On Exile, Jewish Identity, and Filmmaking in Hungary: A Conversation with István Szabó

By Susan Rubin Suleiman (Harvard University)

István Szabó, one of Hungary's most celebrated filmmakers, attained international fame with his 1981 German-language film Mephisto, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. But to a broad Hungarian public, as well as to film specialists abroad, Szabó had been well-known since the mid-1960s, when he began his career. His 1966 film Father (Apa) had won several international prizes, as had the earlier The Age of Daydreaming (Az álmodozások kora, 1964), which he made when he was only twenty five years old. In these films as in the later Lovefilm (Szerelmesfilm, 1970), Szabó engaged with the troubled history of Hungary from the 1940s to the 1956 revolution, as refracted through the lives of individual young people of his own generation (he was born in 1938). After making several other feature films in Hungary (including 25 Fireman's Street [Tüzoltó utca 25, 1973] and Confidence [Bizalom, 1980]), Szabó branched out into German: Mephisto was followed by Colonel Redl (1985) and Hanussen (1988), forming a trilogy that spanned the history of Central Europe from the 1890s to the 1930s.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and of communism brought the possibility of work in English: Szabó's 1991 film, Meeting Venus, starring Glenn Close in the female lead, is a celebration of music and international cooperation (the plot turns around an international production of Tannhäuser at the Paris Opera). His 1999 film Sunshine, starring Ralph Fiennes, Jennifer Ehle, and other English-speaking actors, returns to the historical preoccupations of his earlier films and covers the whole period that has fascinated him throughout his career. The film tells the history of a Jewish family in Hungary from the late 19th century to the present, with the greatest emphasis on the “golden age” of pre-World War I Vienna and Budapest, and the grim decades that followed. Soon after making Sunshine, Szabó returned to German history, but in English: Taking Sides (2001), starring Harvey Keitel, focuses on Berlin in 1945 and on the career of the legendary conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Here, as in so many of his other films, Szabó explores the question of intellectuals' and artists' compromise with authoritarian regimes (see Ivan Sanders's review of the film in this issue).

Even while moving into other languages, Szabó has continued his work in Hungarian. His 1993 film, Sweet Emma, Dear Böbe (Edes Emma, Drága Böbe), which won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, probed the sudden, often negative impact of the collapse of communism on the lives of ordinary Hungarians, focusing on two young schoolteachers in Budapest. His most recent film to date, Relatives (Rokonok, 2006), based on a novel by Zsigmond Móricz, treats the themes of intrigue, betrayal, and governmental corruption in a provincial town in the 1930s, but also resonates with contemporary politics in Hungary.

I have admired Szabó's films for many years, and wrote about some of them in my memoir Budapest Diary: In Search of the Motherbook (1996). Later, I published an essay on Sunshine in the Yale Journal of Criticism (2001), and wrote about that film again in my recent book Crises of Memory and the Second World War (2006). This led to a brief correspondence with the filmmaker, culminating in our meeting and conversation in Budapest. The conversation, an edited version of which appears below, took place during a two-hour period on 8 September 2006. Although I speak Hungarian, I chose to record the conversation in English to facilitate transcription. Szabó speaks English fluently, with very few mistakes.

The conversation ranged widely, but the themes we kept circling back to are those indicated in the title above. Exile was a crucial question for many Hungarians of Szabó's generation (and earlier generations as well), and filmmaking is of course central to Szabó's life. From my point of view, perhaps the most interesting aspect of our conversation are his reflections on Jewish identity in Hungary and Central Europe, and on his own family's relation to that identity. This is the first time he has spoken at length about his family history, at least in English. I am grateful to him for taking the time to engage so deeply with these complicated questions, and for his help in editing the manuscript.

SRS: I'd like to talk to you about Lovefilm, which I saw only recently.

IS: It's 35 years old!

SRS: Yes, I know. In a way it's ancient history, since it's about the separation of a couple in 1956—she leaves Hungary after the revolution and becomes an exile, while he stays. Today there is no more exile of that kind, people can move around freely between east and west. You yourself started to leave Hungary in the early 1980s when you made Mephisto, is that right? Or even earlier?

ISZ: Just after the Second World War, I was seven years old. My mother's uncle (my father had died at the end of the war, so she was a widow) lived in New York and was quite a rich man, a chemical engineer—he owned a factory. He lived alone and had no family, and he asked my mother to send me and my sister to America to take over the…, how would you say, the family responsibility. But my mother didn't want to leave Hungary.

SRS: Was this before the Communist period—before 1948?

IS: I think it was in 1946. My father died in 1945, and this was the offer of my mother's uncle. She wasn't able to go to America, I don't know why. She spoke English well, had studied it in London. She was very well educated. But she didn't want to go.

SRS: Did you know about this offer? Would you have liked to go?

IS: I was only seven! I heard about it, and later I asked my mother about it. She said “Yes, but…” When I was in New York the first time, I went to see the house. It was very beautiful, a big brownstone on Park Avenue.

SRS: Ah, the “what if”!

IS: Okay, it's over! (Laughter)

SRS: But what about 1956? Your character in Lovefilm, Jancsi, doesn't want to leave.

IS: In 1956 I was accepted to film school. You have to imagine, out of 600 candidates only ten were accepted! It was an enormous thing. And the head of the class, who accepted me, was Felix Máriassy.

SRS: You dedicated Rokonok to him.

IS: Yes. He was a Hungarian aristocrat, very well educated, a great gentleman. If Máriassy accepted me, how could I leave?

SRS: And this was before October, right? So you never considered it seriously, leaving Hungary.

IS: That's right. And then after Father —it was a huge critical or art house success in America, presented at the New York Film Festival and distributed by New Yorker Films. I got an offer from a friend of mine to stay in the US and study medicine, but I just continued, preparing Lovefilm .

SRS: But you see, this whole problem is history now, because it's possible to cross borders and go places and not have the feeling that you're leaving forever, that you're cutting off your relationship with your home country. My family had that problem too, but we left in 1949, in the summer. We walked across the border to Czechoslovakia; I was just a little girl at the time. It was really the last minute when you could leave.

IS: Actually, it was after the last minute. Your family was very courageous.

SRS: There were no mines yet along the border, so it was possible to walk. But people were always being brought back if they were caught. We were lucky. We had the feeling that we'd never come back, it was forever. My mother never returned to Hungary. Nor did my father—he died very young.

IS: What did your father do?

SRS: He worked for the Orthodox Hitközség, the office that administered the affairs of the Orthodox Jewish community in Budapest. He was trained as a rabbi, but he didn't practice. He came from a religious family of Polish Jews—Galizianers, poor Polish Jews.

IS: I have to ask you about something. If he worked for the Orthodox Hitközség, did he know about the Auschwitz Report, written by Rudolf Vrba and Fred Wetzler?

SRS: I know about that report—Vrba and Wetzler escaped from Auschwitz in 1944 and tried to warn the Hungarian Jews about deportation. My father never talked to me about that. When we arrived in New York in 1951, I was eleven—and all I wanted to do was to become American. I was so eager to assimilate that the last thing I wanted to hear about was Hungary! It was only many years later, in 1984, that I returned to Budapest, and only after my mother died that I wrote about it [in Budapest Diary]. For many years, I didn't want to know anything—the only thing I kept was the language, which I spoke with my family. Later, of course, I became very interested. But to get back to the Auschwitz Report—the Hitközség in Budapest did get it, but didn't do anything about it. Why do you ask?

IS: I have a friend who got this report in May 1944—he was eighteen at the time, and he worked for a Jewish organization as a runner. He got this report in May.

SRS: The Germans marched in on 19 March.

IS: Yes. I don't know the exact date when he got it—he said “May.” So he got this report, and he went to his family and told them, but nobody accepted it. They said, “People who are from the country of Goethe, Schiller, and Beethoven cannot do such things, it's just propaganda.” So in the end, from the ghetto everybody was put on a train and he jumped out somewhere and survived, and after the war he went to Sweden and became a very famous medical doctor. He told me that nobody believed him. He asked his boss to share this information with everybody, but nobody believed him.

SRS: Rudolf Kasztner, who arranged the train to take some prominent Jews out of Hungary, also knew about it. But supposedly he didn't say anything because he knew there was nothing that could be done. It was a horrible ethical dilemma.

IS: Professor George Klein wrote a great essay about this problem—I read it in Hungarian, “A pokolbol megtért utazó” (“The Voyager from Hell”). But how did you get hold of Lovefilm?

SRS: I ordered it on Amazon! They also have The Age of Daydreaming, and even 25 Fireman's Street.

IS: I myself bought 25 Fireman's Street in Canada last year. And there's also another film, maybe one of my best, Confidence, which is about this period. It's an important film to me, concerning that history.

SRS: You begin Lovefilm with family photos, which I think is very interesting—the family photo as a source of inspiration for autobiography. And after a while you focus on the boy's photos as he gets older, like looking at yourself as a child, using the photos as a way to get into autobiographical thinking. It reminded me of Sunshine, the scene where Ivan throws out all his family photos. But you've kept them!

IS: All three men in the Sonnenschein family are open to every compromise; that's why the real heroine of that film, for me, is Valerie. At the end of the story, the youngest one realizes that he has to start over—everything in the family history was rubbish, he was the only person to follow his grandmother with her free spirit.

SRS: Okay, start over, but still, the idea of throwing out the family archive! I'm enough of a historian to be very sad about that. In Lovefilm you start with the archive and then you move to the scene in the hospital in 1944, when the doctor tells the boy what he must say. This has to do with being hidden during the German occupation and the ostrom [the siege of Budapest, winter 1944-45], so I think probably it's autobiographical.

IS: Probably! (Laughs)

SRS: I know about that because at that time I was four years old and I too had to be in hiding, with my parents. I had to pretend to be Mária, my name wasn't Susan or Zsuzsa. These days I'm thinking a lot about the relationship of childhood trauma to problems of identity. I'm interested in people who as children have serious identity traumas, like the boy in Lovefilm, and who then go on to achieve significant works of art or literature or film. The psychologists speak of resilience. Some children have the ability to bounce back, as they say. No matter how much they're punched, they overcome it and go on to do great things in life. What is the relationship between artistic creativity and childhood trauma? You wrote to me recently that Hungary was the “forcing bed of identity crisis”—what is the Hungarian word for “forcing bed”?

IS: Literally it's “melegágy,” “hotbed”; but I meant “a forrása.”

SRS: The “source.”

IS: Yes, the source. I think that Hungary has a special position in middle Europe. If you think of Hungarian Jewish people in Australia, in America, or wherever, they're always very happy to speak Hungarian. I ask myself what is behind this love for the Hungarian language on the part of Jewish people? We never say that we're Jewish, we say we're Hungarian! This hate-love relationship: hate because of what happened (during the war) and love because there's love. I know from my family what proud Hungarians they were. In the 1848 Revolution, 20,000 Hungarian Jewish young people joined the fight, with Táncsics Mihály [a leader of the 1848 Revolution, along with Lajos Kossuth] and others. They fought in the Revolution with a lot of courage and received decorations and became officers. After the Revolution, the Habsburgs punished the Hungarian Jewish community for their participation. My great-grandfather was imprisoned for 12 years, and when he came back he got a nice position at the City Council, and his son also got all the possibilities . But still, he had spent 12 years in confinement.

SRS: Where?

IS: In Milan, which was part of the Habsburg Empire at the time. Jewish people were very proud of having participated in the Hungarian Revolution. Later, after 1867 under Franz Joseph, they had a lot of opportunities for advancement.

SRS: Like the family in Sunshine. It's similar to German Jews, who loved Germany very patriotically.

IS: Yes, they were also proud to be German—even more German than the Germans.

SRS: Did your family convert?

IS: Yes, some did—not the older people.

SRS: Because of anti-Semitism?

IS: Yes, I think so. After the First World War, or maybe during.

SRS: But you weren't brought up as Catholic?

IS: Yes, I was.

SRS: Did you go to Mass, and all that?

IS: Yes, in school.

SRS: But you don't think of yourself as a Catholic?

IS: Slowly, you have to learn who you are. It's not a fast process, it comes slowly. People around you show you exactly who you are.

SRS: You don't mean the anti-Semites; you don't mean that you're treated “like a Jew”?

IS: Anti-Semitism in middle Europe is always a political ideology to help some people carry a flag. In Hungary, in my view, real anti-Semites are a small group that would like to reach political power through that ideology. I don't think that the Hungarian population is more anti-Semitic than Austrians or other Europeans. It's not anti-Semitism if they are suspicious of Jews, because Jewish people behave sometimes differently from them.

SRS: It's like that wonderful story a Hungarian rabbi told me in 1993—I wrote about it in Budapest Diary . He said that one day he had to go to Szeged to the synagogue there, and someone was supposed to meet him at the train station. But the man fell sick so the poor rabbi had to find the synagogue all by himself. He was wandering around and he stopped somebody to ask. The man didn't know where the synagogue was, so the rabbi asked him, “Can you tell me if any Jews live around here? Maybe they'll know.” The man pointed to a house and told him there was a Jew living there—but a minute later he ran after him and stopped him. “On second thought, rabbi, don't go there. You see, we all know he's Jewish, but he doesn't know it."

IS: That's nice!

SRS: So that's what you mean: other people, by their attitude, taught you who you are—even though you were Catholic.

IS: In this country, if someone says they're Christian, it means they're not Jewish.

SRS: The priests and nuns didn't treat you as different, did they?

IS: No, they didn't. They accepted me. But it's a tribe mentality, just as I show in Rokonok. In this part of the world, that's how it goes, everything goes through negativity. Even in elections, people don't vote for someone, but rather against.

SRS: The exclusion of those who don't belong.

IS: Yes, exclusion is the most important element of the tribe mentality. Those who aren't Hungarian...

SRS: Did you feel that you were considered “not Hungarian,” not just “not Christian”?

IS: No, not generally. But... something terrible happened to me a few months ago and I understood how politics works if they need an enemy .

SRS: You're referring to the story that came out last spring, about your involvement with the Secret Police after 1956.

IS: Yes—I and others in my class. But I'm the best known, so the focus was on me. Some people need to create enemies for their ideological goal.

SRS: In Sweet Emma, Dear Böbe, you show how people switched sides, out of opportunism and because they were afraid. They were communists before 1989 and then they had to become anti-communists. But to get back to Lovefilm, I found it interesting that there is a lot of to and fro in the film between 1956 and the war—for example, the shot where Jancsi is stopped with his bicycle in 1956 and the policemen look at the back of his head as he rides off, a shot that suddenly shifts to 1944. Did your father die as a result of the war?

IS: My father was a medical doctor, and just after the war [in Hungary] he operated on someone who had been shot and took out the bullet; but the patient had diphtheria and my father died of it a few weeks later, in April 1945.

SRS: So for you it was a double whammy—the trauma of the war and the loss of your father.

IS: Yes, as I show in Father. Lots of things in my films come from my own experiences. Even in Sunshine, when Ivan is arrested and then after he is released he tells his grandmother that he has to go back to report.

SRS: I had forgotten that. But you also have characters who are simply caught in history.

IS: This is our destiny. My mother once told me, “We had a nice childhood and our youth was beautiful, but our life was destroyed by politics and history.”

SRS: Yet you have done very well.

IS: I just try to tell the story. I don't care about film styles; I'm not a stylist. I have only one aim, to be clear and understandable and simple. Honest and understandable. And of course I have to entertain people. That's my job.

SRS: You've made different kinds of films, for different audiences—for example, the more lighthearted films like Being Julia (2004), or earlier Meeting Venus , which is about a staging of Tannhäuser at the Paris Opera and is also a love story.

IS: Yes, and I also directed the opera. Christoph von Dohnanyi invited me to do it. I told him “I can't accept the responsibility; I'm not a musician.” But he said, “I accept it!” After that I directed more operas. I love music very much, ever since my childhood. Classical music is very dear to my heart. So I did that opera in Paris, and to spend a few months in Paris was great.

SRS: I saw Meeting Venus just before I came back to Hungary in 1993, and it was like a little door opening to Budapest, since there's a sequence that takes place here. But tell me about your current project, “Voyager by Moonlight” (Utas és holdvilág).

IS: It's based on a novel by Antal Szerb, who was killed in 1944 by members of the Arrow Cross [the Hungarian pro-Nazi Party, which came to power in October 1944]. It's about an identity crisis, a young man who leaves his wife during their honeymoon in Italy and then travels in Italy by himself—but in the end he returns to Hungary.

SRS: Who will play the hero? Is it a Hungarian project?

IS: I don't know yet—several producers from various countries are involved, but they want an English-speaking film, so we need an English-speaking actor. I wrote the script in Hungarian, and a young English writer did an English version. But I'm not sure it can be made, because it takes place in the 1930s in Italy and will be very expensive, since we can't film it in Budapest. Rokonok , which takes place in the 1930s in Hungary, was a low-budget film because we were able to shoot the whole film in Budapest.

SRS: When did you decide to become a filmmaker?

IS: When I was a boy, I wanted to be a medical doctor.

SRS: Like your father.

IS: Then in high school I read a book about cinema and I applied to film school and I was accepted.

SRS: Could you have gone to medical school?

IS: Yes.

SRS: So how were you accepted to film school—based on what?

IS: Based on three examinations: making photos, writing about films, discussions with professors about literature and music and painting. Three professors gave me a poem to talk about, then they screened a film and we had to write about it—it was a French film, Forbidden Games (Jeux interdits; dir. René Clément, 1952).

SRS: A beautiful film—and it's about little children during the war!

IS: After that we had to make some photos, and for the last examination we were down to sixteen candidates from 600. The last thing was a discussion with Máriassy, and at the end of the day they told us who was accepted and who wasn't. Ten of us got accepted, and we promised each other that we'd keep our friendship, even though in this profession people are always competing.

SRS: Who else was in your class?

IS: Judit Elek, Pál Gábor, Imre Gyöngyössy, Ferenc Kardos, Zsolt Kézdi-Kovács, Éva Singer, János Rózsa, the producer, who also edited Father—his wife plays Kata in Lovefilm.

SRS: It was a very strict set of exams. Did you get your general education in gymnasium [high school]? I know from your films that you have a great culture in art history and in music.

IS: Lots of books at home and good advice on what to read. Uncle and aunt playing the piano every weekend, grandmother who taught you how to use a fork and knife. My father's family died during the war and after the war, so for my education I had only my mother's family.

SRS: I'd like to talk more about your childhood. You have a sister?

IS: I had an older sister, but she died a few years ago. But I have a cousin whom I like very much.

SRS: Did your sister think of herself as Jewish, or as Catholic?

IS: Good question. She was also very mixed.

SRS: Did you talk about it with her?

IS: Yes, sometimes.

SRS: So you were close.

IS: Not too close. I'm closer to my cousin.

SRS: Did your mother ever remarry?

IS: Yes. When she died she was 84.

SRS: Were you close to her?

IS: No. We never had a good relationship, though she was close to my sister. She was very intellectual, engrossed in her life.

SRS: You mean, not a very warm and loving mother—you didn't feel intimate with her? I ask you that because I have two sons. It's very interesting, the relationship between mothers and sons. I think my relation with them is intimate, but it's complicated.

IS: My relation was never intimate with my mother. I know that when I was born she became blind for eight days. Maybe she was angry at me, blamed me. Maybe that first week the intimacy was never established.

SRS: The blindness was a result of the labor and delivery?

IS: Yes, I think so. I don't know.

SRS: Do you have children of your own?

IS: No. But my cousin's daughter is like a daughter to me.

SRS: To be born so close to the Second World War... you came into a world that was already so disturbed! But why did you have to hide during the war? Were you in danger?

IS: Of course! It didn't matter that you were Catholic. Although I was born a Catholic, that didn't matter for the State.

SRS: When were you in hiding?

IS: From the summer of 1944 to February 1945, until the Russians liberated Buda.

SRS: Were you hiding in a hospital, like the boy in Lovefilm?

IS: No, it was an orphanage with fifty or sixty boys.

SRS: Were you alone?

IS: Yes, we were all separated. My sister was in another children's home.

SRS: I read about a Jewish children's home in Buda that was emptied by the Germans. Lucky you were not in that one. Did you feel that you had to pretend, that you were not yourself?

IS: Yes, that is what I learned very early, that you were not allowed to say who you were.

SRS: Did you have a false name?

IS: No, I don't think so. It wasn't the name, but the identity. “Don't say who you are...” My mother always said even later, “Don't say.” My grandmother, her mother, remained Jewish, and celebrated the holidays and seriously practiced Judaism—but she too always said I shouldn't talk about having a Jewish family. She and my grandfather were put into the ghetto [in Budapest] in 1944, but they survived.

SRS: Your mother had converted. My family was Jewish, no conversions, but my mother too was always saying, “Don't say you're Jewish.” She meant, don't say it to non-Jews. I went to the Orthodox girls' school in the courtyard of the Kazinczy utca synagogue. I started school in 1945.

IS: So you're exactly my age.

SRS: I was born a year and a half after you, but we're definitely of the same generation. I think in a way it was easier for us than for people who were ten years older, like Imre Kertész [the 2002 Nobel Laureate in Literature]. Of course he in particular had a terrible time, since he was deported when he was fourteen. But psychologists say that very young children have a harder time.

IS: Yes, the older ones could face the problem. In 1941, 1942, 1944, we never faced the problem, but we ate the problem—which means that the problem is in our body. It's a feeling that you cannot explain—we don't know why, because we don't remember. There are the stories and we know that the stories happened to us, but we don't remember. The older ones could understand with their heads, and can remember.

SRS: Did you ever do any psychotherapy?

IS: No, not at all.

SRS: You worked it out through your films. But your relationship with your mother was independent of the war, of the identity problem, wasn't it?

IS: Not really. It's a very special identity problem. My grandmother, my mother's mother, was half Austrian, very proud, very cold, with a kind of aristocratic dignity. That was the source of my mother's own aloofness. It's very Hungarian-Jewish, hard to understand. They were snobbish, they always asked, “What does your father do?” They had high positions. My mother's uncle was an MP, a right-wing Member of Parliament, but he never denied his religion. It was a period in Hungary when even the Minister of Defense was Jewish—his name was Samu Hazai [a “Magyarized” surname, meaning “of the homeland,” coupled with the Jewish Samuel]. These were the Jews of Budapest, not like the “kis zsidó,” the “little Jews” from the provinces. My mother and grandmother scorned those kind. Theirs was a Jewish world composed of the wealthy and the intellectuals, and they thought that because Franz Joseph was favorable toward them, they belonged. It's the story I tell in Sunshine. My grandfather was offered a baronetcy, but he had the good sense to refuse—my grandmother said, “We don't need such honors.” Other wealthy Jews accepted, like the writer Baron Hatvany ' s family, or some big industrialists like the Weiss family or Baron Korin.

SRS: And your mother's father's side?

IS: My mother's paternal grandfather was the one who was imprisoned for 12 years. And that's why his son, my grandfather, had such a brilliant career. Just like today: If someone's father was in prison during the communist regime, he has a lot of possibilities!

SRS: Did you ever read Ferenc Molnár's novel, The Hungry City (Az éhes város, 1900)?

IS: No.

SRS: I read it when I was preparing to write the Introduction to Contemporary Jewish Writing in Hungary , the anthology I co-edited with Éva Forgács. Molnár published the novel in 1900. It's very much about the world you're describing, including the highly placed Budapest Jews who don't want anything to do with the “little Jews.” Molnár judges them quite harshly—he says they were encouraging a kind of anti-Semitism because they didn't throw in their sympathy with the poor people, the ordinary Hungarians.

IS: The problem is when Jews are in high positions.

SRS: Do you think Jews shouldn't be in high positions because anti-Semites get upset by this?

IS: I think everybody has to know their own limits. You can do so many beautiful things. You don't need to put yourself forward all the time.

SRS: One wonders whether things will ever change.

IS: It's a psychological disease, being a Hungarian Jew.

SRS: Do you know Imre Kertész? I've been reading his work, and I think he would agree with much of what you're saying. He always speaks about feeling like a stranger in Hungary, an internal exile. But what interests me is Kertész's love for the Hungarian language. He speaks German very well, but continues to write in Hungarian even though he feels he is not really appreciated in Hungary. It's the love-hate relationship you spoke about earlier. But you don't think of yourself as being in internal exile, or “inner emigration.” You feel more integrated.

IS: I always had my way of thinking, though I didn't speak about it. The only side on which I am is the side of my friends.

SRS: In Lovefilm, there are all those pseudo interviews in Lyon, with the Hungarian emigrants who speak about their motives for leaving in 1956. It sounded almost like a documentary—but you told the actors what to say, including that wonderful monologue by the young woman who tells the story about being shot into the Danube by the Arrow Cross in 1944 and never wanting to return to Hungary. So in 1970, it was possible to say those things even under the Kádár regime.

IS: It's not true what they say about censorship under the Kádár regime. In 1964, in my first feature film The Age of Daydreaming, the hero is asked at one point, “Are you a communist?” He replies “No, I'm an engineer.”

SRS: So you had the feeling that even then you didn't have to compromise all that much?

IS: We did have to make compromises. But if you wanted to say something, even about politics, you had possibilities. Of course you had limits, but you could push against them. In Lovefilm, I showed the emigrants with sympathy even though the official line was that they had betrayed the country by leaving. And that was in 1970, not now! I spoke about it in 1970, and also in 1966 in Father, the question of leaving the country. So people are creating fairy tales... But certainly it's true, it was a dictatorship.

SRS: And why do you think you were able to do that, to say things so openly? Could anybody have done it?

IS: Yes. Lots of filmmakers spoke openly in their films, if they found a way to do it. Watch the films of the 1960s: Jancsó, Makk, Kovács, Sára, etc. Of course, Father was banned for a few months; of course Age of Daydreaming was, too. But we could come to terms, negotiate, find a new title or subtitle. For Daydreaming , the subtitle we had to add was “Felnött kamaszok,” “Grown-up adolescents.” And the film was released.

SRS: In Lovefilm, Jancsi and his friends actually joke about the communist songs they sang when they were kids, in the Young Pioneers. So you disagree with those who paint that regime as totally repressive.

IS: Yeah. In those days, there were maybe a dozen people who fought the regime, but now there are thousands who claim they did! Do you think it was the Secret Police that gave us the chance to show what we showed when we criticized the regime?!

SRS: Hopefully, all of this will become a thing of the past.

IS: I'm afraid not, because of the mentality of people who want to reach power and who think they can do that only if they throw out other people. Because people don't want to accept responsibility for their own life. That is the problem. Democracy works only in a country where people are willing to be responsible for their own life.

SRS: Are you going to vote in the coming elections? [Partial elections were scheduled in October 2006]

IS: I will go. I always went to vote, but this October I'll have difficulty. I'll go, but a lot of my friends are not going because they're so upset by politicians on every side.

SRS: That means they're leaving it to the worst, if they opt out.

IS: People are tired, very tired. They would like to create, to work, but are tired of fighting.

Illustration courtesy of István Szabó

© Susan Rubin Suleiman, 2008

Updated: 15 Oct 17