanted to see.?

For me, three was already too much. Drakulic did not attempt dialogue between animals (as in Animal Farm, which is mentioned in two of the three blurbs for Tour, or in Disney movies, but the cumulative effect of her cutsey mouthpieces mutes the entertainingness of one or two in isolation.

 

 

 

 

 

Pirandellian black comedy set in 1959 Romania

Set in Bucharest A.D. 1959, “Closer to the Moon” (2013, written and directed by Nae Caranfil; released in the US in the spring of 2015,) is a Romanian, Polish, Italian, French, US co-production in English with handsome Brit Harry Lloyd (The Theory of Everything, Wolf Hall, Game of Thrones) as the innocent busboy, Virgil, who observes what is supposed to be a movie of a holdup of an armored car being shot. Except that it’s a real hold-up, and after its perpetrators, old-line (pre-WWII, wartime resisters of the Nazis) Jews, have been condemned to be executed, they are forced to appear in a propaganda film about the holdup they perpetrated. Yes, a movie about a robbery disguised as a movie. There are scenes from the 1960 Romanian black-and-white movie shown during the closing credits.

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Before that, however, Virgil becomes a movie camera operator, and has a last-night fling with the woman of the group of disillusioned communists, Alice Berkovich (Vera Farmiga [Up in the Air, Goata]). The State Security official in charge of making the movie, who continues to investigate the crime even after five death sentences have been passed (Anton Lesser) has ordered Virgil to find out where Alice’s son is hidden and to find out why the robbers did it. The short answer to the second question is that they wanted to show that the state’s claim that crime had been eliminated in the worker’s paradise was false. Virgil goes with Alice when she escapes chaos on the movie set and visits her son, Mirel (very blond Marcin Walewski) but before Virgil can be pressed to provide answers to either questions, Holban is sacked by the minister (Darrell D’Silva).

The organizer of the heist, who becomes de facto director of the movie re-enactment, Max Rosenthal (Mark Strong, who reminds me of Jon Hamm; Strong played Jim Prideaux in the 2011 movie version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) was married to the minister’s daughter, which led to an appointment as chief inspector of the Bucharest police. (The other conspirators to ridicule the Romanian state are history professor Yorgu (Christian McKay), newsman Razvan (Joe Armstrong), and astrophysicist Dumi (Tim Plester) who had been liaison to the Soviet space program in the Sputnik era, but had been replaced due to Russian/Soviet anti-Semitism. And Max is the father of Alice’s son.)

There is Pirandellian black comedy throughout the movie, especially in the re-enactment of the heist. The nominal director (Allan Corduner) is passed out drunk every day of the shoot (and, presumably, every day not of the shoot, too). Or, perhaps, it is Jewish gallows humor within a Pirandellian black comedy or is is Mittleuropa comedy?… The whole project is remarkably light-hearted a prelude to real execution, following a kangaroo court in which the defense attorney is barely allowed to complete a single statement or to question witnesses. The satiric comedy of the 2013 movie is definitely set within the tragedy of the Jewish communists disillusioned by the regime they were deeply involved in putting in power (tragedy both for them and for the people of the Socialist Republic of Romania, even before the predominance of Nicolae Ceausecu from 1965-89).

Noting that the Soviets had been able to launch a dog into orbit, but not bring him safely down, Max requested to be sent into space, rather than being shot by a firing squad, but his request is angrily rejected. (So none of the conspirators gets any closer to the moon than Dumi observing Sputnik launches in the Soviet Union.)

An effective soundtrack was composed by Laurent Couson, and Marius Panduru’s cinematography was top-notch, as was the acting, with Anton Lesser especially standing out as an oddly tragic functionary of the Romanian communist government.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Romanian policier with a conflict of law and conscience

I must be missing something, since I don’t have any difficulty considering “police” potentially to be an adjective, as well as a noun or verb, for instance in “police state” or “police misconduct.” In these examples, it specifies a kind of state, a kind of misconduct, right? And in a very unusual climactic duel between a young police officer and his boss (presumably a holdover from those enforcing the laws laid down by Ceausescu) “police state” is one of the constructions the Romanian dictionary supplies in its “police” entry. The key contested concept is “conscience,” to which I’ll return. But I don’t see anything peculiar or dismaying about the title of the much-acclaimed, award-winning 2009 Romanian movie by Corneliu Porumboiu, “Police, Adjective.

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The pace of the movie is, I think, the slowest of any police procedural I’ve ever seen. Plainclothesman Cristi (Dragos Bucur) follows a Vasiliu high-school student who sometimes smokes hashish but does not sell it. The boy smokes with the agemate who informed on him and an unidentified girl outside the school. Christi’s book (Vlad Ivanov, abortionist of “4Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”) tells Cristi that criminals use the term “squealer,” not those in law enforcement, while Cristi objects to referring to the boy he’s tailing as a “dealer.”

Cristi does not trust the informant/squealer and believes the source of hashish is the boy’s older brother whom the boy will not give up. For whatever reasons, the police captain presses Christi to make an arrest at least for possession.

Cristi pushes back that Romanian law will surely change as those elsewhere in Europe (including Prague, where he recently honeymooned) and that it is an affront to his conscience to ruin a kid’s life (even if he only serves half of the seven-year sentence) or place him in the position of regretting squealing on his brother.

This leads to what is surely the longest sequence of reading definitions from a dictionary in any movie. Trust me, this is a dramatic confrontation! Christi’s definition of “something in me that stops me from doing something bad that I’ll afterward regret.” The dictionary has communist residue in a definition of “conscience” as “part of the social system of a particular class, reflecting its condition of existence.” The captain does not insist on that one and fails to register the inclusion of “moral law” in the entry. As in other Romance language, “conscience” in Romanian also includes what is differentiated as “consciousness” in English, which obscures the discussion.

The captain insists that police follow written laws, not their own sense of conscience (moral laws) and will not allow Cristi’s older office-mate (also presumably left over from the bad old days) to arrest the boy.

Earlier, Cristi and his wife have an extended discussion about what a pop song’s lyrics (Mirabela Dauer’s song “I Don’t Leave You Love”) mean and she explains to him that his surveillance report uses a form that was abolished two years earlier by the Romanian Academy (which polices the language as the French Academy does).

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Critical praise has (IMHO) inflated expectations for all three of the Romanian films that have made it onto the art-house circuit (“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu “(2005) is the other). All look drab/verité, proceed slowly, and covertly (though unmistakably!) criticize soulless laws and social systems (past and present: abortion has been decriminalized in Romania). The closest American equivalent to the Romanian film-making (generalized on the basis of three!) is Jim Jarmusch, with drab location shoots of long takes of which not much ever happens and sparse dialogue (it’s not even portentous here).

 

©2010, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

Trying to get an illegal abortion in hyper-pronatalist communist Romania

The only two Romanian films I’ve seen are both long and slow, drably shot in documentary style. In “The Death of Mister Lazarescu” (2005) a dying man is getting quite a lot of medical establishment attention, though not any help. In “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (2008) young woman takes it upon herself to get her friend out of” trouble” of the unwanted pregnancy kind. In neither movie is he Romanians seeking medical help very sympathetic.

Both movies, especially the second one, were highly praised by critics, despite it being a very long, very drab movie without charismatic stars and with mostly unpleasant characters. I will grant — and get back to — the redeeming social value of the movie, but I thought that the movie did not just drag but ground to a standstill at a birthday dinner for the boyfriend of the most sympathetic character in the movie, its pragmatic protagonist Otilia Mihartescu (Anamaria Marinca).

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How Otilia manages a bad situation is the primary interest of the movie, and I have nothing but praise for Anamaria Marinca’s performance, even though I think the scenes including her at the start in a student dorm and the long sequence of her potentially future mother-in-law go on far too long. (Marinca did not edit the movie!)

The movie is about the difficulties of getting an abortion in a time and place (1987 Romania) were performing or having an abortion are crimes. The movie’s title already communicates that the pregnant woman is midway through the second trimester of pregnancy. I find it hard to take plot-spoiling seriously, but issue a pro forma

Plot spoiler alert

Otila’s roommate Gabriela “Gabita” Dragut (Laura Vasiliu) is the pregnant one, who does not have enough money to pay for an illegal abortion. Otilia takes charge, borrowing money from her boyfriend (the son of a physician) Adi (Alexandru Protocean). Adi’s mother is expecting Otilia at her birthday party and making a meringue especially for Otilia.

Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), the abortionist whom Gabita contacted laid down two preconditions: that she rent a room in one of two hotels and that she meet him so that he can decide whether he trusts her. She violates both preconditions, not making a reservation at a designated hotel and sending Gabita to the rendez-vous. Plus not having enough money. Plus not telling Otilia how far advanced her pregnancy was…

Let’s say that Otilia makes multiple sacrifices to get the procedure done, and that Gabita evidences no gratitude. And it appears that it was not that she was thinking about what to do about her pregnancy for four months and three weeks, but was still in denial

Wandering off into some personalfeelings…

Do I sound unsympathetic to Gabita? I am (yes, I realize she is a fictional character and I do not think I have to like her or her decision-making process). I feel that Otilia goes far beyond what the best of friends might be called upon to do, and though I think she is a bit hard on her boyfriend, think he could write it off to the stress her taking responsibility for Gabita’s follies (by which I don’t mean getting pregnant, knowing nothing about how that came about; I mean the danger to self and others her belated abortion constitutes).

I am well aware that others would condemn Gabita and the “plumber” who induces the miscarriage and Otilia as an accomplice. The movie is totally not about Gabita’s decision not to carry the baby to term, and I am sure that this is reason enough for many to condemn the movie.

My mother considered it the most cardinal of sins to bring an unwanted baby into the world. She might be called “pro-abortion,” though certainly considered abortion a serious matter and not something to use as birth control (as it was in the USSR and the DDR). I am pro-choice, albeit a bit less “pro-abortion.” I certainly do not think that Gabita would be a fit mother and also know something about the horrors of orphanages in Ceausescu’s Romania. So I approve to Otilia getting things done.

End plot-spoiler alert

Not that my views on what the characters in the movie should do matter. Whatever one’s views on that and on abortion in general, the movie provides a reminder that women (sometimes aided by their inseminators) will find ways to terminate unwanted pregnancies, legal or not. This is also a fact made clear in such other non- (un-?) American films as “Vera Drake” and “Story of Women.” Criminalization does not work, though I am only too well aware that reality is anathema to faith-based law-making.

As a reminder of the realities of the provision of pregnancy terminations that considerably increase the rate of fatalities where and when abortion is illegal, I think these films are valuable. The entrepreneurs in these three films are not nearly as crass and unfeeling as they could be.

But as a film, I find “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” 20-40 minutes too long: not just too slow, but drained of momentum as of color. I realize that the birthday dinner is torture to Otilia, who is concerned about what might be happening back at the hotel, but don’t think the audience needs all the table talk of the condescending professionals.

I recognize the desire to praise making something of value with very little money, but question this movie winning the Palme d’or at Cannes and the European Film Awards for both best film and best director (Cristian Mungiu, whose screenplay was also nominated, but lost to Fatih Akin’s for “The Edge of Heaven,” as at Cannes). I think the movie has merits (especially Anamaria Marinca’s performance), but that the low budget and/or subject matter led to their being exaggerated by European and North American critics.

©210, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

“Do not stand by the blood of your neighbor” — Leviticus 19: 16

For movie-makers, Hollywood and others, WWII is a perennial subject with holocaust-focused ones increasingly common in recent years. The earlier movie of which “Walking with the Enemy” (directed by Mark Schmidt, 2013) most reminds me is the Danish resistance drama “Flame and Citron” (2008). Each movie has a pair of very daring young men combating the Nazis. As in the Quentin Tarantino fantasy “Inglorious Basterds,” (2009) those donning Nazi uniforms (here, SS ones) are Jewish. “Walking with the Enemy,” however, is not based on fantasy but on a pair of Hungarian Jews, Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum (renamed Elek Cohen, and played by Jonas Armstrong, who had been the BBC’s Robin Hood a few years earlier), the son of a rabbi who refuses to credit the danger Jews are I, and Ferenc Jacobson (Mark Wells). In SS uniforms, the two rescued thousands of Jews en route to extermination.

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Along with their story, the movie shows Admiral Horthy (Ben Kingsley) maneuvering between Hitler and Stalin, trying to keep Hungary from being a battleground. allied with Hitler, Horthy refused to turn over Hungarian Jews to the Nazi killing machine, but was toppled from power when a ceasefire agreement with Stalin was intercepted by the Nazis and the local fascists, the Arrow Cross,  are more than eager to round up and deport Jews, or to kill them themselves. (Having recently been in Budapest, I know that most Hungarians prefer to ignore Hungarians’ central role in rounding up Jews and to blame the Nazis for what regerttably happened.)

The SS-masquerading Jews deliver Jews to a Raoul Wallenberg figure (renamed Carl Lutz and played by William Hope), the Swedish diplomat who was later carried off by the Soviets never to be heard of again. I don’t know why the brave and savvy diplomat is made Swiss instead of Swedish, the whole Swiss government being notable for an unwillingness to try to save Jews from the Nazis.

There’s an extended battle scene in which one expects Elek in his SS uniform to be captured by the advancing Red Army, as he races to escort the children of a Catholic orphanage in which many Jewish children have been placed away from the shooting. Earlier recklessness and earlier compassion come together disastrously for him.

Plus there is a conventional love story with Hannah (Hannah Tointon), who is at one point swept up and saved by the SS uniform-wearing Elek. And the movie ends with a lachrymose toast at a wedding in the US in 1957.

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Although there are stock shots of Budapest landmarks, the movie was shot (in English) in Romania. And an overly dramatic, unoriginal musical score by Tim Williams.

The parts don’t entirely cohere and the flight from machine-gun fire near the end is hard to credit (but very, very familiar from other movies!). The charismatic Armstrong and Wells introduce audiences likely to be unfamiliar with the Hungarian “front” of the holocaust to what happened there in 1944. I’d have wished for some backstory of Wallenberg(/Lutz), who is rather taken for granted by the screenplay beyond being made Swiss for no reason I can imagine.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

A flippant Minnesotan in Romania

I thought that Minneapolis juggler and travel writer (Lonely Planets) Leif Pettersen’s style was too jaunty and too sarcastic in Backpacking with Dracula. Pettersen details the military successes of Vlad III/Vlad Dracula, “the Impaler,” who was voivode (ruling prince) of Wallachia three times between 1448 and his death in January of 1477. Vlad III in resisted (and scared) Ottoman, Transylvanian Saxon, and Hungarian invaders. Vlad III remains a national hero in Romania (which encompasses Wallachia) and Pettersen writes about surviving sites, most notably Poeianari Castle.

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)Poenari Castle ruins, photographed by Nicubunu)

Bram Stoker, who never traveled to Romania, borrowed (from German polemics) a horrorshow view of a vampire he named Dracula in his 1897 novel that I don’t think has ever been out of print in English—or in print in Romania.

Pettersen also writes jauntily of the rebellion that led to the shooting of the Ceausescus 1989 for genocide and destroying the Romanian economy. The communist dictator was also from Wallachia (between the Danube and the Carpathian mountains).

Between reporting history that is gratingly insensitive to the suffering inflicted by Wallachian rulers and others in the 15th and 20th centuries, Pettersen includes travel-guide accounts of various places.

There is no evidence that he backpacked during any of his Lonely Planet assignments of researching Romania. His travel seems to have been entirely by rental car, and the first work of the title seems to me false advertising, though the subtitle “On the Trail of Vlad the Impaler and the Vampire He Inspired” is quite accurate.

The book is probably somewhat useful to travelers to Romania (though I’m pretty sure that it is less so than the Lonely Planet guidebooks to which he contributed) and is entertaining for those with a Monty Pythonish sense of humor extending to breeziness about torture and starvation. Not that Pettersen condones the conduct of Vlad Dracula, writing that “even in an era when human life was unbelievably cheap, onein which witnessing death was a regular occurrence for most people, these gory, slow-motion spectacles must have been appalling.”

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

The print is very large (18 point, I think) which makes it easy to read even with dim light and stretches the book to 265 pages.

 

Breaking a prelate (Cardinal József Mindszenty)

Unlike Peter Glenville’s later (and greatest) movie “Becket” (1964), another movie about subordinating Church to State, “The Prisoner” (1955, adapted by Bridget Boland from her own play about Hungarian cardinal József Mindszenty), did not retain the names of the historical-character antagonists: just the cardinal and the interrogator in an unnamed Eastern European country the regime (actually, I don’t think “communist” is mentioned either) of which cannot tolerate any organization or assemblage not under its overt or convert control. (This is a phenomenon in the Leninist crony capitalism that is the Chinese Communist Party ruling the world’s most populous country of the present, btw, as well as North Korea and postcommunist Russia.)

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The cardinal (played by Alec Guiness) was a hero of the resistance to Nazi occupation and had not been broken by the physical torture of the Gestapo. The interrogator (played by Jack Hawkins [Land of the Pharaohs, Bridge on the River Kwai]) was a less prominent player in the resistance, was never captured, and has never failed to convince a prisoner to confess whatever absurdities have been prepared for trial of an enemy of the state.

The very British-sounding antagonists have a very British-sounding class dynamic at play, the interrogator a child of the elite, the cardinal having been raised by a single mother who worked in the fish market and was of “easy virtue” (that is, bedded many different men). It seems to me that the self-confidence based on class plays too large a part in the eventual success of the unfailingly polite and sometimes positively genial interrogator. (In that the play and movie are a reflection on the confessions after long imprisonment and torture of Cardinal Mindszenty, the only question is how this was brought about, so I don’t think that it is a plot-spoiler to telegraph the eventual public confession of the self-loathing prelate.

It takes a long time for the interrogator to figure out what the cardinal’s mental weakness is… and little time to exploit it, once found. Good as Hawkins is at underplaying (and while I can recall roles in which he was unconvincing, these were never the result of overplaying), I am not convinced at the interrogator’s disgust. It seems to me to be there mostly to make him less than a total villain to the audience. (On the other hand, I do believe that to succeed, he has to know his quarries better than they know themselves.)

Alec Guiness, repeating a role he had performed under Glenville’s direction on the London stage, was a very great actor in a wide variety of roles (of widely varying ethnicity) and had a very, very showy role as the irony-noting arrogant captive, the captive being driven crazy by the book, and as the willing condemner of himself. The cardinal is steadfast in his embrace of abjection, so there is a continuity between first and last (as there is in Peter O’Toole’s penance at the end of “Becket”).

Both the actors, and the hammy Wilfred Lawson as the jailer, are very good. There is a ridiculous peripheral love story between a prison guard (Ronald Lewis) and a Catholic young woman (Jeanette Sterke) whose husband has fled the country, and the exteriors look good (if not central European). The problem for me is that I don’t believe the flaw the interrogator exploits. I can believe there is the weakness in the cardinal, but not that it could be so easily used once discovered. Also, I am not convinced that either the cardinal or the interrogator believes in the Truth as their opposing sides believe themselves to have a monopoly of. (There is no philosophical discussion between them, not even any about how the church should be used by the state… or what should not be rendered unto the communist Caesar…)

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The DVD includes no bonus features, only some trailers to better known, award-winning movies in which Hawkins and/or Guiness appeared (Ben Hur, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia).

BTW, both the Venice and Cannes film festivals refused to show the movie for fear of offending cultural officials of Eastern bloc states. And after the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt in 1956, Cardinal Mindszenty spent many years in the US Embassy in Budapest and refused to give up his position as prelate of Hungary even after he was relocated to Vienna.

I am one of the relatively few who liked/admired Glenville’s last movie, the 1966 adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Comedians (with Guiness and Peter Ustinov et al. as supporting characters to Taylor/Burton). Before that, he made a leaden comedy with Guiness, “Hotel Paradiso” (1966). In addition to “The Prisoner” and “Becket,” Glenville directed “Me and the Colonel” (1958), “Term of Trial” (1962) and “Summer and Smoke”(1961), all primarily conflicts between two characters. I wish he’d had Greene adapt “The Prisoner.” I suspect that would have increased the plausibility of the characters.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Provincial Hungarian life ca. 1899

In his introduction to the New York Review Books edition of Skylark, a 1924 novel by Dezso Kosztolanyi, Peter Esterhazy praises Kosztolanyi (1885-1936) as a master of rhyme and for modernizing (simplifying) the Hungarian sentence. Neither strikes me as a particularly good reason to read the book in English translation. Not that it’s a bad book!

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Kosztolanyi portrays life in a remote Hungarian town, Szabdaka ca. 1899. The decaying Hapsburg (Austro-Hungarian) Empire here is different from the feverish Vienna of Musil and Schnitzler (and Freud). There are no murders or suicides or erotomaniacs.

The focus of the novel is on a retired and seemingly retiring retired man, Ákos Vajkay, and his wife, Antónia, who live with their only child, a very homely woman now past marriageable age, Skylark. Skylark foes off to visit relatives for a week. In her absence, her parents bloom, going to restaurants, swilling schnapps. Ákos is welcomed back into a drinking club, the Panthers.

Though Skylark attempts to minimize her footprint on the lives of others, it becomes apparent that the isolation à trois of the Vakjay household is mostly due to her and to her humiliating (to her parents and to her) unmarketability (on the marriage market). The parents are liberated in a way similar to that of many widows after the death of a demanding, constraining husband.

Kosztolanyi arouses sympathy for the very unhappy superannuated good girl, but the joie de vivre is the return to local society of her parents in her absence. I guess that I was left feeling sorry for all when her dispiriting vacation and her parents’ delight-filled vacation from her oppressive presence (“aggressive goodness” as Esterhazy aptly puts it).

Like Chekhov, Kosztolanyi shows without judging the painful banality of everyday life in the provinces (albeit of a different doddering empire). I often look askance at blurbs, and think that there is too much scene-describing in Skylark for the book to be perfect, but beyond that, it seems to me that Deborah Eisenberg provided the case for the book with great economy: “This short, perfect novel seems to encapsulate all the world’s pain in a soap bubble. Its surface is as smooth as a fable, its setting and characters are unremarkable, its tone is blithe, and its effect is shattering.” Well, maybe it reveals painful fissures. The withdrawn Vajkay seems set to return to the quiet despair of Skylark with parents having glimpsed what a burden their dutiful daughter is on their savoring life. OK, convivial gossiping and drinking and an occasional theatrical production are all Szabdaka has to offer, but having rediscovered these pleasures, the parents are likely going to be more resentful of the constraints of being locked up with their ugly daughter.

I fled small-town life at my first opportunity (college) and would find the Panthers and lack of cultural stimulants of Szabdaka tiresome, but can see that they provide some pleasure that the Vajkay parents gave up and that Skylark has not and could not enjoy.

I seem to have written myself into a greater appreciation of the novel than I felt while reading it. I’d have cut more, but an excess of descriptions of the settings is the only fault I can point to in this sad social comedy. I don’t regret having read it, though don’t consider it indispensable Central European fiction such as The Radetzky March, The Trial, or Young Törless.

Explorations by a third-generation Hungarian-American

It is routinely the second generation that is embarrassed by the parents’ ethnicity and seeks to efface any traces of it. Then, the rootless (feeling) third generation goes in search of roots and values what the grandparents have largely forgotten (if they are living; the quest for roots sometimes commences only after the first generation has died off.)

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Richard Teleky (born in 1946) is a novelist and longtime professor at York University on the north side of Toronto (so by now counts as “Hungarian-Canadian”). His Hungarian immigrant grandparents settled in Cleveland, where he grew up. Teleky knows there is something stereotypical in his third-generation fumbling for the key to his family. The opening chapter in his collection of essays on Hungarian and Hungarian/North American topics concerns adult language learning, both his own, undertaken seemingly in his late 40’s, and that of Edmund Wilson at age 65 (chronicled in Upstate). A language, Teleky asserts, is “a place to live in,” but although he can interest a press in a collection of essays about his approach to things Hungarian, he does not pretend that he lives in the Hungarian language.

After taking the plunge into learning his ancestral language and exploring Hungarian and Hungarian émigré art and literature, he was 47 years old before trying to visit “the old country”: Budapest and his grandmother’s village. The nostalgia for what he’d never experienced was for what his grandparents left and what André Kertész’s early photographs illustrate, Hungary as part of the Austro-Hungarian (Hapsburg) Empire. He went knowing that it could not be found, but was still disappointed that it wasn’t there. What he reports from his 1993 sojourn is less disappointment at the loss of the multiethnic Hapsburg empire than disappointment at the economic stagnation that seems to have worsened in the countryside after the demise of a later multiethnic empire, the Soviet (“Warsaw Pact”) one.

I was in Budapest when Soviet control had loosened but before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the USSR. The dynamism and optimism of that time seems to have dissipated; expectations were disappointed. Although his own disappointments are probably mixed in with those of the relatives he met in rural Hungary and their neighbors, what Teleky found was that “the promise of freedom of the last few years has congealed into high inflation and unemployment” (and continued oppression of ethnic Hungarians consigned after the First World War to Romania.)

Teleky is typically third-generation in decrying the invisibility of his people and the stereotyping of them when they are visible at all. His “Short Dictionary of Hungarian Stereotypes” is mordant and his criticism of the movie “The Music Box,” made by one of the few Hollywood potentates of Hungarian origin, Joe Eszterhas, is trenchant. (By contrast, in the early days of Hollywood the studios Fox and Paramount were headed by Hungarian-Americans.)

Teleky comes close to “losing his cool,” lapsing from the irony that may be bitter but must not veer into outright denunciation that university professors (even Edward Said most of the time) maintain. Teleky’s survey of Hungarians in North American fiction does not lapse from ironic disdain for most of the representations he considers, except to laud the more nuanced portrayals in the fiction of John O’Hara.

However, I am perplexed at Teleky wondering why the “title character” of The English Patient is Hungarian rather than Polish. First off, Teleky lives across town from Ondatjee and could presumably have asked him. In the novel, the Indian sapper Kip exclaims that he doesn’t care about distinctions between English, Americans, and French. I’d hazard the guess that Ondatjee is more aware of complexities of European history than his character Kip was, and it seems fairly obvious to me that if Ondatjee’s character Count Almásy had been made Polish, he would have been collaborating with the enemy: the Nazis invaded Poland, but were allied with anti-Semitic Hungarian fascists. The character “joined the wrong side,” just as Hungary did. The parallel of character and country works for Hungary and would not have for Poland. Why the Czech resistance idealist in “Casablanca” has the Hungarian name “Laszlo” is a better question, not least, as Teleky reminds the reader in that the director Michael Curtiz (né Mihaly Kertész) was Hungarian born. (Also,t here really was a Hungarian Laszlo E. de Almásy, who wrote a (spare) 97-page monograph entitled Recentes explorations dans le Desert Libyque (1932-1936).

I have to admit that I could not muster interest in poet Margaret Avison, but was already interested in the Hungarian-born, doubly exiled (first Paris, then New York) photographer André Kertész, and I found Teleky’s explanation of the move to abstraction (by Moholy-Nagy as well as Kertész) convincing.

His account of the Hungarian émigré church (St. Elizabeth’s) in Cleveland is insightful about language and population shift (the church is now in a mostly Baptist African American area now, as the second generation moved to suburbs and the third is even more dispersed from where there once was a lively Hungarian-American community in Cleveland.) The final chapter of the book again stresses the Herderian view that language doesn’t just carry but is the uniqueness of a people (“the genius” in the original romantic nationalist formulation Teleky eschews.) He quotes with approval sociologist John de Vries’s contention that language maintenance is a necessary but not sufficient condition for maintenance of ethnicity. Maintenance of the Hungarian language in Canada and the US seems doomed to Teleky and to me.

Given the general sadness about losing culture, language, distinctiveness, roots, etc.; the chapter I found most compelling was an account of a course on Central European literature in English translation that Teleky taught. The students, despite their near-complete ignorance of the history of Central Europe (and of history generally, I don’t doubt) found their way into literature(s) they barely knew existed and achieved insights into suffering they had not previously considered. (Only one of the students in the class was looking at her own roots.) The writer they seemed unable to “get” was Kafka, which surprised me, since many members of my (and Teleky’s) generation found our own way to Kafka rather than being taught his works. Reading this chapter made me want to take the course and to read about subsequent offerings.

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(Matthias church, Buda, author’s photo)

Interested in attempts at multiculturalism, in language maintenance, ethnic identification, and alienation, there was much I found stimulating in Hungarian Rhapsodies. Without demanding a symphonic structure integrating all the variations on Hungarian alienation, I’d have liked more development, a bit less journalistic miscellany. I think some help might have been available had Teleky treated the work of Susan Gal, which is centrally concerned with language and ethnicity in Hungary. If I have read some of Gal without having any special interest in Hungary, it’s hard to understand why Teleky, who does have one, has not.

 

©2003, 2017, Stephen O. Murray