Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 5, 26 July 1999

Film still from Gengszterfilm K A R L O V Y   V A R Y:
The Mindless Violence of the Anaesthetised:
Gyorgy Szomjas's Gengszterfilm

Andrew J Horton

Gyorgy Szomjas's Gengszterfilm (Gangster Film, 1998) can be described as the everyday tale of two armed robbers with a casual disregard for human life. Taking place in the years immediately after 1989, the film charts a trail of carnage as two "gangsters" set their sights on higher and higher sums of money. As the body count rises before our eyes, the film's protagonists saunter on through their daily life, with the cool and melancholy sax music of the soundtrack contrasting heavily with the blood-spillage that their profession involves. The pace is languid, and Szomjas intersperses scenes of violent robberies with the tiny details of the "normal" life of the killers.

Ordinary anti-heroes

Such documentary overtones should hardly be surprising. Documentary film-making has a very strong tradition in Hungary and Szomjas - like many famous Hungarian directors - spent a considerable part of his early career making non-fiction films. Indeed it wasn't until 1976, with over a decade of film-making experience behind him and a dozen films to his name, that he turned to drama. Since then, his feature films have all reflected his early career, concentrating on social issues and presenting their subject matter in a harsh, uncompromising way (often through the use of non-professional actors). Gengszterfilm is itself in fact based on a true story, although obviously the finer details of the storyline have been conjured from Szomjas's imagination, as the film's titles reveal at the end. Such is the concentration on day-to-day detail that the plot takes a back seat in this film driven by observation and dialogue, although the film does reach a logical climax in the arrest of the two villains.

Szomjas has no interest in judging his characters and merely records their lives. This absence of comment on a personal level is what drives the film, as we are not subjected to narrow-minded preconceptions of violent crime or some sort of petty propagandising for solutions. However, Gengszterfilm is still very much a moral piece of cinema. By displaying his anti-heroes with detachment, Szomjas makes them seem an almost inevitable part of contemporary society. They are neither stereotypes nor fantastic inventions, neither the cause nor the effect of post-Communist social degeneration; they simply are who they are in their own right.

The film ends with the dastardly duo both in jail and deciding on what they had done wrong and how they would have finished each other off. They are unrepentant and clearly feel no sense of shame in what they have done or regret that they will spend the rest of their years in prison. They are totally detached from the sensory experiences of modern society. We are not in a position to judge them any more than they are able to make judgements about the world they live in. This is a point of view which is far more subtle and far-reaching.

A whirlwind of visuals

It is, perhaps, for this reason that Gengszterfilm is filled with seemingly gratuitous visual effects: switching between colour and black and white, mixing black and white and colour in the same frame, using negative images, pausing the frame and showing the action as a series of still photographs. Although such visual trickery for no apparent reason has no significant tradition in Hungarian cinema, it does in Russian film. The first famous example of this technique of constantly shifting visual styles is Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan Groznii II (Ivan the Terrible Part II, 1945), in which the master director moves without explanation from black and white to full colour, and later in the film, between various shades of tinted black and white. Other Russian directors have followed suit: Tarkovsky regularly used changes of image quality as well as tone, and Sokurov is famous for his use of anamorphic lenses.

Although the technique is much used, it is rarely-explained. Probably this has much to do with the fact that there is no pattern to these changes. Attempts to match the changing visual quality with the mood, meaning or importance of a scene all come up short. The only clue is in the nature of the films and the directors who made them. Eisenstein was interested in depicting the madness of Stalin (portrayed allegorically as the medieval Russian tyrant Ivan the Terrible), and Tarkovsky and Sokurov have both had an interest in alienation from society. The visual changes can only be explained as an attempt to disorientate the viewer and to vex him with the reality that he is watching so that he experiences the sensations the film is trying to portray.

This would back the theory that Gengszterfilm is trying to create an impression of social malaise resulting from society's alienation from feeling. Gengszterfilm rather prosaically translates as "Gangster Film", although the Hungarian word is the accepted word for the genre and has none of the clumsiness of the English title. As the title implies, the film is not about specific gangsters at all, but about a representation of a mentality which is far more endemic than can be portrayed in the mere story of two low-life characters.

Cinematic partners in crime

Gengszterfilm, therefore, fits together snugly with Miklos Jancso's Nekem lampast adott kezembe as Ur Pesten (The Lord's Lantern in Budapest, 1998) and Ferenc Grunwalsky's Visszateres (Kicsi, de nagyon eros 2.) [Homecoming (Little but Tough II), 1998] to form a triptych of modern violent tales. Not only are the three films similar in subject matter, outlook and philosophy, they also share a couple of common names in their credits: Grunwalsky acted as director of photography on all three films and directed one of them and Zoltan Mucsi and Peter Scherer take the lead roles in two of the films, and smaller roles in the third (Visszateres). However, this does not mean that the same film has been made three times: Nekem lampast is an absurdist black comedy; Visszateres is a visceral thriller and Gengszterfilm is a hyper-real docu-drama.

If there is one film that is clearly at the centre of this triptych, it is Nekem lampast. Jancso already has a considerable international reputation to build on, and interest in his film is inevitably going to grow. However, Jancso's film is also the most original and well-acted of the three. Mucsi and Scherer's performances in Gengszterfilm seem relatively free-wheeling compared to what Jancso - who is known as wrenching the maximum out of his actors - demands of them. However, it will be a shame if Nekem lampast completely eclipses Gengszterfilm from international attention.

Andrew J Horton, 22 July 1999

Click HERE to read the second in this pair of articles: a "Tarantino-esque" thriller which transposes an Agatha Christie novel into modern-day Yugoslavia.

Kinoeye at Karlovy Vary

The following is a list of other films shown at Karlovy Vary which have been covered by Kinoeye.

Nekem lampast adott kezembe as Ur Pesten (The Lord's Lantern in Budapest) by Miklos Jancso, Hungary

Krava (The Cow) by Karel Kachyna, Czech Republic

Okraina (Outskirts) by Peter Lutsik, Russia

Pasti, pasti, pasticky (Traps) by Vera Chytilova, Czech Republic

Kinai vedelem (Chinese Defence) by Gabor Tompa, Hungary





The EU:
Promised land or
bad neighbour?

A Step Backwards
for Estonia?

Future in Europe

Romania's Only Way Ahead

A Green El Dorado?

The Issue (#5):


Mel Huang:
A Hot Summer in Riga

Catherine Lovatt: Romania
and the EU

Sam Vaknin:
NATO's Assault on
the Environment in
the Balkans

Tomas Pecina:
Czechs and NATO

Vaclav Pinkava:

Gusztav Kosztolanyi:
Corruption in

Central Europe


Baltic States
Czech Republic


Book Review:
A Testimony of Failure: Martin Fendrych's
Jako ptak na drate

Book Shop


Willis of Oz

Music Shop


Central European
Culture in the UK


Gyorgy Szomjas's

Djordje Milosavljevic's


Transitions Online


in Central Europe

with your comments
and suggestions.

Receive Central Europe Review
free via e-mail
every week.


Copyright (c) 1999 - Central Europe Review Internet servis, a.s.
All Rights Reserved