Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 4 
3 Mar
2003

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Miklos Jancso's Nekem lampast adott kezembe as Ur Pesten (The Lord's Lantern in Budapest, 1998) HUNGARY
Hamlet in Wonderland
Miklós Jancsó's Nekem lámpást adott kezembe as Úr Pesten (The Lord's Lantern in Budapest, 1998)

Jancsó's career rebounded in the late 1990s with a work that won him instant recognition from the critics and found him a new, young audience. Andrew James Horton looks at the first of the films to feature Pepe and Kapa.[*]


Miklós Jancsó is possibly the most famous and most highly regarded Hungarian director of all time. His reputation rests on a body of work which makes high intellectual demands of its audience and provokes awkward questions without trying to answer them.

After a long period in the doldrums (it had been seven years since his previous feature film and even more since he had received a generally positive response from either audiences or critics), Miklós Jancsó re-emerged with Nekem lámpást adott kezembe as Úr Pesten (The Lord's Lantern in Budapest, 1998), a blackly humorous look at the post-1989 culture of violence that won him the Gene Moskovitz prize from international critics at the 30th Magyar Filmszemle (Hungarian Film Week) in Budapest and went on to play in competition at Karlovy Vary, both in 1999. Not only did the film regain the confidence of critics but the film also had a modicum of box office success in Hungary, being the fourth most popular Hungarian film of 1999.

Despite the positive response from the foreign critics at the 30th Magyar Filmszemle and the film's trip to Karlovy Vary (where the festival daily gave a gushing interview with the director), international interest in the film was rather muted. There were few festival screenings and certainly no international awards, a particularly cruel irony given that even in the 1980s, the nadir of the director's career in terms of critical response to his films both at home and abroad, Jancsó won a string of awards for his unpopular features, including several from Venice. While in Hungary Jancsó became respected again and even hip among young cinema-goers, the world at large seemed to have lost all interest in a director who once fascinated it.

Arguably, this lack of international interest is perfectly understandable. The film, for all its accomplishments, is almost impenetrably dense in its richness and lacks a plot in any meaningful sense of the term. The film, though, is at worst a canny piece of reinvention in the post-1989 film-making world and at best a minor masterpiece in the director's oeuvre. To understand why, we have to look at the film in the context of his filmography.

A rollercoaster career

Jancsó, like so many directors of the classic period of Hungarian film, began by making documentaries in the early 1950s. In 1958, he turned to features, but his first masterpiece didn't come until his third picture, Igy jottem (My Way Home), in 1964. By this time, since his second film, he was already working with the novelist Gyula Hernádi on his scripts. A string of internationally acclaimed works followed, including Szegénylegények (The Round-up) in 1965, Csillagosak, katanák (The Red and the White, 1967) and Még kér a nép (Red Psalm) in 1971, for which he was awarded at Cannes as best director the following year.

His approach has always been intelligent and experimental. In fact, sometimes too intelligent and too experimental, as several of his films are so elliptical to lose all but the most dedicated Jancsó fans. Although a committed Marxist, Jancsó's mature work remained independent of the Party line (he left the Party in 1956) and several of his works—notably Szegénylegények—can be read as being highly critical of Communism as it was practised in Hungary.

In the 1970s, the critical backlash against him started. First of all he divided his time between Hungary and Italy (he made his first Italian co-production in 1970 and his last in 1981), and while the Hungarian works from this period won respect, the Italian films were generally despised. In the 1980s, things deteriorated as even his Hungarian films failed to excite critics. However, his career in this unpopular period was diverse, covering historical feature films, a documentary of a Hungarian rock group, a Faustian television series and much work in the theatre.

After the fall of Communism in 1989, Jancsó has been in an interesting position in cinema. Ever inquiring and critical, and still retaining his Marxist ideals, he has become a sceptical observer of post-Communist society. Kék Duna keringő (Blue Danube Waltz, 1991), his previous feature before Nekem lámpást, is a characteristically bleak look at Hungary's emerging political scene. However, it failed to conjure up the magic, and the critical attention, of his works of the 60s and bombed at the box office.

Nekem lámpást adott kezembe as Úr Pesten (literally "The Lord Put a Lantern in My Hand in Pest" but marketed as the snappier The Lord's Lantern in Budapest for English-speakers), again sees him questioning contemporary Hungarian culture, although this time his scope has broadened from the restrictive field of politics previously used. He also continues on from his previous work by employing two significant collaborators: Gyula Hernádi, who has been a steady collaborator with Jancsó since Igy jottem, and Ferenc Grunwalsky as director of photography, who served as an assistant cameraman with the director in the 1970s and with whom Jancsó had co-directed a couple of documentaries in the 1990s. Indeed, the significance of these collaborators is underlined by the fact that Nekem lámpást is billed as a film "by Miklos Jancsó, Gyula Hernádi and Ferenc Grunwalsky."

Man as pet

The central characters of Nekem lámpást are Pepe and Kapa (played by Péter Scherer and Zoltán Musci), two grave-diggers in a Pest cemetery, and Zsolt, some sort of mafia business man who likes to hang out there for no obvious reason. However, in this film nothing can be certain: Pepe is also a policeman who is about to arrest Kapa for drinking behind the wheel of his car to calm himself after he discovers his entire family has been wiped out by his niece, and Zsolt is his wife's favourite doctor; Kapa is a multi-billionaire trying to buy Budapest's parliament building and the castle, who tries to talk Pepe out of taking a suicide leap from the Chain Bridge; and in another manifestation Pepe is a cleaner and Kapa a tattooed mafia mobster.

Miklos Jancso's Nekem lampast adott kezembe as Ur Pesten (The Lord's Lantern in Budapest, 1998)
Hernádi and Jancsó as themselves
In amongst these bizarre and inexplicable personality changes is music by Hungary's premier rock group Kispál és a Borz, avant-garde dance from Andrea Ladányi and guest appearances by Jancsó and Hernádi as themselves. And that is a simplified description of the film.

Starting with the words "If I were an animal, I wouldn't keep a man as a pet," Jancsó's work is a sharply acted film of cynical asides and black one-liners, but with no discernible plot-line in the conventional sense of the term. However, strong performances and perfect timing by Scherer and Mucsi make the film as enjoyable and dynamic as it is morbid, although the pace does fall off towards the end of the film.

Jancsó introduces us to a world in which money and violence are everything and nothing. The gun rules supreme, but its effects are meaningless, as characters are repeatedly killed and then resurrected without explanation. The protagonists live numbed in a world that is insulated from the true meaning of the violence which surrounds them: Pepe has never even heard of Adolf Hitler and during one scene of violence, the hysterical screaming of young women is brought to a neat crescendo by Zsolt, who acts as an impromptu choirmaster. And that's not to mention the casual air with which characters kill off their nearest and dearest.

Nekem lámpást is a bewildering film and, despite its light comic style, can come across as being hard-going, particularly if you are not Hungarian. The first time I saw the film was in the cinema reserved for international delegates at the 30th Hungarian Film Week. The critics emerged looking tired, serious and dazed at the end of the performance. When I saw the film a week later in downtown Pest, the Hungarian audience reacted completely differently and Jancsó's quips were met with a relaxed and hearty laughter that united everyone at the showing.

The film is made more difficult for international audiences by its intense interest in Hungarian themes. Among those mentioned are the Kossuth rebellion of 1848 against the Habsburgs, the Hungarian national poet Sándor Petőfi, Karl Marx, the Polish General Bem (who helped Kossuth in his uprising) and repeated references to the 13 Arad martyrs (generals from the 1848 rebellion whose executions were toasted with the clinking of beer glasses, for which reason Hungarians never make contact with their pints when raising them for a toast).

And, of course, there is the continual joking about suicide, something of a national obsession in Hungary, which has the highest suicide rate in Europe.

A Shakespearean looking-glass

Stylistically, the film is something of a reversal from the style that Jancsó has become famous for. The long, choreographed shots are largely gone and on the few occassions when they do occur they seem incongruous (as, for example, when the camera rises and twists up over a bride at a wedding celebration held at the cemetary). Instead, there is more rapid cutting and there is no attempt to preserve the spatial and temporaral continuity of the world that is portrayed, as happens when long takes are used. This extends to a playful New Wave-style deconstruction of the medium of film itself. The world is a purely cinematic one and the characters are constantly intrigued by the screen and its limits. They cannot see other characters standing next to them because they are off screen, and objects thrown into the action from outside of the frame materialise for them as if from nowhere. Moreover, someone can jump out of the frame in one location and end up landing in the Danube.

Miklos Jancso's Nekem lampast adott kezembe as Ur Pesten (The Lord's Lantern in Budapest, 1998)The very idea that Jancsó might make a comedy might seem strange to someone who has seen only his films from the 1960s and 70s, which have an earnest seriousness not only in their use of cinematic form but also in their thematic treatment of historical events.

Why has so much changed since the 1960s? Is this a jeux d'esprit of a director in the autumn years of his creativity, who, having exerted all his energy in screaming against the system for so long now merely wants to relax and have a bit of fun? The publicity for the film urges us to "Be happy and content!" and not to wonder what the world is like while we watch this "user-friendly" film. Jancsó and Hernádi are dismissed as "has beens" and Jancsó himself appears dressed in white, half lunatic escaped from the asylum, half angel. Is this a capitulation, a tacit admission that all the director can do is made music videos for the modern age and mock his own ineffectiveness and his audience's lack of interest in his work? Is this, in short, self-parody?

The answer is, perhaps, best viewed through the prism of the works that intervene between his canonical 1960s and 70s works and Nekem lámpást. As other authors writing in this issue have explained, in the works that came after the incomplete Vitam et sanguinem trilogy of 1979 Jancsó turned to an increasing scepticism about what we can understand about the world and how we can interpret it. In addition, Jancsó showed an increased scepticism about how much we can understand film, and the audiences suspension of disbelief is constantly broken as the narrative constantly steps out of the frame of reference of the story.

Nekem lámpást extends these themes further. Rather than being about knowledge, it concerns enquiry. The characters question their own existence, whether it is through contemplation of suicide or by asking why it is that they are still alive even though they have been killed. Furthermore, the principal roles of the two main characters as grave-diggers set up obvious Shakespearean allusions to existential enquiry. (Further comparisons to the Bard have been made by Jancsó himself, who likens his own use of music with the role of the minstrel in Shakespeare's plays.)

However, the metaphysical questions Pepe and Kapa ask themselves and each other remain unanswered. Ultimately, their futile existential enquiries are merely bad imitations of even the most basic analytical thought, to say nothing of the rich musings of the Bard. As Sándor Striker has pointed out, the film is a linear progression from Hamlet, in which the hero wonders what he should do, and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstein are Dead, in which the heros wonder if they should have done something. In Nekem lámpást..., the protagonists the think they should wonder about something, but they are not what or how. If in the 1980s, Jancsó states that there is nothing we can really know, it is because this is ontologically impossible. In Nekem lámpást... the characters know nothing because they are totally divorced from the real world, insulated by the cocoon of self-interest that comes with free-market capitalism.

As such, Nekem lámpást is an attack on the complacency of present-day society, a culture which is itself obsessed with violence but cannot comprehend its consequences, does not care to and only half-heartedly questions its surroundings. For all the "through the looking glass" type games Jancsó plays with his plot, Nekem lámpást is essentially a portrait of the real world as it exists today.

Far from giving in, Jancsó seems to be biting back with avengence. Although a world a part from the films of the 1960s, Nekem lámpást is a logical extension of his 1980s works in terms of the use of individual characters, comic elements, playful irony, self-reflexivity and awareness of the film as a text. It's a sardonic work, using pop and particularly film culture to satirise the apathy of the young and their disconnection from history, society and the world in general around them.

Some of the features may seem distastefully trite—the exhortation to be happy and forget the world in the publicity, the self-reflexivity of the film and the constant barrage of what seem to be in-jokes among the film's makers—but at the same time they act as essential markers to remind us that this is a black satire and not the earnest dissection of power that characterised the 60s, the ontological despair of the 80s or the political pessimism of the early 90s. After four decades of staring out his subjects with a furrowed brow, Jancsó seems to be saying that perhaps trying to change the world can be fun after all. That certainly is new ground for the director.

Andrew James Horton

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Also of interest
About the author

Andrew James HortonAndrew James Horton is Editor-in-Chief of Kinoeye and was the founding Culture Editor of Central Europe Review, on whose advisory board he now sits. He also writes on central European culture for other journals, is Associate Editor of Moveast and has edited the e-book The Celluloid Tinderbox.

Footnotes

* This article is an enlarged and revised version of one that originally appeared in the now defunct internet journal The Electronic New Presence (19 April 1999) and was republished in Central Europe Review (5 July 1999).return to text

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