Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 4 
3 Mar

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Mari Torocsik in Miklos Jancso's Szerelmem, Elektra (Electreia, 1974) HUNGARY
A true actor can't exist without the theatre
Mari Törőcsik interviewed

Törőcsik talks to Graham Petrie about the problems of being an actor in a country where the director's role is prime in film-making and where being able to act well is prerequisite to being a screen presence.

Ever since her first screen role in Körhinta (Merry-Go-Round, 1955), which brought her immediate international recognition at the Cannes Film Festival, Mari Törőcsik (born 1935) has been the leading Hungarian screen actress. She received the Best Actress award at Cannes in 1971 for her role in Love (Szerelem; directed by Károly Makk) and again in 1976 for Déryne, hol van? (Mrs Déry, Where Are You?; directed by her husband Gyula Maár). In 1983, she received a special award at Cannes for her work in film overall. She also acts regularly in the theatre.

Kinoeye here presents a previously unpublished interview by Graham Petrie, conducted while she was working on location during the shooting of Zsolt Kézdi-Kovács' A rejtözkdő (The Absentee, 1985).

In many other countries, and especially America, the star system is very important and films are often built round a star and even written directly for that person. It seems to me that Hungarian cinema is centered round directors and themes; actors are important, of course, but they are seldom the primary motive behind the creation of a film. Is this so and, if it is, how do you see your position within that situation?

I think it's quite correct to say that in Hungary it is the director who is important, rather than the actors, though there have been exceptions and it has happened that I have had a film written especially for me. In general, however, it is the director's ideas that matter and I think this is perfectly all right. But it's not just in Hungary that this happens: this is how it works with every director who is good enough and who can work in the way he wants to work.

This applies, of course, only to those who are truly creative people: in those cases, the actors have the chance to do really good work. Directors like Nikita Mikhalkov or Elem Klimov, for example, don't think in terms of actors—they want to convey something and they use the actors to put this across—but actors are still important to them and they make a very crucial impact in their work. But I find it inconceivable that an actor should even think of saying, "I want you to take a close-up of me now." That's not acting, it's just something self-serving.

Of course, I've worked with weak and even bad directors, for this is my profession and it's how I earn my living; but on the rare occasions when I had the chance to work with a thoughtful intelligent person, someone who sees the world in a different, and even unusual, way, I've surrendered myself completely to someone of that kind. It's important in Hungary that all the good actors work in the theatre too, for I believe that a true actor can't exist without the theatre—if you don't work in the theatre you simply limit yourself to being nothing more than a "star." Liv Ullmann and Glenda Jackson, for example, continue to work in the theatre, while Jean-Paul Belmondo, who I think was a really outstanding stage actor at the beginning of his career, has simply became submerged in the world of romantic heroes and gangsters. He may be better off financially doing this and he is a big star, but it's still very sad.

Does this mean, then, that in the Hungarian context, there is more respect for your value as an actress, your ability to act? That acting ability is really a central consideration, rather than one's appearance or one's image or something relatively superficial like that?

Yes—and it's certainly true in my case. Just look at me—I could never have been used for my sex appeal, I could function only as an actress. In Hungarian you don't need to differentiate between "actor" and "actress" and I always prefer to just call myself an actor.

You've said you prefer to work with directors who have a strong personality and who have ideas of their own—people, perhaps, like Jancsó or Gaál or Kézdi-Kovács. When you are working with these people, do you feel that your main task is to interpret their vision, or do you make your own suggestions, bring your own ideas to the role and discuss them with the director?

In those cases where the director is a friend of mine, I do offer suggestions and comments, but these are not intended to be self-serving. It's best when the director knows exactly what he wants to do: he sees the work as a whole and he gives me a place in this overall scheme. When the director isn't really good enough, I am forced by circumstances to work in the way I think best; but I don't really know the overall pattern in these cases and I may not be making the right decisions. A really good director, who knows exactly what he wants, and where and why and when, can put what I can offer into the right combination and make it come alive. A gesture of the hand by itself means nothing, but if somebody knows that I will be sitting for five minutes, without moving, and then I suddenly make a gesture with my hand, then it makes sense.

I don't like the director to explain everything to me from a psychological point of view; what I want is for the director to give me technical instructions, to tell me what to do and where; he doesn't need to explain it all. And then I can do what only I can do—to scream, to cry, to smile in the way that only I can, because that is what my whole life has prepared me for and what I have put all my knowledge and skill into learning.

How does this apply to particular directors? You've worked with Jancsó for example, on Csend és kiáltás (Silence and Cry, 1968) and Szerelmem, Elektra (Elektreia, 1974), and it's often been said that he's not very interested in actors, they're just props that he moves around to fit in with the overall visual pattern. Did you find this was the case, and did you find it satisfying to work with him?

When I first worked with Jancsó on Csend és kiáltás I had to realise that he doesn't present his characters in a complicated way. In order to express what he wants, he tries to find the right personality, someone who has certain aspects or qualities that he needs. On the very first day, I sensed that what he really needed from me was my way of walking across an empty field. I admire that period of his work very much, and I was quite happy just to be with him and to feel that I was a part of the total mechanism of what he was doing, whatever my own part in it was. But I understood too that he needed me, that it made a difference to him who it was that walked across that field and it wasn't just anyone who could do it. Knowing that, it was quite satisfactory to work in that way.

Did he ever discuss the whole film with you, or even a particular scene, and say, "This is the overall situation and this is why I want you to do this or that?" Or did he just say "Would you walk over here and stand there and make this gesture when I tell you to?"

He never explained anything to me in detail; he would just tell me where to walk and that was about it. He was more interested in assembling everyone into the right kind of combination to express what he wanted to say. He wasn't interested in psychology; what interested him was a person's role in an overall situation, his relationship with the world overall.

One of your best roles—and performances—was in Makk's Szerelem (Love, 1971). That must have been a very different kind of experience from working with Jancsó?

Unlike Jancsó, Makk was not interested in a person's role in shaping the machine of history; he was concerned with the personality of people in a particular situation. I like working with him, we're old friends, and it was very important too to work with Lili Darvas [who plays the old woman in the film]. I like her very much and have a great respect for her, and I think that's true for her as well, and I think this came through in the film. It deals with two people who are forced to spend a lot of time together and who love each other, but who also act out their personal neuroses on each other. The question of love was essential to the film and so it was important that Lili and I loved each other and felt affection for each other.

I think I'm right in saying that you've only once acted in a film directed by a woman—Holdudvar (Binding Sentiments, 1968); directed by Márta Mészáros). Would you like to work more often with female directors, and do you find the roles written for you by men satisfying and convincing?

I don't believe in differentiating between directors in terms of sex: I only believe in quality. No one writes better roles for women than Bergman. On the other hand, I did work for 25 years at the National Theatre under a 100 percent male-oriented director who was never interested in the problems of women and chose only plays with strong roles for men. So I missed out on playing Chekhov and Gorky and Tennessee Williams, and I was always acting in Brecht or Peter Weiss or Shakespeare's history plays. But as his work was always of high quality, I preferred to put up with this and go on acting for him.

You achieved success immediately with your first film role in Körhinta. Do you still look back on this as one of your favourite and most satisfying roles?

Naturally enough, it's one of my favourites and it had a determining effect on my whole career. I was lucky to have the chance to appear in some of the best films of the Fifties, those of Fábri and Máriássy, though I've appeared in a lot of mediocre ones too. After about twenty years I was "discovered" by Jancsó and a whole new generation of film-makers after him and my film career took on a new life with films like Szerelem and Elektreia and Déryne, hol van? And now the latest generation have also "discovered" me and every second year I play a role in the film of the best graduating student at the Film School.

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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