Cinema and Media Studies Hungarian Cinema
by
Anikó Imre
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0271

Introduction

Hungarian cinema’s performance on the world scene has been well out of proportion with the country’s small scale of production and tiny domestic distribution market. Similar to other small cinemas, particularly in Eastern Europe, Hungarian cinema established its reputation by fostering innovation and nurturing individual talent in the absence of exportable commercial filmmaking. Even though filmmaking in Hungary has developed from the start within international exchanges of technology, ideas, and funding, it became defined early on as a national art form. As such, it inherited from literature and the theater the mission of representing national culture; and has been supported and, at times, closely controlled by state institutions. Therefore, even though popular genre film production has been present throughout the history of Hungarian filmmaking, the phrase “Hungarian cinema” generally calls up a series of internationally recognized auteur films. Filmmaking in Hungary began in the late 1890s, in synchrony with cinematographic experiments elsewhere in Europe. Throughout its 20th- and 21st-century history, filmmaking was susceptible to shifts of ideology and control over governance, including World War I and the Treaty of Trianon in 1918, a brief communist takeover in 1919 followed by an increasingly fascist regime in the interwar years that tolerated only light genre films devoid of social criticism and dispersed the best of Hungarian filmmaking talent around the world, including Michael Curtiz, Alexander Korda, and Béla Balázs. Following the devastation of World War II, the industry was fully nationalized after the Communist Party’s takeover in 1949. The crushed anti-Soviet uprising in 1956 briefly ushered in a more repressive period; but beginning in the 1960s during the “thaw” of the “goulash communism” under Communist Party First Secretary János Kádár, censorship eased up and the film industry was somewhat decentralized. During the heyday of Hungarian cinema in the 1960s–1970s, directors were able to assert more control over their films. This atmosphere enabled the production of distinctive dramas that incorporated elements of contemporaneous European new waves and took a philosophical or allegorical view of history, which resonated on the international award circuit. Documentaries, animated films, and experimental films also thrived during this period. As elsewhere in the former Soviet empire, the political relevance of oppositional Hungarian art films promptly disappeared after 1989 along with government funding for the industry. However, after an initial drop in production, the industry became reorganized around coproductions and newly established private studios, making films that were more commercially viable on the market.

Reference Works

Reference books specific to Hungarian cinema only exist in Hungarian. The two most useful and up-to-date ones are Varga 1999, which contains entries on feature films produced during the period 1931–1999, and an annotated list of Hungarian directors in the form of Gelencsér 2000.

  • Gelencsér, Gábor, ed., Magyar Rendezők Könyve. Budapest: Magyar Filmunió-Magyar Filmintézet, 2000.

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    A reference book entitled Book of Hungarian Directors, published in Hungarian and organized by entries on the most prominent Hungarian directors.

  • Varga, Balázs, ed. Magyar Filmográfia. Játékfilmek 1931–1998. Budapest: Magyar Filmintézet, 1999.

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    Varga’s edited book, whose title means “Hungarian Filmography. Feature Films 1931–1998” is a bilingual (Hungarian and English) list of entries about feature films produced in Hungary between 1931 and 1998, including the names of directors, cast, production and exhibition data and description of contents. The appendix also contains data about awards.

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