Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 4
31 January 2000

Zoltan Huszárik's Szindbád (Sindbad, 1971), with cinematography by Sándor Sára
  Sára's poetic eye in action
K I N O E Y E:
The Poetics of Nature, the Politics of Change
Sándor Sára's retrospective in London

Andrew J Horton

Sándor Sára may not exactly be a name on every film buffs lips, but that is all the more reason to hold a retrospective of his work. For Sára has worked behind the camera with many of the great names in Hungarian cinematography, such as István Szabó, István Gaál and Ferenc Kósa, and took the visual appeal of their films to new aesthetic heights. When he started work in the 1960s, he demanded far more creative freedom as director of photography than was usual at the time and proved his visual genius in a range of styles and visual textures, but perhaps most memorably in lyrical evocations of landscape - especially in long shot.

At the same time, he also emerged as a director in his own right and - in seeming direct contradiction to the highly poetic nature of his eye - made highly politicised films that were critical of the Communist regime. Moreover, he also made documentaries, whose ability to confront the viewer with stark reality seems strangely paradoxical when placed next to his more lyrical pieces of cinematography.

Sára is still very much active as a film-maker, despite the fact that he has for the last seven years been president of the UNESCO award-winning Duna TV satellite channel.

Zoltan Huszárik's Szindbád (Sindbad, 1971), with cinematography by Sándor Sára
  Neglected masterpiece
To celebrate his talent and to try and raise the his international following, the Riverside Studios in London recently held a mini-retrospective of four films for which he has been either director or cinematographer, or both.

Revelling in the senses

The earliest film of the four was Zoltan Huszárik's Szindbád (Sindbad, 1971), for which Sára acted as director of photography. By this time, Sára was already a formidable name in Hungarian film circles, and could take credit for the cinematography of István Gaál's Sodrásban (Current, 1963), Ferenc Kósa's Tízezer nap (Ten Thousand Suns, 1965), and István Szabó's Apa (Father, 1966) - works which already showed an astonishing control of the visual medium.

Szindbád is loosely based on the life of the Hungarian writer Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933), as seen through the alter-ego from his novels, Sindbad [1]. Krúdy, the doyen of Budapest's cafe culture, was a feverishly prolific writer of enigmatic dreamy works (often compared to Proust) and his drunken exploits were notorious in his day.

Zoltan Huszárik's Szindbád (Sindbad, 1971), with cinematography by Sándor Sára
  Pleasures of the flesh
Huszárik's recreation of the novelist is as unconventional, creative and colourful as the original character. Indeed, that has in some ways been the undoing of the film as well as its making. Introducing the film at the Riverside, film historian and critic David Robinson hypothesized that this was the film's first showing in London and the film had largely been withheld from international distribution at the time, because the Hungarians simply believed it was too Hungarian for other countries to appreciate.

Szindbád certainly is a very Hungarian film (as indeed Krúdy was a very Hungarian author). It is celebration of life, composed in an unstructured series of recollections by the protagonist of a decadent and debauched life spent satisfying the senses (Huszárik himself was a painter and bon viveur). The camera's eye leaps from the main "narrative" to a series of memories as a chain of associations is sparked off - intials carved on a tree, water dripping from a wooden roof, marks left by two pairs of ice-skates on a snow covered icy lake, a dress being unbuttoned, a flower pressed between the pages of an old book, a wisp of hair.

Zoltan Huszárik's Szindbád (Sindbad, 1971), with cinematography by Sándor Sára
  Bathed in beauty, full of
Often the images - each of exquisite beauty - are intercut so rapidly that there is barely time to take them in. The resulting effect is a kaleidoscope for the senses - the feeling that everything in life must be experienced. As such, Sára's cinematography and the editing (by Huszárik with Mihály Morell) recreate Krúdy's view of the world perfectly.

But the images are more than just Krúdy's recollections. The film is powerful in that it taps into a vast repository of collective memories. On one level, this makes the film a small encyclopedia of Hungarian experience, on another its evocation of love and landscape gives it a universal appeal.

Masterpiece or misogyny?

Sára's work on Szindbád has been universally praised, but Huszárik's vision has been received more nervously.
Zoltan Huszárik's Szindbád (Sindbad, 1971), with cinematography by Sándor Sára
  A symphony of colour
Some critics, such as Bryan Burns, have commented on the misogyny inherent in the film. Sindbad's serial love life is entirely at the service of his own feelings and his own art. At one point he remarks that no sooner is he kissing one girl than he is thinking of the goldsmith's wife, while at another point he says, "I've never got involved with women who have wanted me to." As such Burns feels that Huszárik is glorifying self-centred male experience with little express for the feelings of the female characters (who, as he rightly points out, are all interchangeable in the film).

This line of argument has some validity, and it is certainly worth bearing in mind, but it really just concentrates on one side of Szindbád and makes the assumption that the film is a joyous evocation of the pleasures of irresponsible debauchery. This is not the case, or at least not totally. Szindbád is highly melancholic film, and the process of memory for the hero is a bitter-sweet one.

Whilst Huszárik depicts the pleasures of the flesh, he also evokes delicate feelings of regret, loss and parting. For all the hero's histrionics about his narcissism and his inability to stay with any one woman, his memories suggest a deep sense of vulnerability and a desire to hold on to what he once let go of: "I don't know how to live," he confesses to his wife before revealing that he is too frightened to stay alone in a room at night by himself.

Zoltan Huszárik's Szindbád (Sindbad, 1971), with cinematography by Sándor Sára
  Tenderly tragic parting
One of the final scenes shows Sindbad skating on a lake with yet another lady friend. The two stand awkwardly for a while holding hands, and then the girl thanks him and skates off and vanishes into the mist, leaving Sindbad alone in an empty and cold landscape. As such Szindbád is a incisive portrait of both the strengths and the weaknesses of Krúdy the man. The film's charm, and also its skill and originality, is that it both revels in the joie de vivre and is also a vanitas: a celebration of life, a reminder of mortality.

The film, is in fact soaked with death, and particularly that favourite Hungarian theme - suicide. In fact, the star of the film, the polyglot aesthete Zoltan Latinovits - himself something of a Sindbad - died by his own hand in 1976.

Political allegory

Sndor Sra's 80 huszár (80 Hussars, 1978), with cinematography by the director
  An ill-advised uprising
80 huszár
(80 Hussars, 1978), directed by Sára himself, also shows his love of landscape - in this case the Tatra mountain range in Poland. It also introduces his love of politics, here framed in a historical tale set in 1848, the year of the unsuccessful uprising against Habsburg rule. The film tells the story of a regiment of Hungarian hussars stationed in Poland. The hussars, mostly ordinary men, have heard news of the uprising and wish to return to the homeland to defend the newly independent country. The Empire, on the other hand, is firmly resolved that all Hungarian troops in the imperial army should be kept as far away from the trouble spot as possible, knowing that most soldiers would be loyal to Budapest rather than Vienna.

Not happy with this situation, the hussars kill their imperialist commander and start on a long and treacherous journey across the mountains to return to Hungary with the imperial army in hot pursuit. As their journey progresses, the mood changes and the oppressed soldiers, soon become the oppressors, to their horses, to the villages they pass and finally to their own countrymen.

Sndor Sra's 80 huszár (80 Hussars, 1978), with cinematography by the director
  Facing defeat
Naturally, Sára's interest in 1848 is only marginal, and the real focus of interest is in the politics of Hungary under Communism. Like more famous works, such as Miklós Jancsó's Még kér a nép (Red Psalm, 1971), 80 huszár is an analysis of how effective revolution can be, and the way in which the good intentions of revolutionaries can be corrupted.

The film got into trouble with the censors in Hungary but was eventually released. At a post-screening discussion between David Robinson and Sára, the director described the dilemma of making compromises with the censors:

These compromises were based on the dilemma of having one sentence in the film which might have been too direct or a subject the authorities at the time couldn't cope with, and the dilemma was whether to stick to this sentence at the risk this film wouldn't come out at all or sacrifice that sentence for the release of the film.

However, Sára also confirmed Robinson's hypothesis that directors in Hungary were able to be so critical of the regime because - unlike in other countries - the censors in Hungary were not stupid and realised that firstly a little criticism did no harm and secondly that the criticisms were well-founded.

Unrestrained criticism

Sndor Sra's Tüske a köröm alatt (A Thorn under the Fingernail, 1987), with cinematography by the director
  Plain corruption
By the late 1980s, censorship had almost completely relaxed and Sára's Tüske a köröm alatt (A Thorn Under the Fingernail, 1987) is fiercely critical of the corruption of Party functionaries in direct terms. The need for Aespoian language was by now totally unnecessary, and the film is set in the present.

András, the main protagonist and the thorn of the film's title, is a painter who, sickened with Budapest life, sells all his paintings and retires to the countryside. There he comes up against a local mafia operation run by Party officials, amongst which is a man who, as prison warder in a juevenile detention centre, drove a friend of his to suicide. He falls in love, though, with the daughter of one of his rivals, for which he pays dearly.

Tüske a köröm alatt sees Sára behind the camera once again, and as might be expected, there are plenty of dramatic shots of the Hungarian plains. Unlike 80 huszár, though, the film is surprisingly dialogue driven and the narrative is constrained by Sára's desire to explore a preconeived number of injustices of the system. This makes the film more interesting politically than it is aesthetically.

Sndor Sra's Tüske a köröm alatt (A Thorn under the Fingernail, 1987), with cinematography by the director
  Home on the range
However, both Tüske a köröm alatt and 80 huszár are interesting to read in the light of 1989. Although obviously intended as analyses of Hungary under Communism, they work disturbingly well as critiques of Hungary in transition.

In 80 huszár, an Austrian general is asked why the army does not withdraw from Poland. His firm and pragmatic response is to ask who will take over if the army leaves. The idealistic and humanistic response from a priest about the youth rising up seems hopelessly unfeasible in response and graphically illustrate the problems of removing the Communists from power and raises the question of whether anyone else is fit to govern.

Tüske a köröm alatt, partly because of the vitriolic nature of its criticism, but partly due the unchanging nature of Hungary, seems to be more a work from 1997 than 1987.

1950s paranoia

Sndor Sra's Vigyázók (The Watchers, 1993)
  Secrets and lies
However, in a sense 1989 also reduced Sára's relevance as a director, and this is certainly evident in his film Vigyázók (The Watchers, 1993). Rather than turn himself to contemporary social problems, Sára used the film to examine the nature of Stalinism.

A Hungarian joke from the 1950s says that there are three sorts of people: those who have been taken away, those who are about to be taken away and those who have not yet returned. Vigyázók taps into this paranoid world where nobody can be trusted.

At an informal gathering of friends, Éva, the hostess finds a document underneath the coats which identifies one of her guests as a member of the secret police. She confronts the group with the news and everyone leaves in a hurry. Two men arrive the next day to retrieve the document.

The rest of the film is spent with the main characters trying to deduce the identity of the mystery policeman (or woman), with just a nod towards Agatha Christie in its atmosphere of chamber detective story. Each person has some incriminating piece of evidence that indicates it is surely them, and each person also has some dark secret that makes it seem impossible that they could be the one.

Sndor Sra's Vigyázók (The Watchers, 1993)
  Unwelcome guests
Vigyázók is a worthy historical recreation and has tense moments, but it is largely a footnote to history and has more worth as a social document than as a piece of art. Whilst it was a valuable addition to the retrospective in that it demonstrated Sára as a director still active in the post-Communist age, it left the nagging feeling that another of Sára's films might have been more revealing, particularly since this film did not have Sára behind the camera.

Aside from the work he has done with Szabó, Gaál and Kósa, Sára's own films from the 1960s - Cigányok (Gypsies, 1962) and Feldobott kö (The Upthrown Stone, 1968) are equally important works and any one of them would well deserve to be screened. In particular, Sára's work as a documentarist was completely unrepresented in the retrospective - a sad omission, particularly given his work in this field has such a strong reputation whereas his work as a director - whilst interesting - is less original.

Still Sára can rightly be called a genius of cinematography, documentary and now - with Duna TV having won a UNESCO award for culture under his stewardship - also of broadcasting policy. Having excelled so well in three fields, we can hardly complain that he is merely very talented in a fourth.

Andrew J Horton, 31 January 2000

Click here to read the Kinoeye's interview with Sándor Sára.

Click here to buy Gyula Krúdy's book The Adventures of Sindbad in English translation.



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