Character Subjectivities in Films about the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

By Beverly James (U of New Hampshire)

Ever since the pioneering work of Herbert Blumer, reported in his classic Movies and Conduct , scholars have recognized the power of film to shape people's “conceptions of life” and “schemes of conduct.” Drawing upon motion picture autobiographies, supplemented by interviews and other qualitative methods, Blumer demonstrated the ability of film to determine how audience members visualize heroes, villains, social class, nationality, and so forth. Furthermore, Blumer documented how his subjects—university, college, and high school students, as well as young office and factory workers—identified with motion picture heroes, modeling their own appearance, mannerisms, and behavior on that of their favorite characters.

Scholars now conceive of media influence as a more subtle, ideological process. Cultural products are no longer seen as already-written texts that embody a core meaning waiting to be discovered and acted upon. Thus, rather than seeking evidence of direct imitation or learning, those who take a cultural approach to media influence explore the process through which film, television programs, and other forms of popular expression make identities available to the public. In Althusserian terminology, the individual is constituted as a subject through the process of interpellation. This is always an ideological process, so that in motion pictures, for example, a particular set of codes and conventions are used to invite audiences to evaluate favorably those characters whose traits and actions are desirable from the standpoint of existing economic, social, and political arrangements. Indeed, film is uniquely suited to position the viewer as ideological subject. As Philip Green writes: “What we see on the screen, emanating from an invisible point behind us yet appearing mysteriously before us, seems to have no point of enunciation, no author except ourselves as we vicariously identify with the camera's standpoint” (102). Identity formation through cinema is thus a productive process in which audiences' readings of characters are structured and channeled through the language and grammar of film.

The fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 followed on the heels of revelations that Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány chastised his fellow Socialist Party members at a closed meeting following the April elections for lying about the economy in order to retain control of the government. The fallout included massive demonstrations on Kossuth Square in front of Parliament, with several hundred right-wing extremists calling not only for the prime minister's resignation, but for a revolution in the spirit of 1956. Gyurcsány is widely resented by the right for his ties to the former communist regime—he was active in the party's Youth League and his wife is the granddaughter of Antal Apró, who was a life-long communist and deputy prime minister in the Kádár regime. Like other former communists, Gyurcsány's connections allowed him to make a fortune in the privatization of the 1990s. This exploitation of his communist past is especially galling to those who have suffered economically as a result of Hungary's entry into the European Union and global capitalism.

The Kossuth Square demonstrators of 2006 and the revolutionaries in 1956 would seem to have little in common. The uprising in 1956 began as a movement to reform communism in accordance with its espoused ideals of economic democracy and respect for human rights, although it is true that as the process took on momentum, its leaders issued such far-reaching demands as an end to one-party rule. Still, the self-identification of the Kossuth Square protestors as latter-day Freedom Fighters is just the latest, most bizarre, manifestation of the appropriation of the 1956 revolution. The bickering goes back at least to 23 October 1989, the thirty-third anniversary of the outbreak of the revolution. On that historic occasion, interim President Mátyás Szurös announced the establishment of the new Republic at noon from the same balcony of Parliament where Imre Nagy had spoken three decades earlier, but he denied the requests of opposition groups to speak from that same symbolic space.

Then, in 1992, the Free Democrat president Árpád Göncz—a man who had been sentenced to life in prison for his role in the uprising—was unable to deliver his October holiday address because of disruptions by fanatics calling for his resignation. The Socialists blamed the governing Hungarian Democratic Forum and Prime Minister József Antall for encouraging extremism through their campaigns against Göncz. They also accused the governing coalition of monopolizing 1956 and criticized it for failing to invite the opposition to official ceremonies. Successive governments have shamelessly used the holiday for political posturing. In 1996, the fortieth anniversary of the revolution, the Socialists were the majority party, and the opposition reminded the public that Prime Minister Gyula Horn was a member of a military unit that had helped suppress the uprising. And in 2006, when the president and others urged the nation to celebrate the holiday together, prominent '56-er and oppositional member of Parliament Mária Wittner (Fidesz) sharply criticized the idea: “We cannot mark this event together with the government. The monument they ordered really pays tribute to the Soviet occupation of 4 November and not to the revolution.”

As successive governments have positioned themselves around the October uprising, countless memoirs, commemorative speeches, and other modes of expression have given rise to the frequent observation that nowadays everyone was a Freedom Fighter in 1956. In reality, about 15,000 people, which represents only 0.15 percent of the population, participated in the armed insurgency at one point or another. After the suppression of the uprising, some 35,000 people, 0.35 percent of the population, were investigated for alleged political crimes, and about 200,000 people, or 2 percent of the population, left the country (Gati 156; Litván 103, 143). Thus, while it is the case that the uprising had an indirect impact on virtually all Hungarians, a smaller number of people were personally touched and relatively few actually fought. This raises questions about the sources of a people's stock of images of historical agents and about the process of identity formation discussed above. Specifically, what was the range of positions vis-à-vis 1956 made available through film to the Hungarian people in the years following the suppression of the uprising? What were they able to gather through fictitious films made during the Kádár era about the choices and roles available to the public during that tumultuous period? According to the 1956 Institute's filmography, some 28 feature films appeared between 1957 and 1989 (Hegedus, Beck, and Germuska 205-210). The following analysis of characters in a sample of those films reveals a surprisingly wide variety of types, ranging from the leering “counter-revolutionary” in Yesterday (Tegnap; dir. Márton Keleti, 1959) to the pragmatic bureaucrat in Time Stands Still (Megáll az ido; dir. Péter Gothár, 1982).

At Midnight (Éjfélkor) was released on 25 December 1957, just over a year after the uprising.[1] Directed by György Révész, this film dramatizes the question of whether to leave Hungary while the border is still porous. This theme is explored through the story of a young couple who together represent the defector and the patriot. János Károlyi (Miklós Gábor) is a successful actor married to Viki Dékány (Éva Ruttkai), a ballet dancer whose career has been shackled by her bourgeois family background. Frustrated by her inability to realize her artistic potential in Hungary, Viki is determined to move to Brussels where a position awaits her. János' livelihood and identity are bound to the Hungarian language, and he resists the idea of leaving the homeland.

The plot spans the hour between 11pm and midnight on New Year's Eve of 1956. The couple is in the living room of their apartment, waiting for a car that will arrive at midnight to take them to Vienna. As they wait, they toss photographs and papers into the fireplace and reminisce about the past. The photographs motivate a series of chronological flashbacks that tell the story of their relationship, their experiences during the uprising, and their arguments over the question of whether to leave the country. With the exception of a couple of short cuts back to the present early on, the flashbacks extend until the last five minutes of the film. At that point, the plot returns to the present where it is now 11:55pm. János has evidently agreed to defect, because a happy Viki flits around preparing to leave, oblivious to his morose demeanor. As the radio announces midnight and the national anthem begins, she hands the brooding János a glass of champagne and proposes a toast to their success in crossing the border. He slowly shakes his head “no” and a quarrel ensues. While Viki is heard off-screen warning János that the car will arrive at any moment, the camera focuses on his hand as he turns up the volume of the radio. The national anthem fills the diegetic space as the film ends.

The narrative structure of At Midnight —the lengthy flashbacks framed by brief scenes of the present—allows Révész to devote most of the screen time to the couple's on-again, off-again courtship. The first reference to 1956 occurs while the couple is on their honeymoon at Lake Balaton. Playfully enacting the role of a police agent, Viki asks János for his identity papers. She reads the information aloud: “Budapest, 6th District. Central Registry Hall. Married to Viktória Dékány on 9 October 1956.” She then adds: “And today is Tuesday, the 23 rd . It's just been a couple of weeks.” Viki is oblivious to the significance of her carefree remark, but it sets the viewer up for what is to come. At the hotel that evening, as János and Viki dance to “their song,” one of the guests receives a long distance telephone call from Budapest. His side of the terse conversation reveals that something is amiss: “Why? What happened? Don't be so theatrical, Comrade Bódó, why can't you tell me over the phone?” Then, a delivery driver arrives and, when the desk clerk asks him what is new is Budapest, he replies that the students were holding some kind of demonstration and the streets were crowded when he left. János overhears this information and the troubled expression on his face reveals his concern.

The scene then shifts abruptly. Through an eye-line match, János is shown staring at the lobby door as it closes behind the delivery driver. The screen goes dark for several seconds, with Beethoven's Egmont Overture, “the anthem of the revolution” (Schmidt), beginning to play. When the picture comes back into view, it is a non-diegetic insert consisting of a series of quick shots of waves breaking on the shore of Lake Balaton. Backed by the haunting sounds of the Egmont Overture, this montage provides a powerful transition to the scenes that deal directly with the uprising. As the music continues, the action resumes at the hotel, where it is now the morning of 24 October. János and Viki are greeted by confusion and chaos when they go down to the lobby, as people scurry around, checking out or fruitlessly trying to place telephone calls. When János asks a police officer what has happened, he is told that “there are public disturbances in Budapest, with fighting in several parts of the city.”

The next scene is set several days later. Still unable to get through to Budapest, János and Viki speculate about what is happening. János says: “I can't imagine what's going on in Budapest. ... Fighting in the streets, men in arms. What is all this?” While János expresses his disapproval, Viki is simply frightened. She bursts into tears and repeatedly states that she is afraid. The next day, the couple sets out hitchhiking. The truck that picks them up is ambushed by a small band of rebels and János suffers a minor wound. A village doctor patches him up, but he cannot travel for several days. The couple finally makes it back to Budapest around 31 October. Arriving at the flat of Viki's mother, they find a note telling them she is leaving for Vienna. For the first time, Viki proposes that they leave the country. There is no response from János and the scene shifts to the National Theater, where he wanders among the ruins, visibly torn over the decision he is forced to make.

Back at the flat, he and Viki have it out. He tells her of his love for the stage, emphasizing that the Hungarian language is his only means of creative expression. As a near-hysterical Viki reminds him of the sacrifices she has made for him, the frame is canted and the camera closes in tightly on her face, signifying that she is out of control. She storms out of the room and the viewer's attention is refocused on the radio, where an announcer is relaying messages about people searching for relatives: “Three Indians send word to their parents that they're well. They've lost Little Brother. Mikus ... hasn't found Vera yet; they should take Ferike to Grandmother's house.” János changes the frequency to Kossuth Radio, where the program is no less indicative of the nation's continuing crisis: “Dear Listeners, now a female worker from Újpest will make a request to the striking miners.”

Viki returns to the living room after a short temporal ellipsis to find a now-drunk János composing his own radio messages, expressions of love to the homeland: “János Károlyi sends word to Budapest that the Stefanskirche is beautiful. But he would gladly exchange it for the little Újlak Church because, when he was a little boy, his mother always took him there. ... János Károlyi sends word to Budapest that the Champs Élysées and the Boulevard St. Michel are marvelous. It's just that if you step on somebody's foot on the metro, nobody says, ‘Idiot, can't you watch out?!'” In this scene, the camera is canted to the left when it focuses on János and to the right when it focuses on Viki, signaling their conflicting points of view over the question of whether to defect.

Viki reaches her breaking point in the final scene of this lengthy flashback. She and János are standing in the middle of a crowd in front of a bakery. Desperate for bread, people are pushing and shouting as they try to work their way to the front of the line. Shots are fired as fighting breaks out in the vicinity and the frightened crowd disperses. Viki and János run to the safety of a nearby building, but the distraught Viki cries that she cannot take it any longer. She vows to leave, even if János refuses to go with her. With his dedication to the homeland, János is clearly presented more sympathetically than the flighty Viki in Révész's film.

Yesterday, directed by Márton Keleti, was released on 29 January 1959, just over a year after At Midnight. It recalls the events of the uprising in two settings: an army garrison in a provincial town and a nearby village called Varjas. The two sites are linked by a father and son. Lt. Imre Csendes (Tibor Bitskei) is a young army officer stationed at the garrison, and his father, also named Imre (Zoltán Makláry), is a respected member of the Red Dawn cooperative farm near the village. The narrative begins at the garrison, which is threatened by an unruly mob demanding weapons. The government has given the insurgents until 10pm to lay down their arms and, as a result, the commander of the post, Lt. Col. Szabó (Ferenc Ladányi), has been ordered to avoid shooting unless it is absolutely necessary. Lt. Csendes is troubled by the ambiguity of the situation as is Szabó himself; nevertheless, Csendes leads a platoon out into the square where they face off against the crowd [Yesterday ] .[2]

Among the soldiers is a young recruit, András Szusza Kis (Gyula Szabó, Jr.), who is also from Varjas. His crippled father was forced through torture to join the cooperative. He later left it, but his small parcel of land was not returned. The crowd implores the soldiers to join their ranks and, uncertain of his loyalties, Szusza Kis finds himself pulled to the other side. Even though the security of the garrison is at stake, Csendes cannot shoot his childhood friend. The soldiers withdraw to the garrison, where Csendes, humiliated by insults hurled at him by the crowd and frustrated by his impossible position, argues with Szabó about whether revolt and mutiny are justified by the political mistakes of the past.

The action then shifts to the village. The unpopular leader of the cooperative farm has fled and the peasants are ransacking the place, carrying off livestock, feed, and equipment. At the same time, the deposed squire, Géza Mácsay (Antal Páger), is taking inventory and plotting to regain his ancestral lands. Old Csendes hastens to the farm and restores order, threatening both the peasants and the gentry with a pitchfork. Back at the garrison, the situation becomes increasingly tense. The insurgents have secured weapons and wait only for the imminent arrival of a tank before launching their attack. However, when the tank arrives in the square, Szusza Kis appears from behind the turret, announcing triumphantly that the government has reached a cease-fire agreement with the rebels. Once again, the officers are divided over how to respond to the government's inconsistent orders and capitulation to the rebels. In the heat of the argument, Csendes professes loyalty solely to his father. He storms out in defiance of Szabó's orders and heads home.

Meanwhile, in the village, the gentry meet in the headquarters of the Varjas Revolutionary Committee. In order to subdue the peasantry, they decide to get rid of Old Csendes. Szusza Kis arrives and demands that they return his father's land. When the squire refuses, Szusza Kis rushes off to warn Old Csendes of their plans. However, he is shot by the gentry's ruffians just as he leaves the Csendes homestead. They then go after Old Csendes. He resists at first, but when they tell him that his son has joined their cause, he surrenders in despair. Lt. Csendes arrives in the village just in time to learn of the plot against his father from the dying Szusza Kis. He chases down the ruffians as they lead his father away and shoots them. Father and son join the other peasants now defending the collective property they have worked so hard to develop. The final scene shows the two of them at night standing guard at the entrance to the Red Dawn cooperative farm.

The main theme of Yesterday is the moral confusion and chaos caused by the uprising. As Lt. Col. Szabó remarks at one point: “Everything has been turned upside down.” The confusion is personified by the two soldiers who leave their post, Lt. Csendes and Szusza Kis. Young and inexperienced, Csendes is a loyal officer of the People's Army who loses sight of his principles as a consequence of the government's equivocal response to anarchy. Szusza Kis is a simple, naive recruit who pins his hopes on the rebels as a means of reclaiming his father's land. However, by the end of the film, both of the men see the folly of their ways. Csendes' moment of truth comes when he learns that his father has been captured, and Szusza Kis' when he is told that he will not regain the land. He then denounces the rebels when he goes to warn Old Csendes that they are coming to get him: “This wasn't what I dreamed of, Uncle Imre.” Then, as he lies dying in Lt. Csendes' arms, he tells Csendes that he was betrayed: “Imre, they've murdered me. They cheated me. You were right. We should have fired at them.”

Lt. Col. Szabó personifies the mature, wise, responsible communist, whose communist credentials are established when he hotly tells Csendes that he has no father to turn to—his father was executed in the post-1919 reprisals. He indirectly acknowledges the excesses of the Stalinist years, but argues that a few mistakes do not justify abandoning the socialist project. In the midst of an argument, Csendes says to him: “Let's be honest. It [read “Stalinism”] was pretty bad.” Szabó's affirmative response is veiled in an analogy: “What do you want?! There's a hole in the roof, so we set the house on fire?” His faith is occasionally shaken. At one point he states that those who seek justice with bullets will be answered by bullets from him. However, as a high-ranking officer, Szabó is bound to follow the commands of his superiors. The government has been hijacked by an illegitimate authority and, as a result, he is unable to restore order.

For the most part, Keleti and writer Imre Dobozy resisted oversimplifying the positions adopted in 1956. The complexity of points of view was articulated by Szabó in a scene where he rejects Csendes' charge that he is opposing the whole country. He states: “There is no ‘whole country' now, or half, or quarter. There are just people, different kinds of people. Some like this, some like that.” Various positions are represented through the many characters. The officers' opinions range from that of the uncompromising Fekete to the anguished Csendes. The peasants are similarly diverse. They range from Old Csendes, the personification of strength and responsibility, to the pitiful swineherd Pandur (János Görbe), who seeks work from the squire so that he can put bread on the table. However, the insurgents are uniformly unsympathetic, reduced to the homogeneity of an ugly crowd or to its most reactionary elements—the squire and his pompous brother-in-law.

Based on Ferenc Sánta's quasi-documentary novel of the same title, Zoltán Fábri's Twenty Hours (Húsz óra, 1965) is a dark and deeply realistic film that centers on characters' relationships and actions during the uprising. The title refers to a reporter's twenty-hour visit to a typical Hungarian village to report on life in the countryside. More obliquely, it refers to the entire twenty-year period following World War II. At a panel discussion following the screening of the film at the Csepel Ironworks, Fábri explained that like the novel, the film was created to reveal the distortions caused by the “cult of personality” by condensing them into the fates of four individuals (Ungvár). The four main characters grew up as close friends in a desolate village and seemed bound to share similar destinies as landless peasants. They worked side by side in the early post-war communist movement, and were active in the distribution of land and the organization of the Communist Party. Their solidarity is captured in a repeated visual motif: a faded newspaper photo of the four men, dressed alike in dark suits and white ties, standing side by side in the halls of Parliament, where they are being recognized for their work.

However, the friends are caught up in the currents of history and their individual responses lead them down radically different paths. By the time of the 1956 uprising, so divergent are their principles that they take up arms against one another. Anti Balogh (János Görbe) is among a group of peasants who march to the home of Jóska (Antal Páger), the moderate chairman of the cooperative farm, to “settle accounts.” When Jóska refuses to come outside, the gentle Balogh fires a shot through the window and the bullet buries into the wall next to the head of his old friend. A month later, the two men argue when a remorseful but stubborn Balogh decides to leave the cooperative farm. Frustrated by his inability to convince Balogh of the merits of socialism, Jóska attacks Balogh, permanently crippling him. Meanwhile, in an intersecting storyline, the fanatic party secretary, Sándor Varga (György László), escapes to the woods when the uprising breaks out. After order is restored, Varga returns to the village and launches a house-to-house search for weapons and resisters. His former friend, Béni Kocsis (Ádám Szirtes), shuts the door in his face. An enraged Varga fires five shots through the door, killing Kocsis.

The form of Twenty Hours is more significant than its content. Organized through the reporter's interviews with some thirteen characters, the narrative is made up almost entirely of flashbacks triggered by the characters' memories. The flashbacks are fragmented and multi-layered, their sequence is non-chronological, and they are often motivated by characters whose identities are only revealed in a later shot, if at all. Both dialogue and action are repeated, and transitions between scenes are often abrupt, lacking temporal or spatial markers to orient the viewer. When pieced together, however, the subjectivities of the four main characters are revealed through two key events: the shooting at Chairman Jóska by Anti Balogh and the killing of Béni Kocsis by Sándor Varga.

The shooting at Chairman Jóska is revealed twice. The first version is truncated, depicted in only two shots. It begins with a mid-shot of Chairman Jóska standing indoors against a white wall, facing a window. The wall is bare except for his shadow, which sets the scene as taking place at night. A shot is heard and Jóska turns around to see a bullet hole above his head. As he turns back toward the camera, it pulls in closer to register his fear and dismay, and then follows his line of vision as he looks out the window to see a group of silhouetted figures standing in the dark. The camera then cuts back to a shot of Jóska reaching for a rifle on the wall. Jóska's voice-over accompanies the shot, indicating that he is recalling this episode for the benefit of the reporter. He slowly, deliberately replaces the rifle, an act that reveals his decision not to resort to violence. As his voice continues, the visuals shift to show him walking across the farmyard with the reporter, so that the voice-over becomes a diegetic accounting of his position in 1956:

Anybody who's never been against his own kind, as I was, with the rifle outside and the rifle inside, would hardly understand these things. I was standing there at the wall, thinking that if it was so [that is, if he really was an enemy of the villagers], then what had my life been for? Was it worth it? ... What crime did I commit? How many times do I have to be right for them to believe me?

As Chairman Jóska and the reporter enter the farm office, the voice of a woman acts as a sound bridge to a shot of Jóska's children at home in bed. This shot marks the beginning of the second representation of the shooting.

The voice is that of Jóska's wife, who is chastising her husband for not getting the family to safety as other communist officials had. The sound of a dog barking alerts the family to the arrival of the danger they have anticipated. Interior shots of Jóska and his family alternate with shots of the gathering crowd, shown from both Jóska's point of view and from outside the house. The dialogue, terse comments among the family members, is interrupted in the third shot by Jóska's voice-over. Presumably, he is still speaking to the reporter. In a poignant reminder of how the uprising divided communities, he states that he became frightened when the dog stopped barking because it had recognized all the people who had come to take him away.

The violence begins in the fifth shot. It starts off as a close shot of the window from outside the house. Men's voices are heard off-screen, laughing and taunting Jóska, daring him to come out and settle accounts. As a rock is thrown through the window, the camera pulls back to reveal the crowd. It follows the action as others arrive on the scene and finally reaches Anti Balogh, standing toward the rear of the crowd. The camera moves from a side view of his face down his arm to reveal the rifle in his hand. Three shots later, as the crowd presses Anti to do something, he raises the rifle and shoots. The three final shots in this sequence are brief. As the shot is fired, Jóska quickly turns around to register its impact as it strikes the wall behind him. This is followed by a detail shot of the bullet hole. In the last shot, Jóska's face is seen in close-up. He reaches to the left, the camera following his line of vision across a blank wall until his hand is seen reaching for a rifle hanging on the wall. His hand grasps the rifle, but then slowly releases it.

A final voice-over, in which Jóska mourns the loss of his friendship with Anti Balogh and the dream they once shared, begins as he lets go of the rifle and lowers his hand:

Anti Balogh. We were like two peas in a pod, living in the same miserable conditions since we were children ... For us, a new life really started in 1945. We saw it, we knew it, we could taste it. For us, the future was a delight. It was like a miracle, like taking a deep breath after the rain.

The other fateful event, the murder of Béni Kocsis by Sándor Varga, is also revealed in two stages. The first telling of the event begins when the reporter asks a minor communist official whether he was friends with “the murderous Sándor Varga.” The official refuses to answer and changes the subject. As the conversation tapers off, the camera pulls in on the face of the pensive reporter and the ensuing silence is pierced by a burst of automatic rifle fire. An associational link is established between the gunfire and Varga as the topic of the reporter's questions, but there is no direct indication that it was he who fired the gun. The camera then cuts to an interior shot of a wooden door with five bullet holes in it. A woman's voice is heard speaking about how difficult life is for the poor. As the voice continues, the camera cuts to the speaker, an old woman wearing a kerchief. Her face is turned slightly to the left. When she states that life is even “harder for this poor woman without her husband,” she turns her face fully to the left. The camera follows her line of vision, slowly panning left to reveal the face of a younger woman seated silently next to her. As the old woman continues to speak, the camera moves down to focus on the women's hands as they peel potatoes. Finally, it cuts to another shot of the door with the bullet holes, this time from a slightly different angle. The absence of violence in this short domestic vignette and the references to the lost husband indicate that the burst of gunfire that opened the scene was a flashback.

As the camera remains on the door, the old woman's monologue ends. After a couple of seconds of silence, a man's voice is heard issuing instructions that a house be declared uninhabitable. Without any signal of a temporal shift, it is not immediately apparent to the viewer that another flashback has begun. However, the visual image of the door implies that the women's house is the cause of the order. Soon after the man begins to speak, the camera cuts to a different shot of the door. The pattern of the bullet holes is reversed, indicating that the point of view has shifted to the exterior of the house. As the shot continues, the camera pans right to reveal the two women and two children huddled together in front of the house. The younger woman protests the order, but the camera ignores her, cutting to the official, who continues his assessment of the house. His dialogue confirms the identity of the young woman as he states that “the owner is Mrs. Béni Kocsis, a widow without any support.” The official paces around the yard as he speaks, with the camera following him until he reaches the family. As the shot continues, the camera focuses on the family from behind his head, thus visually underscoring the imbalance of both political and gender-based power. Nevertheless, the young widow refuses to budge, grimly insisting: “The door stays as it is. No one can touch it. I told them that last time they wanted to have it fixed. ... Nobody can touch it. It stays like it is.”

About an hour later, Fábri returns to the shooting. This second, longer version of the story is told from the point of view of a policeman named Pali, who is sitting on a hill overlooking the village, talking to the reporter. Without mentioning the uprising, Pali states that he fled to the forest with another policeman. In a flashback that begins with a shot of the hole in the wall of Jóska's house and the sound of urgent knocking, Pali, Sándor Varga, and a third man show up at Jóska's house, cold, hungry, and unshaven. While Varga is wearing a trenchcoat, Pali and the other man are wearing the quilted jackets that identify them as policemen. Jóska sets sausage and bread on the table, and sits down with the policemen. They ask him who should be arrested, but he refuses to name names in what is evidently a witch hunt for villagers who supported the uprising. While the policemen wolf down the food, Varga stands rooted by the door, holding his rifle and listening silently to the exchange. His distance from the others, as well as the grim look on his face, mark him as cold and ruthless. He becomes impatient and intervenes when Jóska refuses to cooperate, threatening him with political trouble for remaining in the village during the revolt. The two men argue heatedly as Jóska tries in vain to prevent Varga from carrying out his ill-fated campaign against the villagers. When Jóska finally tells Varga to shut up, the visitors leave and the scene ends.

Pali then tells the reporter that he went home and went to bed, but that Varga and the other policeman started going from house to house, turning everything upside down. As he speaks, the visuals cut to a long shot of Varga and the policeman prowling through the dark streets of the village, rifles at the ready. Varga, Pali explains, vowed to “make the people realize he'd returned, to find out where the weapons were and where the ‘hooligans' were hiding.” When Pali says that Varga and the policeman went to Béni Kocsis's house, the camera cuts to a shot of Varga entering a gate and going up to the door. The voice-over ends and, as the shot continues, Varga repeatedly bangs on the door with the butt of his rifle. Eventually, a light comes on in the window and a voice asks who is there. Varga demands that the inhabitant open the door “in the name of the workers' power!” The camera then cuts to a shot of the door from behind Varga and the other policeman. Kocsis opens the door and, in the ensuing exchange, captured in shot/reverse shot, the contrast between the two characters in terms of dialogue, facial expression, and voice further establishes Varga's maniacal character. When Varga demands that Kocsis stand aside so that a house search can take place, Kocsis calmly tells him to go home and go to sleep rather than disturbing people late at night. Kocsis's composure further enrages Varga. His unshaven face contorted with anger, he shouts: “Shut up and get out of the way. Do you hear me? Get out of the way or I'll shoot you! You're all scoundrels, but now you're going to learn some order!” His voice remaining controlled yet determined, Kocsis responds: “Aren't you ashamed of yourself, Sándor? You come here frightening my wife and children... You're crazy; that's the truth. Go home and sleep it off.”

He shuts the door in Varga's face. The camera then cuts to a shot of Varga as he steps back from the door, raises his rifle, and shouts: “In the name of the proletariat, open up or I'll shoot!” The policeman grabs at the rifle, but too late. Varga fires and the camera cuts to the door to register the five bullets entering it. A woman's scream is heard. The camera cuts back to Varga and the stunned policeman, who yells at him, “You beast! You beast!” and runs away. The woman continues to scream, yelling: “Béni, what happened? Oh, no! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” Other villagers come running at the commotion and Varga's fanaticism is underscored as he stands off against the gathering crowd. Shots alternate between Varga, the onlookers, and characters who run to the Kocsis house. As the crowd encircles Varga, he stands tense and crouched, wielding his rifle and threatening them to stay back. Screaming uncontrollably, his monologue in this scene is the most direct depiction in the film of Stalinist zealotry: “Nobody better come near. The passing glory is over. You thought you'd never see us again, didn't you? ... I'll teach you some respect. Shoot at communists! That's what you'd like to do? Break the workers' power! That's what you want? Well, this is your payment, and it's only the beginning!”

In contrast, Jóska's sympathetic nature is confirmed when he goes into Kocsis' house and covers the body with his leather jacket. He then pursues Varga, knocking the rifle out of his hands and beating and kicking him. With Varga unconscious, Jóska breaks down and falls to the ground next to him in a face-down fetal position, sobbing in grief and rage. By the end of the film, the characters' ideological positions are clear: Sándor Varga, the personification of a hard-line communist, is vicious, shameless, and morally bankrupt; Béni Kocsis, his victim, is a casualty of the corruption of the ideals he once embraced. Anti Balogh is thoroughly disillusioned, but his victim, Chairman Jóska, remains dedicated to the cause and reassures viewers that socialism is an ideal still worth pursuing.

Péter Gothár's Time Stands Still is usually addressed as a coming-of-age story, an exploration of teenage angst in a corrupt society where the only way to get by is through deception and hypocrisy. However, a close examination of the film reveals that the adult characters, in particular, exemplify different subjectivities and experiences regarding the uprising. The narrative of Time Stands Still is dialogue-driven, with frequent allusions to the past that imply that the uprising and its aftermath were morally ambiguous, painful episodes that left a lasting mark on virtually all Hungarians.

A prologue that precedes the credits is set on 5 November 1956, the day after the Soviet Army launched its second, decisive attack. István Köves (Pál Hetényi) is forced to flee the country, leaving behind his wife Éva (Ágnes Kakassy) and two young sons, Gábor (Henrik Pauer) and Dini (István Znamenák). The film then cuts to 1963, with the main character, Dini, now fifteen years-old. The prologue is filmed in black-and-white, while the body of the film is in color, although Lajos Koltai's camera presents a dark, muted tone punctuated by occasional bright splashes of primary colors. The dark look of the film underscores the repressive atmosphere experienced by the rebellious teenagers as they yearn for the freedom and independence of young people on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Their frustrations are soothed through drunkenness, mindless sex, fighting, pornography, and vandalism. Influenced by a teacher who represents old-fashioned moral values, Dini tries to resist the pressures. Although he is in love with his sexually precocious schoolmate, Magda, he refuses her advances. But as he witnesses the machinations and duplicity of the people around him, he adopts the same cynical perspective as his older brother and their friends.

The teacher, Szombati, is one of several archetypal characters. His belief in Christian principles of right and wrong and his distaste for opposing world views are vividly conveyed when he confronts Dini regarding obscene photographs that were found in his possession. He lectures him on sexuality as a sacred gift from God that cannot be denied by any philosophy or political regime. As a relic from the period before the communist take-over, he is fired for no particular reason. Rajnak, the associate principal, represents the hard-line communists. Unannounced, he and a side-kick march into the classroom for a spot search. He rifles through the boys' pockets, satchels, and papers, confiscating cigarettes, a lighter, brass knuckles, and a harmonica.

The two most significant characters from the standpoint of the film's encounter with the uprising, however, are László Bodor (Lajos Oze) and Livia Lovas (Mária Ronyecz). Bodor was a friend of István Köves and fought with the insurgents in 1956. Imprisoned until 1963, he moves in with Éva Köves, gets a respectable job, and adapts to the changed political circumstances. His ability to adjust alludes to the compromises Hungarians were willing to make in the depoliticized atmosphere of the Kádár era. Livia Lovas, who replaces the fired Szombati, represents Kádárian communism itself, with its pragmatic ethics and its extortion of loyalty in exchange for a television set or a vacation on the Bulgarian seaside. Flirtatious and permissive in her efforts to befriend the students, she talks straight to them and lets them take liberties. They call her by her nickname, Piggy, make sexual remarks in her presence; and party at her house.

Bodor shows up at the Köves' flat early in the film. Released from prison just two weeks earlier, Bodor's actions are guarded. He has not yet adjusted to life outside prison and Éva does little to help. As she prepares to make coffee, he asks for something a little stronger, but she has nothing. He leaves on his coat and hat, and she never offers to take them. Seated at a small kitchen table next to the stove, Bodor lights a cigarette. This action touches off a coughing spasm, a sign of the effects of a lengthy prison stay on his health. Their conversation reveals that he has found a job, but his work assignment reflects his status as a recently-released prisoner: a new metro is under construction and he is working underground.

Up to this point, the editing in this scene has been slow, with four shots taking up a total of two minutes. Now, however, Bodor shifts the conversation to ask about Éva's husband. As she begins to answer, the tension increases and the pace of editing picks up, so that the second two minutes of the scene includes twelve shots. They alternate between close-ups of the characters' faces and two shots of their faces in profile as they face one another. Éva states that she hasn't heard a word from her husband since he left for America seven years ago. Similarly, Bodor's wife divorced him while he was in prison, and in a series of shot/reverse shots, they snap at each other about responsibility and loyalty under the pressures imposed on individuals by social circumstances and historical events. As if to emphasize the moral ambiguity of the times, Bodor states that “everybody's right in this shit piled on shit.” The tension subsides momentarily, until Éva asks Bodor what it was like inside. He retorts: “Why? What was it like out side?” Their interaction, shown through a medium close-up of their profiles, indicates that they share the experience of disrupted lives, whether the uprising resulted in their being locked “inside” or left “out.” Yet while the past is a shared experience, it is not one that unites people. Bodor's demeanor—seen in the context of cold, blue lighting, an absence of music, their grim facial expressions—is aggressive, rather than intimate.

When Bodor next appears, he has moved in with Éva. In a short scene involving Bodor and the two sons, Gábor protests this arrangement, stating that he has already been denied entrance to the university once because his father is a counter-revolutionary. He plans to apply again and, with Bodor a member of the household, he argues, his chances are ruined. Once again showing an ability to adjust to circumstances, Bodor assures him that he has been given a respectable job in the Ministry of Agriculture, his area of expertise. Then, in a later scene, he counsels Dini on how to survive in communist Hungary: “You have to be very careful. You have to have your wits about you in this country.” He warns him not to get close to his teachers or to say anything to them about him or his father: “Anyone who asks questions is pumping you. Because he's being pumped. Study. Learn your school work, repeat it back to them. That's your job. Don't put your hand up, never speak unless it's necessary.” Bodor admits that his cynical distrust of others stems from his own experience: “Once, just once, I had the guts to step out of line. I did some shooting. I was a patriot. They deal with people like that straight away. They hunt them down. And now any sniveling brat can accuse me of ruining his life. Well, that's what I want to protect you from, Dini.”

In a final scene involving Bodor, his transformation into an obedient, wary bureaucrat is complete. Once again the scene is dialogue-driven. It lasts two minutes and is filmed in a single take. An establishing shot focuses on a male pianist playing and singing the popular song for which the film is titled, “ Megáll az ido .” Behind the pianist are bold red and blue neon lights, establishing the setting as a bar. The camera pans left to capture Éva entering the premises and walking hurriedly to a table, across from which Bodor is standing. No longer wearing the coat and hat that identified him in previous scenes as a man on the run, Bodor now wears a respectable coat, tie, white shirt, and black, horn-rimmed glasses. Further revealing his reintegration into society, he is shown without a hat for the first time. He kisses Éva's hand as she arrives and they sit down across from one another. The camera captures them in close-up, face-to-face, backlit by a window, with a weaker light source in front of them slightly illuminating their faces.

From this point on, the camera remains in this position, almost imperceptibly moving closer to their faces as they talk, thus creating increasing tension. Bodor announces that he has been put in charge of the Ministry of Agriculture's meat program. Initially, Éva is pleased, stating that this will ensure Gábor's admission to the university. But Bodor warns her that the situation is not as simple as it seems; the authorities may want the program to fail, in which case he could become a scapegoat. Éva replies that if the authorities do tighten up, Bodor would now be among those who twist the screws. Bodor, however, is uncertain as to whether he wants to get involved, afraid that he will once again find himself on the outs. Thus, even as Bodor's prospects improve, he is haunted by uncertainty.

Livia Lovas first appears in the classroom, when she replaces Szombati. She introduces herself to the class by writing a quotation from Attila József's “A Breath of Air!” on the blackboard. No simple apologist for the system, Lovas tells the boys that the quotation—“We are men, not beasts. We have minds. While our hearts ripen desires, they cannot be kept in files”—is her motto. With its insistence on human autonomy and reference to files, whether bureaucratic or secret police, the passage can be read as a critique of tyranny. This is particularly true when it is placed within the context of the entire verse, which reads in part: “They can tap all my telephone calls. ... They have a file on my dreams and plans and on those who read them. And who knows when they'll find sufficient reason to dig up the files that violate my rights... This is not the order I dreamed of.” Still, Lovas tells the boys that she doesn't plan to make waves. Her style in this introductory scene is friendly and informal as she smiles the whole time and tells them her weight, her marital status, and her unflattering nickname.

Thoroughly pragmatic, Lovas remained loyal to the state in 1956. Her husband, Endre, held some kind of position of authority and, as a result of unspecified experiences related to the uprising, he had a mental breakdown. Livia takes care of him at home, keeping him locked away. One of the most important scenes in the film takes place when Éva Köves goes to see Livia Lovas after her son is reprimanded for bad behavior. Once again, the scene consists mainly of long takes, with Lajos Koltai's camera establishing the complicated and murky relationships among the characters. The four-minute scene, set inside the Lovas apartment, begins with a shot that lasts over two minutes. The camera is positioned in the living room, facing toward a set of double doors that leads to the kitchen. The doors have frosted glass panes in the top half—the left door is open and the right one is closed. In a frame-within-a-frame composition that underscores his restricted movements, Endre Lovas stands in the kitchen doorway. Seen in a full shot, he is waving his arms and gesturing wildly as he engages in a heated argument with his wife, who is off-screen.

Livia Lovas comes into view just as the doorbell rings. In the classroom scene, her grooming and dress were severe. Her hair was pulled back tightly in a bun, and she was wearing thick-rimmed cat-eye glasses and a black suit with a white blouse. Here, she is disheveled. Her hair is down, unwashed and uncombed, she is wearing a red dress, marking the sharp distinction between public and private. She tells her husband to keep quiet, but he insists on getting the door and moves through the doorway into the living room. She pulls him back into the kitchen, threatening to use her superior strength to lock him in. They tussle, all the while continuing to shout at one another, but then she is able to shut the kitchen door in his face. He immediately opens it and follows her as she walks to the door. Here, the camera tracks back slightly toward the entry way. Livia walks past the camera and it captures Endre following her. Éva enters the apartment and, after the three characters greet one another, Livia physically forces Endre back into the kitchen and locks the door.

Éva apologizes for disturbing them and asks what is wrong with Endre, but Livia simply replies, “Nothing special.” As they stand face to face talking about Éva's boss, Ludwig, a mutual acquaintance, the camera remains in the same position so that the frosted glass doors of the kitchen are visible behind the women. Endre beats his fists on the glass, demanding that Livia open the door. The main light source is the bright light in the kitchen behind these doors, which backlights his figure so that he is seen in silhouette. Éva asks whether it is his nerves, and Livia answers affirmatively. Éva expresses sympathy, but Livia's reaction is cool. The two-minute shot ends with a cut to a close-up of Livia's face. With her arm up on a doorjamb and her face raised defiantly, the camera looks her full in the face as she asks: “Didn't Ludwig tell you what kind of husband I have?” Again, the dialogue skirts around 1956, implying that it was a major event in people's relationships and psychological well-being, but not revealing what people actually did. “I know he told you, “she continues, “And he's bound to have said I'm an idiot.” Éva replies, “How can you even imagine such a thing? I told you, he said you're a very sensible woman.” As Éva says this, she walks between the camera and Livia, momentarily blocking the image of Livia. Then, as she stands facing Livia , the camera is behind her so that in a beautifully composed arrangement, her head, neck, and shoulder tightly frame Livia's face, revealing Livia in all her humanity. Despite her disheveled state, she appears beautiful here, much more attractive than the tightly pulled together woman she usually is. Livia says to Éva, “You said that he said I was sensible. And I know why he used the past tense.” When Éva asks why, Livia refuses to pursue the subject.

The camera then cuts to a close-up of Éva as she begins to talk about the situation regarding her son, then quickly cuts to an envelop of money in her hands with which she tries to bribe Livia to intervene with the principal on his behalf. The camera pans up to her face as she speaks. The political and, thus, economic ups and downs of the various characters is the real subject here, as evidenced by the dialogue. Éva states: “Now I know what's the matter with your husband. Mine, the current one, is beginning to earn quite well, thank God. You have more need for this.” However, Livia refuses to take the money. She walks over to the left side of Éva and faces her, so that the camera captures the two of them facing one another in profile as Livia snaps at her: “There's something you don't know. My husband used to have such an important job that, whatever his present state is, he gets such a huge allowance that I'm ashamed of it.” In a key piece of dialogue, Éva loses patience and says pointedly to Livia: “You are where you are in the movement or whatever you like. I'm here where I am. I never bothered about you people. Your husband was being shot at by my husband in 1956.” As the scene draws to a close, Livia tells her to stop the evasive talk.

The depth of the various characters in these several films shows that the 1956 uprising was handled with more subtlety and complexity during the Kádár period than is usually acknowledged. Viewers both in Hungary and abroad were presented with a cast of characters that did include narrowly-drawn stereotypes on either end of the political spectrum—the “counter-revolutionaries” in Yesterday, the murderous party secretary in Twenty Hours. Yet most of the characters inhabit a space somewhere in between the extremes, where they wrestle with moral uncertainties and ambiguities. Most of the time, they are just trying to get by, to make the best with what fate has delivered. In this sense, the current focus on revolutionary heroes is at odds not only with reality, but with filmic representations of the past.


1] For a fuller analysis of this film as well as Yesterday, see James.

2] Courtesy of the Open Society Archives in Budapest. This three-minute preview can also be seen on their website (select English and scroll down to Yesterday); or via the direct link to the clip.

Works Cited

Blumer, Herbert. Movies and Conduct. NY: Macmillan, 1933.

Gati, Charles. Failed Illusions. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2006.

Green, Philip. “Ideology and Ambiguity in Cinema.” Massachusetts Review 34.1 (Spring 1993): 102-126.

Hegedus, András B., Tibor Beck, and Pál Germuska, eds. 1956 Kézikönyve. Vol. 2: Bibliográfia. Budapest: 1956 Institute, 1996.

James, Beverly. “Early Cinematic Representations of Hungary's 1956 Revolution.” Hungarian Studies Review (forthcoming).

Litván, György. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956: Reform, Revolt and Repression, 1953-1963. NY: Longman 1996.

“56-ról, Ismét Megosztva?” Népszabadság Online (8 August 2006).

Schmidt, Pál. “Szimbólumok Között.” Magyar Cserkészszövetség (23 October 2003).

Ungvár, Mária. “Balogh Anti én vagyok!...” Csepel (12 March 1965).

© Beverly James, 2008