Istvan Szabo: ‘What to say and how to say it’

Charismatic people have always caught his attention. He observes them, «interprets» them, tells their stories and, most of all, understands them. First place in Hungarian director Istvan Szabo’s filmography goes to the Oscar-winning «Mephisto» (1981). His hero, an exceptionally talented actor, sells his soul to the devil (i.e. Nazism) so that he can survive in the theater. The film is a perceptive look at the paranoia of power and blind ambition, an adaptation of Goethe’s «Faust,» which revealed Szabo’s greatness as a director. The director, now 64 years old and with a rich body of work behind him, has recently added another piece to the canvas of his favorite subject matter: geniuses in difficult political and social situations. «Charismatic individuals constantly flirt with the possibility of loss. They have something in their heart, or their soul or mind which they must preserve, and this is not at all guaranteed by the world in which they live,» says Istvan Szabo. His latest film, «Talking Sides,» was screened noncompetitively at the 52nd Berlin Film Festival on the day of the festival’s opening. The subject of the film is one of the 20th century’s greatest musical geniuses, the German composer and conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler. The film, starring Harvey Keitel and Stellan Skarsgard (Furtwangler), is based on a play by the British playwright Robert Harwood which received widespread publicity when it was staged in London five years ago. The story unfolds in Berlin directly after the end of World War II. The process of denazification by the American military administration is under way. The renowned conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler is to be tried on suspicion of close collaboration with the Nazis. According to others, however, not only was Furtwangler definitely not pro-Nazi, but he worked against Hitler’s regime in every way. He used his influence to save Jewish musicians – many members of his orchestra were Jewish – thus saving them from certain death in the concentration camps. The film centers on Furtwangler’s interrogation by a distinguished but biased American soldier (Harvey Keitel). Kathimerini met with Szabo in Athens recently, during his brief visit here for a small tribute to his work organized by the Hungarian Embassy. Do you believe that we can talk in terms of «personal responsibility» in a situation of great political pressure? Yes, we must talk in these terms if we want to preserve a sense of morality. When we talk about personal responsibility, we are essentially talking about morality. I can understand that the world changed after September 11, but this always happens after very important events. I was born around the middle of the last century, I have memories of World War II, I lived through the collapse of successive regimes, I’ve accumulated many experiences. Even great civilizations collapse at some point. Didn’t the same thing happen to the ancient Greek civilization? Many things change, and we can’t stop this. Now, of course, we are talking about a global crisis. For me, the most important thing is that we, the peoples of Europe, maintain our identity. The heroes in your films adapt to the changes in their worlds. We all adapt or compromise. There are, however, good and bad ways in which to adapt. From 1938, when I was born, I have lived through monarchy, a fascist regime, the Second World War, two years of democracy, Stalin’s dictatorship – a very difficult period – the revolution of ’56, the communist dictatorship, the giant changes of 1989… I have survived nine different political regimes. Each new regime argued that the previous one was full of criminals and that true democracy had dawned. My apartment in Budapest is on the same street as when I first moved in, except that the name of the street has been changed six times. It was difficult to survive, then as much as now. It’s always difficult. Does the degree of difficulty not change? For the politicians perhaps. Not for the ordinary people. People wearing uniforms always swoop into the cities and kill innocent people. There is not one family in my country which hasn’t suffered in the past 50 years. During the same period, however, Hungarian cinema achieved worldwide recognition, with directors such as Gabor, Kovacs and Karoly Makk, the climax being your Oscar. Recently, however, it’s been completely absent. Hungarian cinema isn’t, I hope, dead. There are many good young directors. What’s collapsed is the «system.» The history of Hungarian cinema has had many peak moments. First of all, under the communist regime, directors were obliged to make films that eulogized the regime and to talk about how important its leaders were. The governments didn’t like the way in which Hungarian directors discussed social problems, and so the directors developed a «flower language» (a poetic, symbolic language) which was, however, understood by the audience, by everyone. They began to tell stories in a secret language. Now, we call a spade a spade. This language is no longer needed, and the directors who used it have to learn another one. A second point is the prevalence of American cinema. The American industry has become stronger and stronger in the past 10 years. There is a new generation which knows nothing of European cinema. Of course, we must ask ourselves why. I have an answer, without being sure if it’s right: European directors make films about experiences, our lives. «We’re bored,» respond the young. «They’re your problems, we want to see the bright side of life.» And this is what American cinema offers them. We must find positive stories in Europe as well. If we open up the European newspapers, it doesn’t matter from which country, we see the same thing: tales of corruption. This is also a question for the future: What to say and how to say it. Filmography Szabo is considered one of the leading directors of the new Hungarian cinema of the 1960s. Of his films, the following stand out: «Age of Illusions» (1965), «Father» (1966), «Love Film» (1970), «Budapest Tales»(1977), «Confidence» (1979, Silver Bear, Berlin Film Festival), «Mephisto» (1981), «Colonel Redl» (1985), «Hanussen» (1988), «Meeting Venus» (1991), «Sweet Emma, Dear Babe» (1991, Silver Bear, Berlin Film Festival), and «Sunshine» (1999).

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