Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 4 
3 Mar
2003

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Gyula Hernadi in Miklos Jancso's Omega, Omega... (1984) HUNGARY
Writing dialogues with the viewer
Gyula Hernádi interviewed

Hernádi discusses with Graham Petrie why the critics have given his scripts for Jancsó more problems than the Communist regime has and defends their work against accusations of repetitiveness.


The novelist Gyula Hernádi first collaborated with director Miklós Jancsó on a script in the early 1960s and he has worked on almost all Jancsó's films since. In recent years, he minor parts in Jancsó's films as himself. As well as working with Jancsó, Hernádi has also written scripts for Ferenc Grunwalsky and Márta Mészáros.

Kinoeye here presents a previously unpublished interview by Graham Petrie, made in 1985—halfway through the collaborative life of Hernádi and Jancsó to date.


You have worked regularly with Jancsó since 1963. How did you first come to meet him and start working with him?

I first met him thanks to István Nemeskürty, who was an editor at a Hungarian publishing house at the time. He liked my first novel, which was published there, and soon afterwards he became head of a film studio which specialised in newsreels. The studio wanted to make feature films too and Mr Nemeskürty told Jancsó, who was working there, that he thought he knew a writer who would suit his ideas very well, and so he brought us together. Within a few minutes it was clear that we were on the same wavelength and would get along very well. We had a lot in common both in our ideas and in our background: in both cases, our parents had been civil servants in the Horthy regime; we had both been educated in religious schools; we had both been prisoners of war in the Soviet Union; and we had both played a fairly important role in the movement to establish popular colleges in 1947—we portrayed this movement in the film Fényes szelek (Confrontation, 1968).

We found also that we supplemented each other—my talent for thinking verbally and writing dialogue went together with his talent for thinking visually. And we were both interested in history and historical analysis. When we started to work together I found myself in a rather difficult situation politically and, as film was and perhaps still is one of the forms of art most closely watched by the authorities, we had a few problems to begin with. The first film we made together was Oldás és kötés (Cantata, 1963) but, because of this situation, my name wasn't mentioned on the credits.

So it's this basic affinity and the way in which you complement each other that has kept you working together for 20 years?

Yes, that's basically the reason, and an association of this length between a director and a scriptwriter is quite rare in Hungary. We enrich each other intellectually and emotionally and are well acquainted now with each other's ideas and thoughts.

You mentioned some problems with Oldás és kötés. Were there any difficulties with making such films as Szegénylegények (The Round-Up, 1965) or Csend és kiáltás (Silence and Cry, 1968)?

Not with those films. The problems were with Oldás és kötés and Igy jöttem (My Way Home, 1964). Igy jöttem, which seems quite innocuous nowadays, was taken out of the cinemas after a week, and I still don't know why. Today, of course, it's recognised as a good and important film. Szegnylegények was something like an explosion in Hungarian cultural life and it was seen as a film with a kind of elemental power. By the mid-1960s the whole atmosphere of Hungarian political and cultural life was becoming much more free and liberal, of course.

Could you say something about how you and Jancsó work together? Who is it who normally comes up with the ideas for the films? Do you have a detailed script before you start shooting or—as I've heard is often the case—do you just have a general outline and build the film up as you are shooting it?

In our early days we weren't considered significant film-makers, we had no reputation, and we had to submit a detailed script to the authorities so that they could check the content and the dialogue. This was the case with Igy jöttem and Szegénylegények. As for the ideas, sometimes they come from me, sometimes from Jancsó. I think all our films can be divided into two main groups, according to their themes. One of these themes is the criticism of Stalinism: that's the subject of Szegénylegények, Csend és kiáltás, and Sirokkó, (Winter Wind, 1969). The other and larger group is intended as an analysis of the whole process of revolution.

As our names became more important, we weren't required to submit a detailed script any longer and we could just start off with an outline. But from the very beginning we often made changes in the script and the dialogue during shooting, depending on the weather, the actors, or new ideas that occurred to us as we were working. You would often find that the original script was almost unrecognizable by the time the film was finished as a result of this constant improvisation.

Did you ever have problems with the authorities objecting that what you had produced was not the film you had said you were going to make?

No, we never had that particular problem. Ultimately, I think, the authorities developed a kind of trust in us and we never had any serious problems with the ideas for our films or with the films themselves. The objections were mainly from the critics—not on ideological grounds but aesthetic ones; they objected to the style of the films rather than to their content. The only real exception to this was Csillagosok, katonák (The Red and the White, 1967), which took a rather unusual and novel approach to the Russian Civil War, and in this case there were some ideological objections. But overall people simply became resigned to our way of presenting history and accepted it.

From talking to Jancsó recently, I get the impression that things began to change to some extent in the l970s...

At the beginning of the l970s the Hungarian economic reform movement began to slow down, though that didn't begin to affect us till a few years later. Whenever there's a slowing down or a stagnation of this kind, it's actually experienced more as a regression, and the overall atmosphere of this time was one of regressing, going backwards, and this created various problems. We were deeply involved in our own work at the time and we didn't really feel the effects of this until the beginning of the l980s. It became more difficult to make films of the kind we had been interested in and that suited our approach. We had been concerned with a kind of overall historical analysis of a very intellectual nature, and the present situation, which involves both political consolidation and this slowing down of economic progress, is just not conducive to making films of that type. So now we have to find the kind of content and formal approach that might fit into this new situation, and that's what we're trying to do at the moment.

There are still good films being made, of course, like [István] Szabó's Mephisto (1981) and Oberst Redl (Colonel Redl, 1985) or [Péter] Gothár's Megáll az idó (Time Stands Still, 1982), but they express a different personality from our own, and we have to find the approach that suits our own personality.

Does this mean that you might agree to some extent with those critics who say that you and Jancsó are not doing anything new in your most recent films, that you are simply standing still?

I'm not sure that I really understand what it means to progress in the arts, or to stand still, or to regress. All I know is that Jancsó has done something very rare and difficult and important, and that is to discover a personal style. Critics seem to expect artists to be always changing, like Picasso, who had his Blue period and his Cubist period and so on, but that's not really the typical pattern. Jancsó has a very original and authentic personal style, but it seems to irritate the critics. Why? Because there has been a huge wave of "quasi-realistic" American-style films that pretend to present the world as it really is but are really just lies and don't even require any thinking.

These films are shown in cinemas and especially on television, and the public and the critics now expect films of that kind from everyone. But our films aren't like that, they are not naturalistic, and they make it quite clear from the start that this is not "reality" but our own ideas about reality. Therefore they set up a dialogue with the viewer, they demand analysis and reflection: we're giving the viewer a difficult task and that's why there's so much hostility towards these films.

As I've said before, the overall situation now is very different from twenty years ago. It's like furnishing a room: it's much easier if the room is completely empty to begin with than if it's already pretty well furnished: the impact is much bigger when you put a bed into an empty room than when all you can do is add bits and pieces of decoration. The really important themes of our recent history, such as Stalinism, have been quite thoroughly analysed by now, and the contemporary situation offers much less fundamental themes, it's greyer overall, so to speak, the problems are much less urgent, and we now have to find a way of speaking to this situation.

Does it worry or irritate you that the films you have made with Jancsó are spoken of as "his" films? Do you feel you are given adequate recognition for your part in them?

I've been asked this quite often and I can honestly say that it doesn't bother me at all. Ultimately, I think it's correct to give the director credit for the film because he is the one who makes the final decisions and the film really is his creation. Primarily I'm a writer and my discussions with Jancsó have influenced my writing; he has also directed some of my plays for the theatre. We work very well together and my vanity isn't hurt in any way when he is given recognition for the films: if I were hurt, I'd go and direct my own films instead. But I don't plan to do that.

You've also written three films for Márta Mészáros. Did you have the same kind of close creative collaboration with her, or did you work differently?

When I first met Jancsó she was his wife and so I became friends with her as well. She's a very talented and decent person, very rich and complex emotionally. And of course, because she has a different personality, her ideas about cinema are different from Jancsó's or mine. My contributions to her films are mainly limited to some of the dialogue and some of the situations. But I think Napló gyermekeimnek (Diary for My Children, 1982) [in which Hernádi was not involved as scriptwriter] is a really excellent film, I like her way of thinking a lot. She is an original personality and her kind of feminism is not the standard kind, which can be easily ridiculed: it's genuinely concerned with enlarging the freedom of a woman's life and the world she lives in. I'm sorry that Anna (Mother and Daughter, 1981; a Hungarian-French co production) was not a success, but that was mainly due to the fact that the leading actress, Marie-José Nat was not right for the role and she [Mészáros] shouldn't have compromised and used her.

Is there anyone else that you have worked with as closely as you did with Jancsó?

Ferenc Grunwalsky: I worked with him on Vorös rekviem (Requiem for a Revolutionary, 1975), which was based on one of my novels. He had also been an assistant to Jancsó for five years. I think the film was good, but it was not a success and it had a very lukewarm reception. It's about a Hungarian revolutionary and the last few days of his life as he awaits execution, and people seem to be hostile to the idea of revolution nowadays, perhaps because they've had so many disillusioning experiences with it.

You mentioned revolution as a major theme of your film scripts. Would you say that you dealt basically with the same themes and ideas in your scripts as in your novels and plays—that there's a consistency of approach throughout?

The basic theme that interests me is the theme of freedom, and there are two sub-themes connected with this. One is a world that has been twisted and distorted because of a lack of freedom—as was the case with the Horthy regime in Hungary, or Stalinism. The other is the joy, the euphoria, the celebration that accompanies a sense of liberation, and that may only last a very short time, of course. It's no accident that dancing and other forms of celebration are so important in Jancsó's films.

On the one hand, then, there's our hatred for a situation where people's personalities are twisted and perverted by a lack of freedom; and, on the other, the empathy that we, Jancsó and I and people like us, feel with the euphoria of liberation. Unfortunately, this freedom and liberty don't last very long, for the inner mechanisms of revolution are such that oppression begins again soon afterwards this is probably due to a basic flaw in human nature. You could say, then, that Csend és kiáltás (Silence and Cry, 1968) is about the mechanism of oppression; Még kér a nép (Red Psalm, 1971) is about how a transitory liberation is achieved; and Magyar rapszódia—Allegro Barbaro (A Hungarian Rhapsody—Allegro Barbaro, 1979) is about someone who takes the side of the oppressed and once again fights for liberty. These are the basic themes that interest me.

You say that the liberation is always only a temporary one. Is there ever going to be a break in this endless cycle of oppression, revolution, euphoria, disillusionment, and renewed oppression?

To some extent I think the situation is rather hopeless. However, it's no accident that the Polish philosopher [Leszek] Kołakowski has said that utopias must be postulated, even if they are almost impossible to realise, because they can only ever be realised if they have been postulated. I believe that one of the important tasks of the artist is to postulate utopias, to try to bring them within the range of possibilities that may be realised. Of course the problems involved in this must be stated too, but artists should try to accomplish this task of bringing utopias within the realm of what is feasible. What we are trying to do in presenting these moments of celebration and euphoria is to present to the public these moments of utopian liberation that represent the overall utopian condition that we have to hope for and strive for as long as we live.

Graham Petrie

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Also of interest
About the author

Graham Petrie is the author of History Must Answer To Man: The Contemporary Hungarian Cinema (1978), a book on Jancsó's Red Psalm in the Cinetext series (Flicks Books), books on Francois Truffaut and Andrei Tarkovsky (with Vida T Johnson), and Hollywood Destines: European Directors In America, 1922-1931.

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