The 1970s was a decade of some of the most notable and critically acclaimed Hungarian films, including Szindbád (1971) by Zoltán Huszárik, Red Psalm (1972) by Miklós Jancsó, The Fifth Seal (1976) by Zoltán Fábri and even Béla Tarr’s directorial debut, Family Nest (1979). Károly Makk’s Love (1971) is possibly the one that best encapsulates the transition from the socially aware new wave of the 1960s to the more unconventional, avant-garde films of the 1970s, managing to create a perfect synthesis of both styles.
The film’s construction of time and place is remarkable. First, it establishes a lyrical, poetic mood through montages, where still shots appear on screen, sometimes for only a few frames, to evoke the characters’ memories and subconscious emotional associations. This helps deepen and expand the otherwise straightforward plot uniquely, utilizing the power of images rather than words.
Secondly, the historical moment that the story takes place in is depicted in a brilliantly unconventional manner, never explicitly stating the decade or year, whilst including numerous subtle clues and references scattered in the background, signalling subtle political messages to an audience familiar with recent Hungarian history.
The film is based on two Tibor Déry short stories, Szerelem (Love, 1956) and Két Asszony (Two Women, 1962). Déry is an acclaimed Hungarian author praised by literary historian György Lukács as “the greatest depicter of human beings of our time”. However, the film’s status as a masterpiece owes as much to its execution as its source material.
The plot seems simplistic on the surface as we spend much of the runtime in one room with a bedridden old lady (Lili Darvas) and her daughter-in-law, Luca (Mari Törőcsik). The two women bond over the absence of Janos (Ivan Darvas), the old lady’s son and Luca’s husband. Ostensibly both Luca and the old lady are depicted as cynical, petty people, constantly bickering over the smallest things. Yet, the stylistic and formalistic choices of the film express their deeper emotional concerns.
While the old lady languishes in bed obsessively awaiting her son’s return, she reads letters, apparently by Janos, claiming he is working as a film director in New York and cannot come home until his latest project is completed. However, Luca is writing the faux letters, impersonating Janos, who has been imprisoned for ten years for political reasons. Luca has been keeping up this lie for some time, detailing Janos’s extraordinary successes and adventures overseas to try and save the old lady from the harsh possibility of her son never coming back.
The story is filtered through a prism of the main characters’ feelings and memories. As the two women talk, their lengthy dialogue is disturbed by fragmented snippets of the old lady’s thoughts, presented as still images spliced into the film in a jarring, arrhythmic manner. This, however, does not suggest the old lady is losing her sense of reality or is unable to tell the past from the present; rather, these images represent what associations her current conversation with Luca evokes in her memories. These include seemingly random and minor episodes, like her past loves or the proper method of tying a ribbon around the large hats that were in fashion during her youth.
Mr Makk’s career prospects are bright. This summer, he will be in Italy directing a West. German production, but he is confident of backing for his next feature here as well. “Obviously,” he said smilingly, “after a success, it’s easy to get support for the next project. The hard part now is to keep up with what they expect from you.”
Another significant memory Luca continuously asks the old lady to recall is a holiday in the countryside. Her two sons, Janos and his little brother, specifically asked to face the wall and not peek while their mother was undressing.
These snippets of fragmented memory not only function as a character study of young Janos, who, in contrast to his little brother, obeyed the parental wish and kept looking at the wall, but they also work on another narrative level. Instead of getting a usual flashback sequence that portrays a past event objectively, here, the fractured images tell us of unspoken pain and trauma. When mentioning her younger son, the countryside memories are suddenly disturbed by an image of a bomb exploding. The plot never offers any explanations; however, it does raise a question: did the younger son die in the war? Is that why the old lady’s memories of him are unwillingly interrupted by this violent image?
Interpreting these segments of memory is left entirely up to the audience. The film does not provide any definitive information that will allow us to piece together these disparate references, meaning that each viewer can construct their own narrative from what they have seen. Whilst the old lady goes through the fake letters that Luca has written, she imagines Janos’ life as a film director in New York, and we get a similar dizzying array of images. Until this point, the brief flashing shots referred to events that had definitely, objectively happened in the past, even though they were presented in a surrealistic manner.
However, the kaleidoscope or associations that the letter gives us are pure fantasy, concocted by Luca and elaborated upon within the old lady’s mind. Here, Makk emphasises this distinction stylistically. The montage sequence of Janos’ New York life constructed from archaic, mostly still images, mostly of people from the turn of the century in old-fashioned clothes, obsolete interior decorations and vehicles long out of production. This confirms the mythical status of the situation as the old lady clearly does not have a clear idea of contemporary New York lifestyle and fashion, relying on memories of a place she has only seen in pictures drawn from her younger years.
At several points, these distorted images of the fabricated reality of New York life are interrupted by much more realistic shots of a prison. It is unclear whose mind’s eye is conjuring them, and so the question arises: is this Luca envisioning her husband’s true fate whilst she feeds his mother a fantasy? Or do these images belong to the old lady, who is actually aware of the sham and keeps pretending to believe the letter? The ambiguity of the situation remains unsolved, and we are never quite sure who is protecting whom.
Whilst the old lady’s imagination is filled with highly adorned, secession-style pictures dating from the Belle Époque, a golden age within Hungarian history, Luca’s memories are portrayed with a far more stark and bare naturalism. When we see images that are unambiguous of her thoughts, in scenes where there are no other main characters around, they solely portray the terror of contemporary life in the early 1950s. For instance, on her way home, the tram conductor’s bell ringing evokes in Luca’s mind the image of her husband being taken away in the middle of the night by the secret police. There is an obvious generational and historical gap between these two women, which manifests in their inner lives as much as their outer behaviour.
In the first half of the film, we are given a vast number of close-ups, mostly fragmented images of objects in the old lady’s small and cluttered bedroom which force us to slowly piece together the outline of the location without any establishing shots. Here, we are introduced to the knick-knacks, trinkets and ornaments the old lady has collected throughout the decades. These close-ups, including a half-eaten apple, end up feeling like still life paintings that exist outside the flow of time.
The film paints this location through the atmosphere of a bygone era, carrying traces of the past, before the war and Soviet takeover. This also parallels the portrayal of Luca’s flat, a bland, utilitarian environment, very much of the present. We barely spend time there, and the flat becomes an impersonal, neutral and bleak place that does not hold any happy memories for its tenants.
In the final third of the film, the focus shifts to Janos, released from prison quickly and without any explanation. The use of flashing images remains; however, their meaning changes. They do not represent slowly emerging subjective flashbacks, nor fragmented, rambling associations. Instead, they connect the past and the present, portraying the various locations in Budapest and seemingly insignificant objects evoke in his memories as he returns to society. This technique perfectly encapsulates the freed man’s shock of returning to civilization just hours before living under the weight of a possible trip to the gallows.
This marks a distinct tonal and geographical shift. No longer is the film a chamber piece, mostly confined to a handful of rooms punctuated by brief flurries of memory; from this point on, the plot is freely driven by a continuous stream of images and associations as Janos makes his way through the city.
Just as our characters inner thoughts require audience effort, we are also forced to deduce the era of the story in much the same way. While being made in 1971, the decade or year of the narrative is never explicitly said out loud. On the one hand, this technique helps the film become a universal work that portrays human interdependence in the broadest sense and places the themes outside of time, space and culture. However, there are numerous fleeting moments and subtle references in the background that, once pieced together, restrict the story to an easily definable historical and political era.
Many small, seemingly insignificant moments work as clues once one is familiar with 20th-century Hungarian history. Upon piecing them together, it is clear that the film is set in the early 1950s. For instance, as she is trying to make ends meet, Luca mentions she had been fired from her job as a teacher. While it is never stated, it is clear she was seen as untrustworthy and stigmatised due to her husband being a political prisoner – a situation that many people fell victim to in the early 1950s. She is also asked by the authorities to share her tiny flat with co-tenants. Mandatory co-tenancy was a newly set law in Hungary between 1945-1956 to solve the post-war housing crisis. It required people to share their homes with strangers if the floor space was considered too big for the original number of people already living there.
Setting the story during this time was partly due to the political restrictions placed on the arts. Censorship in Hungary wouldn’t allow certain topics to be portrayed on screen, and a few years previously, it would have been impossible to tell a story about a political prisoner. However, things had become more lenient by the 1970s, and the film’s focus on personal relationships and memories allowed it to avoid government’s scrutiny.
Nevertheless, certain concessions did have to be made. In one of the short stories the film is based on, Janos was a political prisoner who participated in the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. However, in 1971, less than 20 years after the actual events, any mention of the uprising was taboo. Therefore Janos’s backstory had to be changed, his character becoming a victim of the State Protection Authority, an external appendage of the Soviet Union’s secret police that operated in the early 1950s. This fits the pre-1956 dark era narrative endorsed by the 1970s government, where the portrayal of the events of that time in a negative light was not just acceptable but even welcome.
Even though the film takes place in the early 50s, Janos’s imprisonment has a heavy subtext. The actor portraying him, Ivan Darvas, had been sentenced to 22 months in prison for organising a revolutionary committee after the crushing of the 1956 uprising. This being public knowledge at the time of the film’s release, the choice of actor feels like a conscious directorial decision to subtly imply the terror we see in the movie was not exclusively confined to the specific era the government had allowed to be portrayed.
Love remains one of the most important and acclaimed films in Hungarian cinema history; not only did it win the Jury Prize at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, but it also proved to be a huge influence on the poetic and aesthetic film styles of 1970s Hungarian cinema, with its unique way of telling a story through the characters’ subjective trains of thought. The film perfectly balances its depiction of three specific people’s problems while also telling a universal story. It does so by focusing on feelings, love, affection and the lack thereof.
Meanwhile, politics are confined to the background. Yet, by looking beyond the surface, we can see how the film takes a stand, condemning both the contemporary Hungarian governments and those of the eras it takes place in. The film’s issues and feelings are something every person can identify with, regardless of cultures, nationalities, political views or outlook on life. The film starts as a dialogue chamber piece that eventually shifts to a finale where body language, gestures, and looks entirely take over the spoken words. This underlies Luca and Janos’s feelings for one another, transcending what can be articulated through mere speech. Here, Love is a testament to the power of cinema to convey our most profound and intimate emotions.