Diary for My Children (Napló gyermekeimnek, Hungary, 1984)

Growing up politically

I’ve recently subscribed to the postal DVD rental service Cinema Paradiso as it houses many eastern European films that I haven’t seen. It’s always to good to put films to a name you’ve read in histories and this is the first Mészáros Márta (like the Japanese, Hungarians privilege their surname) movie I’ve seen. The date on the discs cover stated 1972 but the look of the film, for me, was 1960s so I assumed it was a late ‘entry’ into the ‘new wave’ of the region. However, I was surprised to discover it was completed in 1982 and took two years to be released due to censorship issues. As Mészáros says, in the interview accompanying the film on the Second Run DVD, she was encouraged to make the film quickly as authorities were not likely to approve the script. It became the first of her semi-autobiographical trilogy ‘diary’ films and is a striking representation of the time, 1947-53, and place, privileged party members in Budapest.

One of the things that attracts me to ’60s new wave eastern European cinema is the cinematography; that’s not to say it’s uniform. Diary was shot by Jancsó Nyika, son of Mészáros and Jancsó Miklós one of the great Hungarian directors (see The Red and the White). Some of the ‘old fashioned’ look of the film possibly derives from the use of documentary footage from the time the film is set. Mészáros started as a documentarist (though the footage isn’t hers; she was born in 1931 and still alive) and was educated as a filmmaker in the Soviet Union. Being a woman was clearly not an insurmountable barrier and Diary has a feminist sensibility  portraying Juli’s (Czinkóczi Zsuzsa) rebellion against her adoptive mother, a Party apparatchik. Czinkóczi was only 15 when the film was made so I was glad the scene where she admires her (semi-naked) breasts was directed by a woman; only a sexist man would dare shoot such a moment of appreciation as Juli understands she is growing up. Generically it’s closer to the ‘teen pic’ than any other genre.

My ignorance of the realpolitik of the time was only a mild obstacle in appreciating the film as it is more about the personal than the political; though the two can never be entirely separated. The flashback memories of Juli’s parents, about whom she is searching for knowledge (Mészáros’ father was a victim of a purge), are startlingly done: the vast quarry where he searches for stone (he is a sculptor) and her mother’s long walk to seek aid when in labour.

There doesn’t seem to be any more of Mészáros’ films available which is an indictment of the finances of film distribution. As she says in the interview, the financial censorship of the post-Cold War is as bad as the Party’s restrictions. In fact, arguably it’s even worse as many great films, that were not commercial, were made in eastern Europe during the post-war period.

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Phoenix (Germany-Poland, 2014)

Doppelgänger?

I’m sorry I missed this in cinemas as, after (for me) the disappointing Barbara (Germany, 2012), it was a return to the brilliance of Yella. In addition, the ghost of Fassbinder haunts the mise en scene and performance style, which can only be a good thing. The ‘phoenix’ is Nelly/Esther (Nina Hoss) who returns to a highly-stylised, rubble-strewn Berlin after World War II, and tries to pick up the pieces of her life. While the plot strains credulity, she’s no longer recognized after surgery, that matters not at all as the symbolic nature of the narrative is carried with great dexterity.

The ‘phoenix’ is also a nightclub shot in a lurid red that Fassbinder would have celebrated. Shades on pre-Nazi cabaret Berlin are also haunting the time and place. Hans Fromm’s cinematography emphasises the noir mood and The Third Man also looms in the shadows amongst the bombed-out sites.

Hoss isn’t a performer I warm too but she is absolutely perfect in this role. Hoss’ ‘not quite thereness’ suits Nelly/Esther’s character whose trauma, that of concentration camp victims, fundamentally altered her psyche. If her motivation, in seeking her lost husband, seems a tad unconvincing at the start, as we learn more about her (and his) circumstance the narrative makes perfect sense. It also has an absolutely brilliant ending.