The Klassiki Companion: Márta Mészáros

The Klassiki Companion is our beginners’ guide to the key filmmakers, movements, and concepts in the cinema of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. In this edition, we introduce a Hungarian director whose long career has both spanned and documented political upheaval with a compassionate, unsentimental commitment to the truth of human relationships.

Márta Mészáros

In her tenth decade, Márta Mészáros seems finally to be getting her dues. Retrospectives and restorations in New York and London to mark her 90th birthday in 2021 prompted a spike in critical attention for a director whose lyrical, impactful films have, over sixty years’ worth of political and social upheavals, remained steadfast in their compassionate attention to the lives of ordinary and underserved characters: women, children, workers. Gone, thankfully, are the days when Mészáros was known primarily as the first wife of Miklós Jancsó, Hungarian cinema’s patron saint of “red modernism”. Precious few of the filmmakers who revivified European cinema in the post-war era are still with us; of that diminishing cohort, few still speak to the present moment with her clarity of vision.

While many of her most acclaimed films ring with the painful wisdom imparted by her remarkable biography – which scans like a whistle-stop tour through the social and artistic traumas of the 20th century – Mészáros’s oeuvre is far from solipsistic. After breaking into feature filmmaking at the end of the 1960s, she turned out seven films in a decade that cemented her position as one of the eastern bloc’s most vital directors; when she won Berlin’s Golden Bear for Adoption in 1975, she was the first Hungarian, and the first woman to do so. A trilogy of more directly autobiographical films would follow, as well as collaborations with international stars like Delphine Seyrig and Isabelle Huppert. The post-communist years have seen Mészáros return several times over to Hungarian history in search of answers to the questions that have motivated her long career: can the personal and the political ever be truly reconciled? What responsibilities do we have to each other? And how can the very act of capturing life on film change our understanding of ourselves and our societies?

Kati Kovács in The Girl (1968). Image: Janus Films

Budapest to Bishkek and back again

Scouring an artist’s biography for clues about their work is usually a fool’s errand, an exercise in critical circumspection. With Mészáros, however, it is strictly necessary. Her early life was so dramatic, so indicative of the political pressures against which she strained throughout her career, and so clearly influential in her choice of subject matter, that it cannot really be avoided.

Although she was born in Budapest in 1931, Mészáros spent her early life in Soviet Kyrgyzstan, where her communist parents, both artists, had emigrated in 1936. Her father, the modernist sculptor László Mészáros, was arrested in 1938 during the Stalinist purges and executed seven years later – the truth about his fate was only revealed after several decades. Her mother died six years later, either during childbirth or from a bout of typhoid. The orphaned Mészáros was adopted by a Hungarian Party functionary in Moscow, only returning to Budapest after the war in 1946. Frustrated in her efforts to study filmmaking in Hungary, she returned to Moscow to attend the prestigious VGIK film school, overlapping there with the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky and Otar Iosseliani. Mészáros was prevented from returning to Budapest during the 1956 revolution, arriving back in Hungary only after Soviet troops had crushed the uprising. It was in the resulting climate of exhaustion that she began her career producing newsreels and non-fiction shorts for Hungarian and Romanian studios: an apprenticeship that dragged on for another decade, and which would inform her mature work, much of which blurred the boundaries between fiction and documentary imagery. It was during this time, in 1960, that she wed Jancsó, their marriage lasting until 1973.

Mészáros joined the Máfilm Group 4 studio in the mid-1960s, and her first feature, The Girl, followed in 1968. Many of the concerns that would animate her work over the following two decades are present in this tale of Erzsi (future German pop star Kati Kovács), a young girl who escapes from a state orphanage in search of her birth mother (Teri Horváth): broken families and the quest for security in a precarious world, children forced to grapple with emotional worlds beyond their ken, and the irresolvable conflict of values between the young and the elderly. Mészáros’s early films are bracingly unsentimental and unapologetic in their portraits of women of all ages. Take her sophomore feature, Binding Sentiments (1969), a claustrophobic chamber drama about a wealthy, middle-aged widow (Mari Törőcsik) paying lip service to social convention while simultaneously struggling for her autonomy against the controlling machinations of her eldest son (Lajos Balázsovits). These first films were also informed by the tentative counterculture of the late sixties – see her experimental third feature, Don’t Cry, Pretty Girls! (1970), set in the psychedelic world of rock and folk music.

“An independent woman – one who finds herself in a situation where she must make a decision on her own – is the central character in each of the films I have made so far”

The Diary trilogy

If Mészáros’s films hum with hard-won wisdom, then it is no surprise that her towering achievement was also her most straightforwardly autobiographical: the so-called “Diary trilogy”, consisting of Diary for My Children (1984), Diary for My Lovers (1987), and Diary for My Father and Mother (1990). Taken together, the three films cover around a decade in the life of the Mészáros stand-in Juli (Zsuzsa Czinkóczi), whose life has been similarly split between the USSR and Hungary. The first film sees Juli as a strong-willed teenager returning to Budapest after the war to live with her strict, Stalinist aunt Magda (Anna Polony). As she chafes against her doctrinaire surroundings, she finds solace in her friendship with free-thinking union man János (Polish star Jan Nowicki, with whom Mészáros had a long-term relationship), who ends the film behind bars as the communist state tightens its grip on society. The second film has Juli travelling back to Moscow to attend film school, where she adds artistic rebellion to her nascent political consciousness while investigating her father’s death during the Stalinist purges a decade earlier. In Diary for My Father and Mother, Juli returns to post-1956 Budapest, where her old social milieu of communist intellectuals and Party functionaries is collapsing in on itself in response to the crisis. Magda is in hiding, fearing popular reprisal for her association with the regime, while János is a doomed figure, forever on the run, pursued by Soviet agents.

Diary for My Lovers (1987)

Nowicki told the researcher Catherine Portuges that he saw the Diary trilogy “as laying the foundation for the new East European cinema; they touched upon themes wholly inconceivable before Gorbachev came to power and broke a number of taboos in East European filmmaking… It’s fascinating for me to see her cinema as a kind of danse macabre; with apparent ease, she resurrects the dead and buried in ways that others never dared to attempt.” Ironically, it was Mészáros’s own connection to Russia that helped her to make such starkly anti-Soviet films. In an interview with Sight & Sound, she recalls: “it was very beneficial for me to have graduated in Moscow, as Hungarians were afraid of Russians, and they didn’t know who I was connected to and what I did in Russia. So, they weren’t sure of the Soviet stance on my films, and just let me do my thing… Filmmaking is easy in that sense; you just have to know who you’re working with, and who you’ll face, and what they understand from what you’re telling them.”

For those who were attuned to her methods, Mészáros was saying plenty in these three films. In a nod to her formative filmmaking years, they incorporate archival and contemporary documentary footage, which is interspersed throughout the narrative with flashbacks, dreams, and moments of impressionistic lyricism – above all the almost phantasmagorical New Year’s Eve scene from Diary for My Father and Mother, in which the supporting cast waltzes together across ideological and even historical divisions. Mészáros’s filmmaking was never more epic than in the Diary trilogy, but likewise it was never more intimate.

Women and children

Perhaps Mészáros’s greatest strength as a storyteller is her unsentimental but profound compassion for the types of characters whom cinema often renders anonymous. She is a deeply class-conscious filmmaker, often returning to the setting of the factory floor, with its commingling of emotional and economic dependencies. In her classic films she favours intense close-ups that fill the frame, symbolic of her belief that any individual, however unremarkable, is a potential protagonist, even as they get lost within their environment. If her eye for human detail is wide-ranging, though, it is also often laser-focused on the lives of women and children. In Mészáros’s own words, “an independent woman – one who finds herself in a situation where she must make a decision on her own – is the central character in each of the films I have made so far.” In an interview with The Guardian in 2021, she joked that her win at the Berlinale with Adoption in 1975 “marked the end of a process by which I had become established in the eyes of male directors… It seemed to be just me and Agnès Varda. We used to laugh about it together: everywhere we went, people would ask us: ‘How do women make films?’”

Mészáros’s understanding of the ways in which familial and romantic structures could be destroyed and transformed owed much to her peripatetic, orphaned upbringing. In the words of critic Carmen Gray, “women in Mészáros’s films are driven into new allegiances, unbound by blood ties or societal convention. State institutions and compromised families can’t be relied on, so her protagonists experiment with innovative arrangements for solidarity.” Adoption is a case in point. It tells the story of Kata (Katalin Berek), a 43-year-old widow who longs for a child with her married lover, and her complex relationship with Anna (Gyöngyvér Vigh), a teenage ward of the state seeking emancipation from her estranged parents. The ad hoc, not-quite-familial bond that forms between these two outcasts speaks to the complexities of female self-determination.

“A film is either good or bad. The audience either gets the meaning or it doesn’t. For a long time, I didn’t even understand what feminism meant. I wasn’t making films about feminism, I was making films about people”

Mészáros continued to explore questions of maternity and filiality as the seventies closed out. Two of her most vivid films from this period feature the remarkable Lila Monori as the archetypal Mészáros protagonist – a conflicted, unsympathetic, and riveting woman. In Nine Months (1976), the director’s first colour film, Monori plays Juli, a worker at a brick factory who is pursued by her boorish manager János (Jan Nowicki) while pregnant by her former lover. In the most striking of all Mészáros’s documentary intrusions, the film concludes with real footage of the genuinely pregnant Monori giving birth to her son, Balázs. A year later, Monori returned for The Two of Them (1977), perhaps Mészáros’s most forthright expression of female solidarity. Monori again plays a character named Juli, here a rebellious factory worker raising a daughter (Zsuzsa Czinkóczi, soon to become yet another Juli in the Diary films); French icon Marina Vlady plays Mari, the director of a women’s shelter with whom Juli forms a protective friendship.

For all that her films advanced the cause of female filmmaking, however, Mészáros has always been truculent about the term “feminist”. “It’s not that I’m unhappy with the label, but I’m rather indifferent towards it,” she told critic Michael Brooke in 2021. “It’s just not accurate. A film is either good or bad. The audience either gets the meaning or it doesn’t. For a long time, I didn’t even understand what feminism meant. I wasn’t making films about feminism, I was making films about people.”

Gyöngyvér Vigh and Katalin Berek in Adoption (1975). Image: BFI

Post-communist histories

Mészáros’s deserved reputation largely rests on her output from the seventies and eighties; certainly, she has not troubled the juries at Europe’s major festivals in recent years. But she has continued to work, revealing new aspects to her craft as the twentieth-century history that formed her sensibilities recedes ever further into the distance. At times she has added new nuance to old concerns. She returned to the topic of adoption for Foetus (1994); her most recent film, 2017’s Aurora Borealis, is about a lawyer uncovering shocking familial secrets regarding his mother’s life during the revolutionary 1950s. A continued interest in personal and political history also informed Little Vilma: The Last Diary (2000). A kind of prequel to the Diary films, made after declassified documents revealed further details about her father’s death, this fourth autobiographical entry focuses on the director’s childhood in Kyrgyzstan and was shot by her son by Miklós Jancsó, Nyika.

Much of her more recent output has been concerned with Hungary’s painful national history and has taken the form of biopics about heroic figures of political conscience. The Seventh Room (1995) is about the life of Edith Stein, a Jewish German convert to Catholicism who was murdered at Auschwitz. The Unburied Man (2004) is a lionising biopic of Imre Nagy (played by the stalwart Nowicki), the prime minister who was executed for his role in the 1956 uprising against Soviet control. Perhaps most compelling is The Last Report on Anna (2009), which explores the later life of Anna Kéthly, a former president of Hungary’s Social Democratic Party who was interned by the Communists and is sometimes referred to as “the Joan of Arc of Hungarian politics”; the film’s interest in the figure of the informant allows Mészáros to recapture some of her potency when it comes to questions of truth and resistance. If these late films lack the critical edge of the director’s earlier humanist dramas, they nonetheless demonstrate that she still refuses, as ever, to compromise her sense of integrity. For Mészáros, filmmaking is always complicit: it’s a matter of picking whose side you’re on.

Watch Márta Mészáros’s Diary for My Father and Mother as part of our partnership with FilmFestival Cottbus, and explore our collection of Hungarian films here.