Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 2 
3 Feb

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Istvan Szabo's Taking Sides (2002)Ordinary compromises
István Szabó interviewed

Szabó, through films such as Mephisto, has become not only one of Hungary's foremost directors but a major international figure in film. Necati Sönmez met him in India to talk about making compromises, why Hollywood is central European and defining European culture.

István Szabó in his latest film Taking Sides—Der Fall Furtwängler (2002) follows on in the tradition of his "central European trilogy" of the 1980s, which included the Oscar-winning Mephisto (1981). His new film looks at the conflicts an artist faces in difficult times through the story of distinguished conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who was forced to face the American Denazification Committee for his previous association with the National Socialists.

Towards the end of 2002, Szabó was in India as a guest of honour at the 5th International Film Festival of Mumbai, which opened with his new film. During his stay in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), he was always surrounded by his admirers—not only members of the public but also people from the film industry, among them veteran Bollywood producers. Kinoeye met him in Mumbai to get his opinions on his recent film, on making compromises, the idea of a united Europe and the real origins of Hollywood.

In one of the interviews you have given here, you mentioned that the language of Hollywood had actually been created by central European filmmakers. Could you please elaborate?

Even Hollywood itself was created by them. One of the most famous Hollywood studios, Universal, was created by a German called Carl Laemmle. Paramount was founded by a Hungarian called Adolf Zukor And 20th Century Fox was created by another Hungarian, William Fox. The Warner Brothers were German, and, Mr Myer and Mr Goldwyn, of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer were German too. So I think all Hollywood is a central European creation. And the cinematic language of Hollywood, which aims to reach people by appealing to basic human emotions, is something typical of central Europe, of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. In every village of that empire, there were people from a minimum of two or three minorities, with different languages and religions, so to sell your simple product on the village market you needed to speak two or three languages, to accept two or three religions and mentalities. So I think, in that sense, Hollywood is central European.

Even now, talented young filmmakers from Europe are immediately snatched by big studios in Hollywood...

Because they know the mentality of Europe. This diversity of people and of thought is very useful for Hollywood. Any attempt to reach people needs to take their diversity into account. What is America? A mixture of people from central Europe, from England, from Sweden, from China, from India... So you have to find a language that is acceptable to everybody. Therefore you cannot base your Hollywood story on tradition. Only local films can be based on tradition, that's why it is important to keep making local films, not to let them die, because they represent the local culture.

Turning to your film, in Taking Sides you deal once more with the question of compromising. In a dictatorship like the Nazi regime or in extraordinary periods such as war time, the conflicts between the system and the individual are much more obvious. But what about the compromises of the artist who lives in a contemporary western country?

Life requires compromises, and I think democracy means compromise, as well. Because you have to deal with other people and you have to be open, you have to accept and even respect other people—this is a form of compromise. I don't think that life is possible without making compromises. The question is only one of limits: how far to go. When one crosses the line, then the compromise starts to be a bad, even deadly, one.

But it is not that visible in everyday life...

You live with your compromises but you don't talk about it. It is only when you have a totalitarian regime or a dictatorship that you talk about it. But if your compromises involve bank managers, you don't speak of compromises because their object is money. But money is also a part of life.

Seing your film, one can't help but remember Leni Riefenstahl. What is your opinion of her?

[There is] no question that she is one of the great talents in film history, but she sold herself, so to speak, to the devil, because she always wanted to be in the spotlight. But you know, if you follow her life and see everything she has done, she did nothing else except create a character who is very very interesting. So she always longed for the spotlight. Even under the sea, or in Africa, surrounded by naked black people—it doesn't matter [where], as long as it's interesting. As long as she's not only behind the camera but also in front of it and somewhere in the middle.

She was able to compromise for the sole purpose of being admired and accepted. This is a problem for all of us: where are the limits, how should I say "No, thank you very much, I am not doing it," or "I have no time" or "I have a headache today, I am sorry I cannot do it!" There is a limit. I think it is a moral question, and everybody has to ask oneself this moral question. In the case of Leni Riefenstahl, we have to say that the way in which she allowed herself to be used for political reasons was a bad decision and we must learn from it. So we must be thankful to Leni Riefenstahl, because from her example we have learnt what is not allowable.

My country, Turkey, is currently negotiating future membership in the European Union. One of your films, Meeting Venus, was a great joke about it. What is your approach to the united Europe now?

Yes, it was a joke—an improvised one, even. I think a united Europe is a very important thing. European countries can save their culture and lifestyle only by being united, by dealing with the world in unity, not separated. A common financial policy, common foreign policy, common military policy, common monetary policy is very important, but all politicians must know that culture cannot be unified. And that European culture does not exist, only local cultures exist. So Swedish culture is very different from the one in Spain, and Portugese culture is not the same as German culture, and Czech culture is not Hungarian.

Even Italian culture doesn't really exist, because [everything], even the cuisine, is different in North Italy and in Sicily. Or, in Germany, even the religion is different between Munich and Berlin; they are both Christian but one of them is Catholic and the other is Protestant. So we cannot say that this country must be Catholic or must be Protestant; they have to respect each other. So, if we want to preserve European culture, we have to support local cultures. And local cultures need to be promoted, European culture needs local support. But I think you cannot disagree with the idea of a united Europe.

As is the case here in India, a single country with various cultures and languages. What are your impressions of India following your visit?

It is one country, one politically united territory, but with more than 13 languages, 50 different cultures and 2500 different variations of local cuisine... My visit was too short to have an impression, but the most important thing is that people here are very open and nice. And they have an enormous respect for other people who are different. This is something that we have to learn.

Necati Sönmez

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About the author

Necati Sönmez is a freelance journalist working in Istanbul. He is also currently working on a documentary on Theo Angelopoulus

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