The second half of the twentieth century was the golden age of Hungarian film making. In the midst of communist oppression the Hungarian Film Industry, though constantly having to navigate alongside political censorship, regularly produced a number of high-quality motion pictures. These films were mostly inspired by the horrors of war (for instance Géza Radványi’s It Happened in Europe) or were about life under authoritarian oppression. Zoltán Fábri’s brilliant The Fifth Seal (1976) deals with the responsibility of citizens in oppressive regimes, Péter Bacsó’s iconic The Witness (1969) provides an excellent look on the hypocrisy and the show trials of the communist regime, and Miklós Jancsó’s cultic art films such as the Round Up (1965) also deal with the interaction of the authorities and the public. The series of these high-quality films culminated in István Szabó’s 1981 Mephisto which won the award for the ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ at the Oscars.
The Hungarian Film Industry in crisis
This trend did not continue after the regime change. Perhaps because of the lack of inspiration as a result of the fall of communism and a general euphoric, positive outlook on the future of Hungarian society, the quality of films started to decline. With a few exceptions every five years, such as Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994), Ferenc Török’s Moscow Square (2001), Antal Nimród’s Kontroll (2003), and Attila Gigor’s The Investigator, the quality of Hungarian films was dire. Between 1968 and 1988 nine Hungarian films were nominated for an Oscar, Mephisto and short film The Fly even bagging a win. Between 1988 and 2011 this number was zero. It was not just the quality of films; more often than not, the aforementioned films were one of the only greater-scale Hungarian films premiering in cinemas in their respective years.
But it would be wrong to blame this solely on the lack of inspiration. The industry, at the time, to some degree because of the teething problems of the new state system (Hungary’s economy being transformed from being completely controlled by the state to being over privatised in the 90s in the span of just a few years), had significant structural problems. The state aided some films financially through the Hungarian Motion Picture Foundation, however the workings of the Foundation were somewhat overcomplicated. The Foundation was divided into 5 different segments funding different types of films, and applications for funds were only available once a year and decided on by four different boards of trustees. According to a report commissioned by the Foundation itself, there were serious insufficiencies present within the institution’s operation. It also accumulated a debt of around 7.9 billion forints.
This crisis in the industry was widely recognized. When Viktor Orbán’s government, that likes to put strong national identity and cultural politics on top of their agenda, after coming to power in 2010, initiated significant reforms. The National Film Fund took over the roles and finances of the Motion Picture Foundation, but because of its different structure and more funding, it could work much more efficiently. For instance, according to the new legislation, 80% of the gambling tax imposed on one of the most popular Hungarian lotteries goes directly to the Film Fund. The fund also received 31 billion forints worth of state funding. A five-person committee makes the decisions and applications can be submitted more frequently and decisions are made within 60 days. The Fund can give out grants or other forms of support to any motion pictures that are at least 70 minutes long.
The new Golden Age of Hungarian cinema
The key figure in the story is Andrew Vajna, Viktor Orbán’s old friend who was appointed to be the ‘Minister Responsible for the Renewal of the Hungarian Film’ in 2011. His appointment does not differ from Orbán’s appointment strategy at first glance. Vajna was Orbán’s friend and can generally be considered to be very loyal to him. However, there is a huge difference to other appointments and tender-wins of family friends and family members of Orbán; Vajna is one of the world’s best at his job. Born in Hungary but fled to the US in 1956, he produced a number of successful Hollywood films such as The Terminator franchise, Die Hard, and two Rambo films and gained the respect and connections of many prominent figures in the film industry.
Under his leadership of the National Film Fund, the industry experienced a significant boom. Hungarian Film is currently living another golden age for the first time since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Between 2013 and 2018 four Hungarian films were nominated for an Oscar, two of which even managed to win; László Nemes’ claustrophobic Son of Saul (2015) in the Best Foreign Language Film category and Kristóf Deák’s Sing in the best short film category. These films were successful at European award ceremonies as well: On Body and Soul (2017) alongside its Oscar-nomination, won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Gábor Reisz’s Bad Poems (2018), a comedy about life in contemporary Budapest won various awards in Toronto, and László Nemes’ second film Sunset (2018) won the FIPRESCI Prize (awarded by the jury) in Venice. The uniquely animated Ruben Brandt, Collector (2018) also received huge international critical acclaim. Additionally, the Fund’s ‘Incubator’ programme offers grants to early-career director’s first films, a number of which already gained critical and commercial acclaim, such as the aforementioned Gábor Reisz’s first film For Some Inexplicable Reason (2014), or György Kárpáti’s Guerilla (2019). Alongside these cultural successes, the film fund managed to pay back a huge portion of the accumulated debt of the Motion Picture Foundation as well.
Thus, contrary to popular expectations in the pro-opposition media, Vajna did not turn the film industry into a propaganda machine. Perhaps exactly because of his close friendship with Viktor Orbán, he was able to protect the Film Fund from political influence, meaning that he and other members of the Committee (Bálint Hegedűs screenwriter, András Bálint Kovács film critic, András Kálmán, and Ágnes Havas) were able to make decisions without political interference.
Andy Vajna’s legacy
The pro-Orbán media generally frowned upon this practice. This mostly manifested itself in attacks on Andy Vajna. Late last year, they started a smear campaign against Ágnes Havas, attacked the Film Fund for not producing enough historical films, and those that were produced were labelled “anti-Hungarian.” Vajna and the Film Fund managed to come out of the attack without a scratch, and rumours that the articles were the sign of him being replaced for a more loyal figure turned out to be false.
However, the Fund now faces its first real test. Early this year, Vajna unexpectedly passed away. His strong personal connection with Viktor Orbán was one of the speculated reasons why the Film Fund remained free of political bias. With his death and the imminent appointment of a new minister responsible for films, there are fears that this rare independent beacon within the state might soon be a thing of the past.
Fortunately, this is far from certain. Insiders in the industry are not scared of such a change; some argue that the government is well aware of the commercial and cultural success of the Film Fund from which the whole country benefits massively. Besides, the government recently put aside another group of funds for the creation of historical films under another foundation that is led by figures very much obedient to the government, such as Ottó Gajdics, editor of one of the most vehemently pro-government newspapers. Therefore, there will be plenty of space for the creation of patriotic propaganda films to satisfy Orbán and his supporters. The national Film Fund will not have to be closed off just to start making them. Moreover, the remaining four members of the Film Fund’s committee are not clearly pro-government figures, hence they might even be more difficult to influence than Vajna was.
Despite its positive results, the Fund is legitimately criticized for a number of issues. The fact that an institution has such a monopoly in the culture industry and has the right to approve the final cut of all films it supports can backfire significantly, especially if at some point the fund does find itself under strict political control. However, that seems unlikely for now. The father of the Film Fund, Andy Vajna might be dead, but his legacy, despite he himself being criticized from both sides during his lifetime, might just be the only thing that both pro- and anti-government Hungarians can be proud of.
By Ábel Bede
Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and is currently studying History at Durham University. He wrote his dissertation on early 20th century Hungarian politics and culture and published several pieces in prominent Hungarian newspapers. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here!