Love from Eastern Europe: Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains and Makk’s Love
By Robert J. Cardullo
In the late 1960s, when Czechoslovakian films burst upon the West, they seemed something of a miracle. They were small in scale. They were typically about ordinary, unglamorous people who were generally regarded with a humorous and humane eye. They were also different in tone from other national cinemas that had earlier caught our attention: Italian neorealism, for example, or the French New Wave. There was a wryness about the Czech pictures, a gently stated sense of the absurd, which reminded us that the country's national epic was, uniquely, a comic one: Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Schweik (1923).
We were frequently told that Schweik's sly subversions of the warrior mentality represented the best that a small, geopolitically unfavoured nation could offer in the way of resistance to its surrounding bullies, and we were glad to see that the work of a new generation of filmmakers – their attitudes formed during the Nazi occupation of World War II, then sharpened by the Stalinist dictatorship of the post-war period – confirmed the comic novel's continuing relevance. The portrait of Czechoslovakia we pieced together from its films of the 60s was of what we might now call a slacker nirvana, a place where private problems always took precedence over public issues, and where ideological pomp was ever subverted by the imp of the perverse.
There was something delightfully casual about the manner of these Czech films, too. Loosely structured, often shot in the streets and on provincial back roads, frequently acted by amateurs, the lack of formality in them seemed all the more remarkable since they were, after all, the products of an Iron Curtain country. Perhaps its rulers were not as sternly censorious as those of the other middle-European Stalinist regimes, but still… Prague Spring or not, Alexander Dubček or not (Dubček came to power in 1968 with plans to present "socialism with a human face" [The Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (2009)] through reform and liberalisation [hence the brief "springtime"]), we wondered how the chief figures of this cinematic renaissance – Miloš Forman, Ivan Passer and Jiří Menzel, all graduates of FAMU (Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts), the famous state film school – got away with it. (Other directors of the Czechoslovak New Wave, also known as the Czech Renaissance, include František Vláčil, Pavel Juráček, Jaroslav Papoušek, Otakar Vávra, Zbyněk Brynych and Vojtěch Jasný, as well as the Slovak directors, Dušan Hanák, Juraj Herz, Juraj Jakubisko, Štefan Uher and Elo Havetta.) Mostly, though, we were simply grateful and welcoming when, at roughly the same historical moment, Forman's Loves of a Blonde (1965), Passer's Intimate Lighting (1965) and Menzel's Closely Watched Trains (1966) struck us in the West with gentle, insinuating force.
Menzel and the Movies
A 1963 graduate of FAMU, Menzel himself spent the next two years working as an actor and assistant director. His first motion picture as a director was a contribution to an anthology film titled Pearls of the Deep (1965), based on five short stories by Bohumil Hrabal remarkable for their concentration on the destinies of little people on the edges of society. (Evald Schorm, Jan Němec, Věra Chytilová and Jaromil Jireš were the other contributors, making Pearls of the Deep a kind of omnibus of the Czech New Wave.) Menzel's first feature, his masterpiece Closely Watched Trains, is also his chief claim to a firm place in the history of Czech cinema. This picture, adapted from a Hrabal work as well, received an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and was also the biggest box-office success of all the New Wave works in Czechoslovakia.
As the Hrabal adaptations suggest, Menzel was influenced by Czech fiction writers rather than Western filmmakers. Except for Crime in a Nightclub (1968), his reverential parody of American musical comedy, his films prior to the Soviet invasion of 1968 are adaptations of novels or short stories by Czech authors. These include Capricious Summer (1967), from a novella by Vladislav Vančura; Hrabal's Closely Watched Trains, 'The Death of Mr Baltisberger' (segment from Pearls of the Deep) and Larks on a String (banned; released 1990); and Josef Skvorecký's Crime at a Girls' School (1965). The subject of all these pre-1968 pictures is sex. In a sense, Menzel's entire oeuvre is one continuous eulogy to sex – a subject at best tolerated at the time by Marxist aestheticians in Czechoslovakia. The "crime" in Crime at a Girls' School, for example, turns out to be not murder but the loss of virginity, and the "philosophical" ruminations of the three elderly Don Juans in Capricious Summer are directed at a young female artiste. (The Don Juans , by the way, is the title of Menzel's most recent, and perhaps last, film.) Considering that sex has always been the most dangerous enemy of puritanical political revolutions, Menzel's message is clear.
Menzel, like many good directors outside the United States, is also co-author of his screenplays. In the case of Closely Watched Trains, he collaborated with the author of the novel himself to produce the final shooting script. However, the adaptation of Hrabal's prose, which is based on an uninterrupted flow of speech, on monologues in which the word (in its nicety or refinement) has enormous significance, is not a simple matter. The narrative itself of Hrabal's Closely Watched Trains functions on several levels: ridiculous aspects of life are permeated by cruelty, tragedy and pathos, as well as affection; and time is treated freely, with the reader being led, without obvious transitions, into various depths of the past. Menzel nonetheless succeeded in transposing this multi-layered story into an art form with a visual foundation. He retained almost all the conflicts or tensions of the original narrative at the same time as he translated the action into a linear time sequence, arranging the succession of events according to his own aesthetic needs.
In the process, Menzel necessarily sacrificed a number of hrabalesque details that had almost begged for inclusion; not allowing himself to be seduced by Hrabal's magical lexicon, he consistently pursued a cinematic mode of expression. That mode – except in the black comedies, Crime at a Girls' School and Crime in a Nightclub – is essentially realist, and could perhaps best be described by the theories of André Bazin: Menzel, that is, reveals rather than describes or even reconstitutes reality. There is very little in his work of the formalist elements of moviemaking, and if, occasionally, there are some (as in the opening montage of Closely Watched Trains), they are used mainly for comic effect. Despite dropping the achronological structure of the novel from which he adapted Closely Watched Trains and replacing it with a linear narrative, Menzel makes inventive use of subtle symbolism in the film (eg. the lovely old chiming clock, a vestige of bygone Habsburg glory, which at the climax almost operates as a metronome to the explosions, having bided its historical time), as well as elliptical editing, and replaces hrabalesque naturalism with the lyrical understatement of Jaromír Sofr's black-and-white cinematography. Such lyricism manages to poeticise the foolishness in the film, even as tenderness mitigates the farcical and a certain seriousness gives an edge to the laughter – all of this without a single lapse into sentimentality. Menzel also does excellent work with the actors, both professional and nonprofessional. (He himself plays a small part in the film, as a medical doctor.)
Born in 1938, Menzel is too young to have had much immediate reaction to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, so Closely Watched Trains is a view of immediately inherited history rather than of direct experience. This combination of closeness and distance may be what gives him his cool manner here (as elsewhere in his oeuvre) without the loss of central compassion. The film is set in a rural railroad station in western Bohemia near the end of the Second World War. The protagonist, Miloš Hrma, is a late adolescent who goes to work in that station. The boy, played delicately by Václav Neckář, is shy, eager, awkward, naďve and touchingly dignified. A pretty, round-cheeked girl, who works as a conductress, is fond of him; a masterful philanderer, who serves as the station's train dispatcher, uncles him; the Stationmaster benevolently tyrannises him. He is grateful for the attention and the patronisation, as well as the guidance.
Despite the fact that Closely Watched Trains rarely strays beyond a sleepy, small-town railway station, it is rich in character and comic incidents. Given the modest volume of the station's traffic, each and every member of its staff has plenty of time to pursue his or her interests, all of them irrelevant to the great drama – World War II – that is proceeding just up the tracks from them. Consistently nostalgic for the great days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and ever dreaming of being promoted to Chief Inspector of the railroad, the Stationmaster, for example – assisted by his wife – devotes most of his energy to raising pigeons, geese and rabbits in the backyard. Hubička ("Little Kiss" in Czech), the train dispatcher, has a feckless air about him that belies his success as a womaniser. Passing through from time to time are the imperious local countess (an aristocratic reminder of Czechoslovakia's Austro-Hungarian past); the outraged mother of the seduced station telegraphist, Zdenička (who, in one of the film's signature moments, has her legs, thighs and buttocks delightfully rubber-stamped by Hubička); and some Nazi soldiers intent not on behaving as the fascist beasts of the conventional war movie but instead on conquering a carload of nurses whose train has been side-tracked near the station.
The most significant of the station's visitors is the clueless collaborator Councillor Zedníček (played with a sort of weary menace by Vlastimil Brodský), who is in charge of making the trains – especially the "closely watched" ones (those given priority passage through Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to carry troops, munitions and other supplies to the German army) – run on time. A great believer in obedience, tradition and honour, militarism, respect for authority, and hard work, he always has a large map with him and uses it to eagerly demonstrate the strategic brilliance of the latest German retreat. Moreover, many of the lines Zedníček utters sound amusingly like slogans from the Communist regime of Hrabal and Menzel's day – promises about the wonderful future lying ahead, lectures about the need for discipline, and subtle reminders of the penalty for traitorous acts. He is, of course, treated with contempt by the gang at the station. Passionate ideologues are, for them, figures not of gentle mockery but of puzzled bemusement.
The film's central figure, Trainee Miloš, is primarily the passive observer of the station-workers' little symphony of self-absorption, searching it for the clues that might help him to become a successful adult. Since he is no Hamlet, nor was he meant to be, this is not a status that we, watching him watching them, have much confidence that he will attain – especially after Miloš reveals that his grandfather was killed while trying to stave off the German advance by hypnotising a tank, that his 48-year-old father does nothing but sleep on the sofa all day and collect an ill-deserved pension, and that he himself wants to be only a train dispatcher, even in time of war, "for the simple reason that I don't want to do anything, just like my ancestors, except stand on the platform while others have to drudge and toil." Thus do Menzel and Hrabal announce that they intend to poke fun at one of their nation's sacred myths, the tragic helplessness of the Czechs in the face of a foreign power.
At the beginning of Closely Watched Trains, Miloš is dressed in his new uniform. The camera moves gradually from his polished shoes up his trouser legs, then past the shining buttons on his coat to his cap, which his mother lifts ceremoniously above his head as if he were a young prince. The scene recalls the coronation of Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible (1944) and Olivier's Richard III (1955). However, here the grandeur of the uniform is in inverse proportion to the importance of Miloš's job, and its use is therefore primarily ironic. Menzel's visual style is otherwise straightforward and uncomplicated, with little camera movement and much detail packed within each frame. (Indeed, an apt alternative title for the movie might be Closely Packed Frames, given its relatively short running time of 93 minutes.) The shy Miloš himself is frequently shown near the edge of the frame, or being marshalled towards it, so that his quality of timorous onlooker is conveyed by the visual composition itself.
If Closely Watched Trains can be said to have a narrative through-line, it derives from Miloš's battle with sexual impotence, which takes the form, in his case, of premature ejaculation in his attempts to bed Máša, the young conductress who has shown an interest in him. Eventually he is compelled to visit a bordello – where he goes in the end, not to employ a prostitute but to make a typically inept attempt at suicide (after which the camera pans slowly past a poster, no doubt mounted by local collaborators, that defiantly proclaims the Soviets will never get Prague in their clutches). Phallic symbolism thus pervades the film, as a constant reminder of what is on Miloš's mind: the levers that he must handle while Hubička pesters him about Máša; the coffee grinder gripped between the thighs of Hubička's "cousin"; the welling mound of ticker tape as Miloš spies on Hubička and his "cousin"; the still-standing coat rack in the bombed photographic studio owned by Máša's uncle; the lone "smoke signal" among the clouds (a likeness of the earlier coat rack) at the end, signifying the explosions that have just occurred; and, finally, the gander. When Miloš consults the Stationmaster's wife about his sexual problem, she is busy force-feeding a gander, caressing and stroking its long neck at the same time. This woman has no advice for our hero, but the sight of the neck massage is nonetheless sufficient to give him an erection.
Miloš is ultimately made a man, in more ways than one, by dispatcher Hubička, who is not as feckless as he pretends to be. As Miloš's own father, a loafer, is no role model, the boy has had to choose between the Stationmaster, with his love of uniform and hypocritical disdain for moralising, and Hubička, with his weakness for women and genuine disdain of convention. Miloš chooses Hubička's model and, ironically, discovers that there is valour beneath this man's mask of hedonism. After Miloš reveals to Hubička that he is a virgin (even as his words are drowned out by a passing train), the latter conspires with the Resistance fighter Viktoria Freie, or "Victorious Liberation", (a) to have explosives delivered to the station so that a "closely watched" train can be blown up; and (b) to have the mature, pretty Freie make a man of the tremulous Miloš. In the dark of the train-station office, on the prized leather sofa that the Stationmaster has kept from the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (and that Hubička himself has sullied with his sexual activities), Miloš thus achieves overnight, and after so many years of vulnerability, a new sense of invulnerability or masculine invincibility. Which leads him to heroic martyrdom, which Menzel shoots in an almost casual manner – which, as a result, is all the more powerful in its impact.
Just before that final burst of well-staged action occurs, Councilor Zedníček appears trackside to vent his disgust with a ridiculous bureaucratic hearing (concerning who was responsible for the rubber-stamping of Zdenička's buttocks with the very official stamps he used to indicate German strategy on his map) over which he has just presided. He's a busy man. And these Czechs, he says, are nothing more than "laughing hyenas". Well, Hubička does laugh in the end. But it is a laugh of triumph, of unlikely victory. It's a reminder that any kind of animal, especially the human animal, can be dangerous when tormented or wronged or simply not taken seriously enough. Most important, this concluding sequence turns the entire movie into a metaphor for Czechoslovakia itself. It says that a pleasant, pleasure-loving little country, so often occupied, so often preoccupied by its own survivor's Schweik-ishness, is more dangerous than it looks.
Closely Observed History… and Art
Czechoslovakia is, after all, the country that assassinated one of the main architects of the Holocaust, Reinhard Heydrich, in World War II and endured a terrible reprisal for that act at the village of Lidice (which was razed to the ground, saw all its men and boys over the age of 16 shot, and had all but a handful of its women and children deported to Nazi concentration camps). It is also the country that, not a year after Closely Watched Trains was released (and condemned in the USSR for being insulting to the Czech Resistance), endured a terrible punishment for its cheekiness, its ironic-satiric spirit – Soviet tanks in Wenceslas Square, the re-imposition of the Iron Curtain mentality on its free and easy spirit. It is certainly easy to read the subtext of Closely Watched Trains as a reference to just such a Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in the filmmaker's "present", in contrast with the film's telescoped past, where the "text" of the country's Nazi occupation during the Second World War takes place.
Closely Watched Trains is, finally, a small Entwicklungsroman, or coming-of-age tale, of Miloš's passage from his mother's sheltering home into the world. If I seem to have switched themes, that effect is the quintessence of Menzel's view. He concentrates fiercely on the daily life of this boy: his job, his ambitions, his unsuccessful bedding with his girl, his worries about his manhood. The camera often vividly closes in on an object from that daily life – a pair of glasses, an old phonograph – in such a way that the thing is charged with an immanent glory that has to do, not with materialism or fetishism, but with a profoundly affectionate reverence for the artefacts that have become human beings' companions in living. And such an emphasis on the details of everyday existence is augmented by Menzel's judiciously sparse use of trains themselves.
Few things, after all, lend themselves more readily to photographic exaggeration than trains, but here they function as a kind of wipe between sequences of the plot, and their sound becomes a ritornello in the music of dailiness. It is only obliquely, through understated imagery, that the Nazi occupation itself enters the film – Menzel reminds us of the war, at the outset, with a view of military transport trains – and never, really, until the end does the conflict come full centre. (Its tone not so restrained as Menzel's film, Hrabal's novel features far more, and more pointed, German or anti-German commentary.) Together with the gradually increasing and terrifying reminders of war (the destruction of the photographic studio, the corpses seen on one train), there unfolds Miloš's erotic suffering.
The entire narrative is thus derived from the idea that human grief, fear and joy have their place in times of cruel war as well as during years of profound peace. The story of young Miloš and his love life, together with the petty destinies of the other characters who work at the railroad station, is therefore linked quite factually and soberly with the overwhelming events of World War II. Menzel is acknowledging that boys have ambitions, get erections, emulate their elders and indulge in daydreams, no matter what chief sits in the capital. He is also saying that, in an ancient country, there is an ancient schism between the peasantry and the government, whether that government is monarchical, fascist, democratic or socialist. The peasant's first duty is to survive, despite the efforts of government to hinder or help him. And the facts of war, of whatever particular war it happens to be at the moment, are simply one more condition in his struggle. (For a similar theme, see some of the products of the New Romanian Cinema, particularly Corneliu Porumboiu's sadly funny 12:08 East of Bucharest , which shows us that, for many Romanians, the end of the Ceauşescu dictatorship in 1989 was joyous and liberating, but for many others – perhaps more – it was something that happened off in the capital or in another city while at home one kept on sweeping floors or hammering nails.)
This theme had been treated before, notably in Two Women (1960), the film by Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini from a 1958 novel by Alberto Moravia, but there a somewhat broader brush was used for a more traditional humanitarian approach. Menzel, much younger than the Italian partners, more tart and laconic, focuses more thoroughly on the minutiae of daily existence, edits more brusquely, and indeed sees the whole grim era from a wry, sardonic angle, bearing in mind the whole time that most films, whether they mean to or not, glamorise war in general and the Second World War in particular. The sole possible note of movie contrivance – or is it grim irony? – is that only on the night before Miloš is killed does Menzel allow him his first full sexual experience with the aptly named Viktoria Freie, the female member of the Resistance who has unwittingly brought him his death warrant. Thus, in this youth's case, what the French call "la petite mort" or the little death – the sensation of sexual orgasm as likened to death – becomes literally, lastingly realised.
In such a way, perhaps more emphatically than Menzel's other films, Closely Watched Trains shows its debt to surrealism by subversively equating sexual and political maturity, or sex and political self-sacrifice in the cause of freedom. The equation of sex and politics is cemented when Liszt's Les Préludes (1854), the signature tune used earlier in the film to accompany German radio news of victories on the Eastern front, mock-heroically accompanies Miloš's victory over his premature ejaculation. (Les Préludes itself was inspired by a line from Alphonse de Lamartine's Méditations poétiques : "What is life but a series of preludes to that unknown song whose first solemn note is tolled by death?" [Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works (1992)].) He goes to his death the next day without any tinge of heroism on his part, moreover. Miloš is simply doing his neighbourly peasant duty in the Resistance as he did his duty in his railway job: in a dramatic assertion of his newfound virility, and in his own form of close surveillance, he blows up a Nazi ammunition train, during which act he is machine-gunned to death by a German train guard. But there is a telling element of the accidental in this decisive integration of Miloš's personal story with the fight for national liberation, for he becomes a hero only by chance – when Hubička, who was supposed to bomb the train, is suddenly detained by Councilor Zedníček for questioning in the rubber-stamping incident.
Typical of the film's understatement is the moment of Miloš's death on the signal tower. First, we see him climb the tower as Novák, the elderly station porter who heretofore has been portrayed as hopelessly lost in the past, mans the signals that slow the train down. Miloš then drops his parcel containing a time bomb onto the train, after which he is killed. We don't see him clutch himself as he is shot; there are no spasms. We hear the shots, and next we see him sprawled on top of a freight car passing beneath the tower, being borne away. There is thus no Hollywood foregrounding of the individual here. Instead, the after-effects of the explosions resonate across the screen and through our own historical consciousness: this is what it took to disable the closely watched or guarded trains and the whole system that relied on their running on time. Even as Miloš's body is borne away, everything gets borne away sooner or later, the film seems to say; the question is: Is this a sufficient reason not to care? By the very selection of his theme, Menzel seemingly chooses to answer in the negative.
The director also clearly chooses in this film to alternate the comic, the obscene and the tragic, or to deploy the humorous and the deadly serious simultaneously – as in the aftermath of Miloš's death (especially when Hubička laughs hysterically following the blowing up of the entire 28-carload train), as in the scene where Councilor Zedníček explains to the train-station employees how cunningly the German army victoriously retreats – to create a peculiar mixture of pathos and tragicomedy that epitomises an essential characteristic of Czech New Wave cinema: the ironic and often detached intermixing of dichotomous emotional responses. As Menzel himself put it,
Film is too imperfect to be capable of recording everything that takes place in our fantasy when we read Hrabal's text… It is necessary to compensate for the poetry of these imaginings. In my opinion, the poetry of this film lies not in the absurd situations themselves but in their juxtaposition, in the confrontation of obscenity and tragedy.
Beyond the Rails
Closely Watched Trains, a far superior work to the contemporaneous Czech successes The Shop on Main Street (1965, Ján Kadár & Elmar Klos) and Loves of a Blonde, is the best film from the New Wave of Czech filmmaking. Yet Menzel was banned from the Czech film industry after the Soviet invasion of 1968 and the suppression of the Prague Spring (events reworked, incidentally, in Margarethe von Trotta's German film The Promise ), only to save his career by recanting and publicly dissociating himself from his pre-invasion films, including Closely Watched Trains. However, even in his humiliation he scored one important point against the political establishment: he refused to return his Oscar to Hollywood, as the authorities had demanded (he was instructed to explain that he did not accept awards from "Zionists"). Menzel merely made a "repentance" movie, Who Looks for Gold? (1975), a formulaic socialist-realist tale about the workers building a huge dam, and followed it up, for good measure, with the routine comedy Seclusion Near a Forest (1976).
Of the important figures of the Czech movie renaissance, it's worth noting, only Menzel stayed on in Prague. (Beyond him, the only name really to survive is that of Miloš Forman, whose Firemen's Ball  is very much of a piece with the film under discussion, and who then of course went on to great success in Hollywood with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest  and Amadeus .) Although Menzel has been busy since, under the Communists and subsequently under the anti-Communists of the Czech Republic following the Velvet Revolution of 1989–1992, his later work has not had an impact comparable to that of Closely Watched Trains. The only possible exception came in 2006 with I Served the King of England, another World War II picture (again from a novel by Bohumil Hrabal) that has the same deceptive light touch as Menzel's 1966 one – a lightness that partially masks the serious subject and yet explores it.
Makk, Film and Hungary
Károly Makk had to wait five years before he could make Love (1971), one of the most moving commentaries on life under political tyranny that has ever been filmed. The tyrant concerned was Mátyás Rákosi (1892–1971), one of the last of the Russian puppets who ruled Hungary with an iron hand and made political opponents disappear. Love is set in 1953 – three years before the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 – when Hungary was under a totalitarian rule during which thousands of Rákosi's real and imagined foes were killed or arrested. This film could only be made after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which also marked a turning point, at least in terms of cultural policy, in Hungary.
Makk's Love is, well, about love. It concerns a dying old woman in Budapest whose son is in prison for political activity, although she believes he is in the US; her daughter-in-law, who forges letters from the son describing his glorious American career as a film director, so that the old lady (who has already lost another son, to war) can die happy; and the son himself, who is released from prison unexpectedly but too late to see his mother. When you have heard those admittedly unimpressive facts, you know as little as I did when I first heard them. Yet, this is a film of depth and delicacy – small-scale but true. Basically it is a political film: at least it is about the stubbornness of individual feeling, more than individual thought, in a society not designed for wide variations in either. And it is also about how living in such a society affects the feelings: fidelity, faith or illusion, love.
The director, Makk, who began in film as an assistant to the directors, Zoltán Fábri and Zoltán Várkonyi, is famous in Hungary and worked into old age (his last feature was released in 2010). Yet he is virtually unknown abroad. Nonetheless, five of his films – Lily Boy (1954), Cats' Play (1972), A Very Moral Night (1977), Another Way (1982) and The Last Manuscript (1987) – have been nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Festival; Cats' Play was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1974; and Another Way won the award for Best Actress at the 1982 Cannes Festival. Love itself won the Cannes Special Jury Prize in the year of its release. Newly restored and digitised, this film was also selected for screening as part of the Cannes Classics section at the 2016 Festival, in part to mark the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising.
Story to Screen
The script of Love was adapted by Péter Bacsó (1928–2009) and Tibor Déry (1896–1977) from two of the latter's own autobiographical stories ('Szerelem' ['Love', 1956] and 'Két asszony' ['Two Women', 1962]). The photography is by a wizard of black-and-white named János Tóth (born 1930), and the light-fingered editor is György Sívó (died 1991). Together, they have all focused sympathy and art on this slender story to make it not only moving but microcosmic. Love deals specifically with Hungary but has an absolutely universal appeal; a good deal about a great deal is encompassed in this little film.
Let me begin with a brief summary of Déry's two stories. The background of 'Love' is formed by the politically-motivated government show trials in Hungary – trials whose outcomes, as we can guess, were decided upon even before the proceedings began. 'Love' follows the encounter between B, a convicted politician, and his wife upon B's release from prison after a seven-year stretch. The reader registers B's hesitant reactions to life outside, as well as his anxiety about re-uniting with his wife and seeing his son for the first time. The most iconic scene in the story also finds its way into the final minutes of Makk's full-length feature film, when the woman washes the man, at once raising him up to a Christ-like pedestal and giving back to him the intimacy craved by all human beings.
The background of 'Two Women' is shaped by the consequences of the events of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and the fight for freedom against the Soviet forces. 'Two Women' portrays the tense but close relationship between Luca and her mother-in-law, an elderly lady of Austrian origin, now bedridden – a relationship that forms the core of Makk's film. Luca brings letters from János, her husband, and apparently a famous film director in the US, to the old woman, who, while anticipating her son's return to Hungary, eagerly interweaves the details of his fantastic life with her own memories. It is only after she dies, and in the story's last sentence, that we discover János is in prison for political reasons related to the anti-Soviet rebellion – something that Luca, of course, has known all along.
Love and Love
The film begins with some flashes of the old lady in her bedroom, rising from her bed, going slowly to her window, all of this latticed with old photographs and details of her life, and accompanied by a faint tinkle like the memory of a music box. Thus before the picture is two minutes old, you know you are in the hands of discriminating artists who are going to tell you a story of pathos without being pathetic. Indeed, the very gentleness of the lyrical, imaginative editing has a hard edge of selectivity about it, of restraint.
Love revolves around the daughter-in-law's ironclad reality and the mother's ephemeral present, which is infiltrated by slivers of remembrances from her long-ago past. Memories (of something as ordinary as a briefly glimpsed bench), fantasies (of six men riding on horseback through a forest, for example, or of movie-made America) and even dream sequences (in one, the old lady dreams of her son's life in a French castle on the highest mountain in New York) invade the old woman's bedroom during a cold, wet spring and merge with the room's everyday objects (a clock ticking, a piece of fruit on a table). The film blends past and present by using flashbacks or first-person "narration", a popular technique throughout the Eastern Bloc in the 1970s. For flashbacks demystify collective memory by means of individual memory, and introduce subjectivity as a counter to the monological narrative of the Party-State.
Throughout the film, the viewer is thus placed in a position that alternates between the external and internal, the real and imagined. As the camera observes the old woman from afar, for example, the sense of confinement and stillness is heightened, trapped as she is behind windows and lying dormant in bed. When this inactivity is punctured by the images she conjures up, however, we see a woman brought magically to life, her mind exploding onto the screen. The camera flits seamlessly between making us look at her and through her, so that the divides between inner and outer, fiction and reality, eventually break down, and a kind of dreamlike, timeless quality is created. In this way, the film's rhythm also creates feelings of uncertainty and unpredictability from one scene to the next – as in "Where are we?"; "Why are we here?"; and "How much time, if any, has passed: a week, a month…?"
Indeed, apart from the use of terms such as kitelepítés (forced relocation, usually from cities to the countryside) and társbérlők (co-tenants), which place the film in the early 1950s, one cannot say for certain that Love is not a contemporaneous document of Hungary in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Indeed, the trauma suffered by the characters could easily have taken place at some point in the period between the two world wars. In any event, Makk and his editor's deliberate transpositions of past and present themselves undermine any attempts to tie the film to a specific point in time.
Feelings of temporal uncertainty, of course, are precisely the ones felt by the elderly woman's son: one day he was at home, the next day he was a political prisoner and his wife did not know whether he was still alive. For some years, he was imprisoned, and then, one day, some Communist functionary decided to set him free. We never find out why the son was arrested, and the sole government officials we see are those overseeing his release (and possibly two men who claim to be from the telephone company). The son's incarceration seems to require explanation, for it was highly unlikely that such an individual would have committed a serious crime. Yet, it is precisely the mystery, or the pointlessness, of the prison sentence that constitutes one of the major – and unresolved – narratives of the film: the reason for the son's imprisonment, or his release, is simply not given, either to him or to the viewer. In the taxi on his way home, the driver asks, "Politikai?" [Political?] – a question that the now grey, middle-aged son need not, or cannot, answer. This is all deliberate, of course, partly because Love was still filmed under the auspices of a Communist government (albeit one that had moved on from the terror of the Rákosi regime), partly because Makk obviously wishes to concentrate on the personal aspect: on how living under these political conditions affects the everyday lives of ordinary people.
As for the forged letters themselves, they help the film to raise the question not only of the fictions we create in our own minds, but also those that we create for others. These letters are very elaborate, written in such detail that even the elderly woman's devoted maid, Irén, claims they are beyond the realm of probability. So why doesn't this mother suspect that all is not as it seems to be? The daughter-in-law tells the maid that the old lady is "deaf and blind" when it comes to matters concerning her son. Such is her love for him that she will believe any news of his supposed success. However, there is another interpretation: that she wants to believe the content of the letters and gives the impression of believing it wholesale, but that she has some idea of the truth. For example, at one point when she is reading one of the letters, Makk intersperses her words (heard out loud, as well as in the form of mumblings or mutterings in the background), thoughts and imaginings – the life of her mind, as it were – with flashes of the prison cell where we later see her son imprisoned. Should we therefore believe that the inclusion of these shots suggests that this man's mother suspects what really happened to him, and that she is intentionally deluding herself as to the picture her daughter-in-law paints of his success abroad?
Women in Love
The daughter-in-law, Luca, is played by Mari Törőcsik (born 1935), a fine actress of charm and wit, young at the time but with long experience on stage and screen. Luca comes regularly to visit her bedridden mother-in-law with flowers, and between the two there is a fabric of real affection, nicely and credibly tempered with impatience and jealousy on both sides. The old lady admires Luca's beauty and steadfastness but admires them less in themselves than as proof that her son chose well. Luca, very bright, knows this, likes it and resents it, and teases the old woman, who is Austrian by birth and apparently has a German accent in Hungarian.
Bedridden, always feeble, Lili Darvas (1906–1974) nevertheless creates, in the old woman, an entire woman: tender, domineering, cultivated, silly, perceptive, and frightened of dying without her son at her side. Darvas made her debut in Budapest as Juliet in 1921, and in the late 1920s was engaged by Max Reinhardt to learn German and join his company. She was thus a bilingual leading actress in the years before the Second World War, playing in the German-speaking theatre and occasionally going back to Budapest. For many years, she did a new play written for her every year by her husband, Ferenc Molnár (1878–1952). She came to America when Hitler came to Vienna, and her career from that point on was not what it would have been otherwise. But at least we have this film.
Through Luca's visits to her mother-in-law, the little duels and meals shared and expenses deplored, we get much of the past of both, pivoted on the son – the person missing from each of their lives. The fact of his absence, which is omnipresent; Luca's deception of the old woman so that she can die proud (and so that she does not die from shock at the revelation of her son's arrest); our knowledge of the political climate they all inhabit and that the son is a kind of hero – all these give the film an overall atmosphere of freighted quiet. There is more not heard in the picture than heard. Still, the old woman and the young one love and tease each other. And, sprinkled through in quicksilver flashes, we get the world of the old lady's youth with its elegance, happy marriage and savour.
Ultimately, Luca loses her teaching job because of her husband's politics, and her friends desert her. She has to take lodgers in her small apartment, and she moves into a back room. But she keeps up appearances for her mother-in-law with the maid's help. Subsequently, the old lady breaks her leg, develops pneumonia and, after a last quasi-flirtation with a young doctor fond of music, dies (something, which, in the vein of this reticent film, we do not actually see.) Then, suddenly, the state releases the son.
This, clearly, is from the end of the first of the two Déry stories that are the source of the script. Far from letting the seam show, Makk makes the most of the transition – to this central character whom we have not yet seen. At the end of the last "mother" sequence, the screen fades to black. Then dots of light break the blackness as the grill on the son's cell door is opened. His name is János (not B, as in 'Love' the story), and he is in the film for only the last 15 or 20 minutes; what insures the picture against faltering is that he is played by Iván Darvas (1925–2007; no relation to Lili).
Men, Art and Feeling
Darvas had made many films before and made many afterwards. (His theatre triumphs included Hamlet and My Fair Lady.) He is an actor of very easy richness, and he fills this small but crucial role with every tonality you have been led to expect in the son. As he makes his way from his cell to the prison office to his home, he creates a man relieved but not free, glad but within limits, hopeful because – perhaps only because – he is alive. During the prisoner's journey home, for instance, this actor expresses perfectly not just the joy of freedom but the fear of finding that those he loves have forgotten him, or have somehow freed themselves from him. Luca did not expect him and is not home. So you know there is going to be a scene where she walks in and finds him, and in a way you dread this moment.
Will it spoil the film, with emotion too glibly tapped? The answer, resoundingly, is no. Luca comes into the kitchen and sees him – the husband who has been in prison for a year and whom she expected to be there for another nine years – sitting quietly by the stove, eating a large slice of bread and butter. The camera holds on her alone, and in that moment, this lovely girl grows old. Everything that she had fought off during the past year catches up with her as she looks at him. There are a few flashes of their embrace before they embrace, and in fear of that embrace, she turns aside. Then he comes to her, and the film ends as it began: quietly, in love. (That their love binds them together and sustains their marriage, we may assume, given the fact that Makk directed a sequel of sorts in 2003 titled A Long Weekend in Pest and Buda, and starring both Mari Törőcsik and Iván Darvas.)
Let me add, about love of the kind found in Love, that in this case the treatment of this emotion happily avoids the excesses of sentimentality, on the one hand, and irony, on the other. Naturally the cinema, like literature, has always taken profound emotion as one of its primary subjects, and being moved, in art as in life, may be the oldest emotion of them all. But great filmmakers like Károly Makk, like great writers, make it new every time. (I do not use the word "great" lightly here. Though Makk did not make such an outstanding film again, he made this one; and maybe it is true that sometimes a filmmaker has one classic in him and no more than one, in which everything he wishes to say is said almost perfectly and in a way that cannot possibly be repeated.) These artists do so with unembarrassed earnestness, a willingness to consider the world seriously and uncorrosively, without any interest in cynicism or nihilism, alienation or revolt, the hip or the cool. All of which, like irony, is really the flipside of sentimentality, that sweet instrument of evasion and shield, whose strong and touching feeling the lesser artist uses to deflect strong and heartless pain.
Indeed, if the seven deadly sins were reconsidered for the postmodern age, vanity would be replaced by sentimentality. The most naked of all emotions, relegated to Hallmark cards and embroidered pillows, sentimentality is one of the distinctive elements of kitsch. "The heart surges" – could there be a better description of a person in the throes of sentiment, whose heart expands to absorb its impact? But, as with other sins of excess, the line here between the permissible and the scandalous resists easy definition. As Somerset Maugham put the matter in 1941, "Sentimentality is only sentiment that rubs you the wrong way" [A Writer's Notebook (1946)]. And Maugham doubtless knew that, with the exception of puppy dogs or little children, love is the most sentimental of subjects, and sentimentality is the pitfall that all great love stories must overcome.
Love may not be a love story in the traditional sense, but it is a love story nonetheless. However, unlike great sentimental characters such as Jay Gatsby and Emma Bovary – who, by the novel's end, must somehow be disabused of that emotion, unsentimentalised, just before death (the reverse of the process undergone by Lily Bart in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth ) – János's mother, for all her filial feeling, seems disabused of sentimentality almost from the start. That is because, as an indigenous member of a lower social order than the titular characters of Fitzgerald and Flaubert, she cannot afford it, in both senses of the word.
János's mother has no "title" like "Great" or "Madame"; hers could only be the generic, anonymous, unadorned one of Mother, if she were part of her film's title in the first place. But she isn't. And neither is her son. And thus are we quietly informed that it is to the emotion of love, not to herself, that she – and he – would be devoted. Which is sentiment that rubs me the right way.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 3 Jul 2020