by Allan Fish
(Hungary 1947 100m) DVD1
Aka. Valahol Európában
Alas, poor Kuksi
p Laszlo Szirtes d Géza von Radványi w Béla Balázs, Géza von Radványi ph Barnabás Hegyi ed Félix Máriássy, Géza von Radványi m Dénes Buday art Jószef Pán
Artur Somlay (Piotr Simon), Miklós Gábor (Péter), Zsusza Banki (Éva), György Bárdi (Police commissioner), Ladislas Horvath (Kuksi), Abraham Ronai (Ficsur), Laci Horvath, István Rozsos, Lászlo Kémeny,
If one was to ask a western critic or general cineaste about the influence of Hungarian cinema, it would be reasonable to expect them to discuss Miklós Jancsó, even more so, in that he’s of the current generation, Béla Tarr. They might go on to discuss the works of Pál Gabor, Márta Meszaros and Istvan Szabo. However, such discourse, though of course perfectly valid, is rather picking up the story in the middle. Just as the same would be a mistake repeated with regard to Czech cinema, Hungarian cinema first came to real prominence just after the war with the release of two films: István Szöt’s Song of the Cornfields and this anti-war film from Géza von Radványi, scripted by the great Béla Balázs. As Georges Sadoul said, “it’s one of the great films of the immediate post-war period.”
In Hungary in the last days of the war, the last remnants of Nazi power tries to put down resistance from Hungarian partisans. At the same time, a group of ragged children – some escapees from orphanages and homes, others left orphaned and homeless by the war – gather on the streets and set off to eke an existence on the highways. Eventually they come across an old deserted castle on a hill, where they find an old man, a famous composer, living among the ruins to himself escape the ravages of the war.
Von Radványi never made anything this good again, but it certainly doesn’t lessen the impact of the film. Those au fait with Italian neo-realism will see undoubted similarities to Rossellini’s Open City, which the director will probably have seen, and the simultaneously shot Germany, Year Zero, which he would not. Indeed, the plot is also reminiscent of a forgotten Russian film from 1931, The Road to Life, and also faintly echoes William Wellman’s depression era piece Wild Boys of the Road. The opening sequences catch the mood perfectly; the cry of a little girl as she sees her father shot in the streets is followed by a boy hiding out from capture in the burning rooftop of a building housing terrifying waxwork sculptures, including one of Hitler that melts on cue, the black wax of his hair symbolically bleeding down his face. There are various other sequences of immense power, including a final impassioned pleading of the children’s case by the old composer, but it’s one flashback that stays with you most. A young girl has been forced to dress as a boy to evade capture and we see that she was forced into giving sexual favours to a Nazi official in return for saving her family’s life. She comes out after her effective rape to find them still being bundled into the cart and taken away. Returning to what was once the family living room, she there shoots the Nazi before taking flight. The scene would probably have been censored in the US or UK as she returns into the room with a breast visible from her torn blouse, but it would have been an unkind cut, and the entire sequence perfectly encapsulates not only the viciousness of the Nazi ideology but the truly crestfallen state of the Hungarian nation (indeed occupied Europe in general). For her part, Banki is suitably sorrowful and leaves an indelible impression as the unfortunate girl, while Somlay (a sort of European Finlay Currie) is superb as the composer in hiding forced to face up to his own isolationism in helping the kids who begin by wanting to kill him, and end up looking on him as a surrogate guardian. Von Radványi’s film is dedicated to “the nameless child“, but an even better epitaph as provided by Somlay, when he cries out “the war was not their doing – we grown ups made war.” As long as we continue this folly, films such as this will remain necessary.