The Budapest Classics Film Marathon is a growing festival run by Hungary’s National Film Institute (NFI), drawing upon the film archive’s restoration efforts and its understanding of not only Hungarian film history, but the influence emigres have had on other national film cultures, namely Hollywood. This year’s theme of ‘Budapest – Vienna – Hollywood’ spoke to the route many film workers took when fleeing the complex sociocultural movements following the Austro-Hungarian state’s dissolution in the early 1900s, Nazism in the ‘30s and ‘40s and the country’s various political regimes. Familiar names such as Billy Wilder and the country’s beloved golden age of animation featured as star attractions that stealthily pave the way for deeper explorations and understandings of Hungary’s place in cinematic history. 

Cat City in front of the St. Stephen’s Basilica

Highlights of the NFI’s recent output include working with Arbelos Films on restorations of Béla Tarr’s influential epic Sátántangó (1994) and Marcell Jankovics’ Fehérlófia (Son of the White Mare, 1981), the production of Ildikó Enyedi’s On Body and Soul (2017), and a selection of animated shorts appearing on MUBI in the last year. The NFI’s well-equipped film lab develops, scans, prints and restores film, and the separate archive building has undergone a host of modern upgrades in recent years. The film festival is one of several recent initiatives aimed at spreading awareness of its holdings, including an educational program. The animated feature Macskafogó (Cat City, Béla Ternovszky, 1986) was the first of the festival’s outdoor screenings in the square of St. Stephen’s Basilica, with the audience surpassing the number of available chairs, reflecting the film’s cult status in Hungary.

Additional outdoor screenings were preceded by bitesize selections from the archive’s holdings, such as a series of animated adverts made for the lightbulb company Tungsram. Many of the examples – produced by Gyula Macskássy’s studio – utilised a pre-cursor to Technicolor known as Gasparcolor, a three-colour filmstrip process that produces vivid hues1. These highly crafted animations lit up the square with their dynamic colour palettes. Macskássy and his peers later produced films under the post-World War II, nationalised film industry, many of which reflect Communist values. These include a tale on the redistribution of wealth told through a cockerel whose owner’s diamond is stolen by a king in A kiskakas gyémánt félkrajcárja (The Cockerel’s Diamond Coin, 1951), a group of woodland animals organising a sports day together in Erdei sportverseny (Forest Sports Contest, 1952), and a cautious tale against greed in the worker bee orientated A telhetetlen méhecske (1958).

The Cockerel’s Diamond Coin

The festival programmed a selection of these 1950s animations in a Saturday morning slot at the Uránia Nemzeti Filmszínház. Built in the mid-1890s as a cultural and scientific hub, its main cinema space sits faithfully maintained, with red, blue, and gold ornamental flourishing adorning the walls. The first Hungarian feature film – depicting various dances – was shot on its roof. Like many other productions, The Dance (Béla Zsitkovszky, 1901) is currently lost2. Conversely, the NFI marked 120 years of Hungarian filmmaking several years ago, highlighting its ‘Most Wanted’ films. Amidst the festival’s Professional Program, members of the NFI’s team began excitably stirring when a PowerPoint slide revealed that an international archive held a copy of one of the sought-after films, and the fact that other examples have been relocated abroad demonstrates the importance of global archives working collaboratively.

Also in the festival’s Professional Program, a presentation of comedies held in the Library of Congress’s collections featuring Károly Hochstadt/Charles Puffy was underlined by the uncertain information around the Jewish actor’s death after fleeing from Hungary when the Holocaust began. There are plenty of moments like this in Hungarian film history, documented or not, that led to films and film industry professionals disappearing. Budapest is a city where you feel a heightened connection to the 20th century’s darker moments, especially with the prominence of the Jewish Quarter; a district that thrived as a cultural hub during the 1800s and tragically became a ghetto during World War II. It’s impossible not to feel the gravity of that time period when walking around the city, and Hungarian cinema wears so many of those marks as well.

Hungarian poster for Singing Makes Life Beautiful

And Hungarian cinema has often had to adapt to the mercy of the reigning political party. Directors and Producers were faced with balancing ideological messaging and artistic integrity under Socialism. Dalolva szép az élet (Singing Makes Life Beautiful, 1950), which depicts two rival choirs at a worker’s factory, wears this dichotomy in an intriguing way. Behind the ideological façade is a movie full of soul. A group of men act as adoptive father figures to their deceased bandmate’s daughter, one of the men is determined to be a magician and is a constant form of comedic entertainment, and a working relationship between a younger apprentice and an elder factory worker leads to an invention that benefits everyone. There’s a sense that Director Keleti Márton had just enough leeway to draw more delicate moments from its male-orientated propagandist backdrop, and the film often counters masculine conventions in a genuinely reflective way.

Another fruitful engagement within the context of the festival was Robert Vas’s short Refuge England (United Kingdom, 1959), appearing via the British Film Institute. Vas and the film’s star Tibor Molnár fled Hungary in 1956 after the Hungarian Uprising, and the short film was popular within the Free Cinema movement in the United Kingdom. Refuge England depicts a Hungarian refugee arriving at Waterloo Station in London and attempting to locate the place he has been recommended to stay at, only to realise that the address has been provided sans postcode. The film’s camerawork matches the protagonist’s point-of-view as he gazes upon sprawling buildings and window displays with intrigue, embedding the viewer in his situation. Vas’s short was paired with Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud’s Crossing Over (Tunisia, France, Belgium, 1983), courtesy of the Cinémathèque royale de Belgique. Fadhal Zahiri and Julian Negulesco play Arabian and Polish emigrants denied entry to the United Kingdom when crossing the Channel and given the same treatment when they are shipped back to Belgium. As the pair find themselves repeatedly crossing the channel with no possibility of making home in either destination, the film delicately explores the differences in how the two characters choose to process their situation. Seen together, Refuge England and Crossing Over capture the nebulous associations of trying to (or failing to) make home abroad.

Inside the Uránia Nemzeti Filmszínház’s main hall

The sociocultural seeds that were planted around Europe after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire find themselves embedded in various cinematic movements also, namely the influence of stage plays. Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three (United States, 1961) is loosely based on a one act play by Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnár, and the overarching influence of Ernst Lubitsch on Wilder’s practice can’t be overlooked. James Cagney’s quickfire performance as a Coca-Cola executive in West Berlin struggling to contain his boss’s daughter’s marriage to a radical East Berliner unfolds largely in his office, with characters rapidly entering in and out. Bar its car chase sequence, One, Two, Three heavily blurs the lines between stage and screen. With Americans and Communists equally parodied for their absurdities, the film sees Wilder coming to terms with the divisive political landscape of Europe following World War II from afar.

The Death of the Earth

Shortly after Wilder began making films, an amateur Hungarian production shot on 9.5mm film garnered praise at various film festivals in 1935. A Föld Halála (The Death of the Earth), directed by Endre Lénárd and Richárd Deutsch, depicts humanity protecting Earth from an incoming asteroid, pre-dating Armageddon (Michael Bay, United States, 1998) by several decades. 2022 marks the 100th anniversary of 9.5mm film and its prominence as a home movie format before 8mm, and various European film festivals have been showcasing its qualities, including Il Cinema Ritrovato3 and dedicated events in France4. In Hungarian contexts, the format became an outlet for the avant-garde and expressive amateur productions. 9.5mm is still a relatively understudied format with unique preservation challenges due to its central sprockets. It’s a given that its centennial will make far less of a splash than 16mm’s, so it’s particularly special that the festival presented one of its 9.5mm centred screenings with the same fan fair that it did a series of Lumiere Brothers films shot in Hungary, giving it a concert treatment with live accompaniment.

Many of the screenings focused on the country’s animated output had attendees of all ages; families with their children and older generations excited to see the films projected in a cinema space again. Across short films and feature lengths, the output of Hungarian animation is delightfully varied in both style and subject matter, from the family friendly comic strip-style tableaus of Leo and Fred, or True Stories of Two Good Friends (Pál Tóth, 1978) to the darker, existential considerations of Cakó Ferenc’s Ab ovo (1987), wherein sand and other granular materials are used to depict the cycles of birth and death. Many of the showcased examples from Pannónia Film Studio and its off shoot Kecskemétfilm Studio won prestigious prizes at Cannes and the Berlinale around their releases.

Kidnapping of the Sun and Moon

Reisenbüchler Sándor’s A Nap és Hold elrablása (Kidnapping of the Sun and Moon, 1968) was one of many standouts amidst the shorts, with its cell-like animation style depicting the invasion of a dragon-like monster that destroys a town and devours the celestial bodies, causing the landscape and its natural creatures to be enveloped by parasitic monsters. The film has a truly unsettling atmosphere, which is amplified further by lighting and kaleidoscopic lens effects. Other outputs are more easy-going, with the live-action stop-motion hybrid short Zöldfa utca 66. (1992) made with a group of children at the location the film takes its name from. Drawings and cut-out characters adorn a courtyard space as the children interact with them, and objects come to life from animations and vice versa. The film uses several different frame rates as well as in-camera stop motion, resulting in a visual style that truly embodies the free-flowing way creativity develops when we are young.

Bubble Bath

A highlight of the feature films, György Kovásznai’s Habfürdő (Bubble Bath, 1980) radically shapeshifts throughout its runtime, with characters drifting through different drawn styles in response to their emotions. A pseudo-musical framed around a Ringo Starr-fashioned character called Zsolt who gets cold feet and shows up at his bride-to-be’s co-worker Anni’s house to request that she call off their imminent wedding for him, the film plays on the plot’s absurdism as much as it does the medium of animation. Zsolt and Anni transform into art deco shapes, fluctuating water-like forms and highly detailed caricatures from cut to cut, with features such as eyes, lips, Anni’s breasts and Zsolt’s moustache changing wildly in scale. When Zsolt comically dons scuba diving gear to hide from his fiancée in Anni’s bathtub during the film’s dénouement, there’s a sense that the apartment’s spaces are somehow both submerged and dry at the same time. Everything becomes malleable through animation’s form. But photorealism is also at play; there are also several physical optical effects utilised in the film, with lighting effects and raindrops occasionally laying over the surface of the animations.

Hófehér (No-White, Nepp József, 1983) meanwhile, is a parody of Snow White that radically alters the storyline in such a way that it practically becomes an original tale altogether. In this sometimes Monty Python-esque version, the dwarves are named after days of the week, and No White is a laboratory experiment gone wrong; a giant who’s clumsily executed forms of housekeeping end up dismantling the dwarves’ home. The Queen dies early on, and the King is obsessed with his chickens, one of which is used in part to create No White. When one of the dwarves bursts into ‘Heigh, ho,’ another tells him to stop because they don’t have the money to afford singing it. It’s one of several comedic references to Disney in the Hungarian animated oeuvre, with Macskafogó referring to the year it takes place in as being ‘After Mickey Mouse’ during its Star Wars opening crawl. That film also takes cues from James Bond and other Western action films. It is often the case that Hungarian animations are self-conscious of being part of an adjacent industry to what was happening in the West, and this usually manifests with playful quips and homages.

There’s something to be said for experiencing a film festival in person when there’s wider connective tissue. Not only did many of the films programmed at the Budapest Classics Film Marathon speak to Hungarian history in a way that could be vividly accentuated by being in the city and a venue such as the Uránia Nemzeti Filmszínház, it also came with the opportunity to visit the archive and film lab, whose workers are extremely knowledgeable and forthcoming in sharing their experiences with Hungary’s film history. One of the festival’s closest neighbours in terms of scope could be considered the Nitrate Picture Show in Rochester, New York, where not only do you enjoy a carefully curated selection of films with historical value, but you also have a chance to converse and learn, to consider and value socio-political and cultural impacts on the trajectory of cinematic history. With the Budapest Classics Film Marathon, there’s an endearing consideration of how Hungarian cinema has so much to offer, and the NFI’s role in presenting these films is invaluable.

Budapest Classics Film Marathon
13-18 September 2022


  1. National Film Institute Hungary, “Restored Incandescent Love,” National Film Institute Hungary (December, 2020)
  2. National Film Institute Hungary, “120 Years of Hungarian Cinema: The Dance,” National Film Institute Hungary (2022)
  3. Karl Wratschko, Mariann Lewinsky, “SUPER8, 9.5MM & 16 MM – GREAT SMALL GAUGES,” Il Cinema Ritrovato (2022)
  4. Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé, “Exposition: PATHÉ-BABY Le Cinéma chez soi,” Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé (2022)

About The Author

Andrew Northrop is a London-based film journalist. His writing and interviews have appeared in MUBI Notebook, BOMB Magazine, Hyperallergic, Little White Lies, Kinoscope, Cineaste Magazine and more.

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