The entire filmography of István Szabó is haunted by war, by wars. Born in Budapest before World War II, he has consistently examined his country’s history, from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to today’s Republic of Hungary, including the years of subjugation by first the Nazis and then the Stalinists. The theme of the Artist forced to sell their soul to the devil by those in power runs through his work. Three of the five films programmed here are perfect illustrations of this: Mephisto, Hannussen and Taking Sides. Three men, the first two played by the renowned Austrian actor Klaus-Maria Brandaueur, the third by the great Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgaard.
Mephisto (1981), adapted from the novel by Klaus Mann, follows the destiny of an actor close to the Communists who, through opportunism and a series of compromises, becomes the Nazi regime’s leading actor. “My eyes are not my eyes, my face is not my face, my name is not my name” he says. So who is he?
Colonel Redl (1985), the second in the war trilogy by István Szabó with actor Klaus-Maria Brandauer, is possibly the most troubling. Redl is not an artist but a humble man, a homosexual, who manages to rise in the ranks of the army thanks to his talent and his loyalty to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ordered to fabricate a plot, to then crush it and hence bring the army together, he tries to imagine the ideal conspirator, until he is only able to write one name under the robot profile: his own. “Redl is the brother of Mephisto”, asserted the filmmaker when previewing the film. “He is trying to build himself a new identity to succeed in society”. Maybe just to continue living?
In Hanussen (1988), corporal Klaus Schneider, left with head wounds at the end of World War I, discovers he has the gift of hypnosis and clairvoyance. He decides to go into show business, to make a living from his talents. A flamboyant character, he predicts Hitler’s rise to power. The Nazis take an interest in him. But his prediction of the burning of the Reichstag terrifies them. What game is he playing?
In Taking Sides (2002), adapted from a play, István Szabó films the confrontation between an American activist – a former insurance agent – and Wilhem Fürtwangler, a conductor of genius who has continued to work under the Nazi regime. But is it possible, as the great German conductor assets, to devote yourself to your art irrespective of politics? Is Art superior to everything and does it condone any compromise?
Bizalom (1980) is a rarer sort of film. Yet it is this film that set the filmmaker on an international career. This is an incredible film. A bedroom war film. Literally. During the Nazi occupation, a man and a woman, who do not know each other and who are living under false identities, have to pretend to be a married couple. They find themselves living for several months in the same room of a house in the suburbs of Budapest. The man, a hardened resistance fighter, is mistrustful of the woman. They know only each other’s false identities. But who really is the other person?
War, in the work of István Szabó, is also a war against oneself.
- Olivier Broche
Carte blanche To Istvan Szabo
LA GRANDE ILLUSION de Jean Renoir (1937) – France