South Korean film Parasite made history by becoming the first non-English language film to be named best picture at the Oscars. Bong Joon-ho’s thriller also won best international feature film, beating Poland’s Corpus Christi, as well as best director, and best original screenplay.
This week, Kafkadesk looks back at all the previous Central European nominations for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film, previously known as Best Foreign Language Film. We started with Poland’s Oscar nominations throughout the years, and today, we take look at Hungary.
Hungarian films have been nominated a total of ten times, including six times between 1978 and 1988, four of which were films by István Szabó, three of which starred Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer. Hungary won the coveted Award twice: in 1982, with István Szabó’s Mephisto, and in 2015, with László Nemes’ Son of Saul.
Despite making the December shortlist, Barnabás Tóth’s Those Who Remained was not nominated for this year’s Academy Awards.
1982: Mephisto, directed by István Szabó
Based on the novel of the same title by Klaus Mann, Mephisto is a Hungarian adaptation of the Faustian legend. It tells the story of a German stage actor, played by Klaus Maria Brandauer, who finds unexpected success in the popularity of his performance in a Faustian play as the Nazis take power in pre-WWII Germany.
The film received generally positive reviews and became the first Hungarian movie to win an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It also won Best Screenplay at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival and became the highest-grossing Hungarian film in the United States and Canada. According to movie critic Roger Ebert, who includes it on his Great Movies list, “as a physical production, the film is breathtaking”.
Interestingly enough, never once is the name “Hitler” mentioned or Hitler’s image shown throughout the film. István Szabó also guest stars wearing a tuxedo near the end of the film, complaining about the unnecessary expenses of the luxurious party.
2016: Son of Saul (Saul fia), directed by László Nemes
The claustrophobic “crown jewel” of the Hungarian Film Fund, Son of Saul tells the story of Saul, a member of the Sonderkommando in a concentration camp played by Géza Röhrig, who finds the body of a child and becomes obsessed with burying him.
The film holds an average Metascore score of 91/100 and a 96% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The website’s critical consensus reads, “Grimly intense yet thoroughly rewarding, Son of Saul offers an unforgettable viewing experience — and establishes director László Nemes as a talent to watch”.
The first Hungarian film to be nominated for an Academy Award since 1988, Son of Saul also won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, becoming the first Hungarian film to win the award. A difficult watch, but a compulsory one for sure for anyone interested in modern European cinema, we’ve included it on our list of greatest Hungarian films since the foundation of the Hungarian National Film Fund.
1969: The Boys of Paul Street (A Pál-utcai fiúk), directed by Zoltán Fábri
Based on the 1906 novel of the same title by Ferenc Molnár, The Paul Street Boys tells the story of two rival gangs of young boys who both lay claim to a vacant lot in turn-of-the-century Budapest. It is often acclaimed as the best and most faithful adaptation of Molnár’s source novel and as a classic film in Hungary.
A joint Hungarian and American production, the movie stars English-speaking child actors who are accompanied by Hungarian adult ones, including Fábri’s favorite actress Mari Törőcsik.
Like Molnár’s book, the film is stongly anti-nationalist and anti-militarist. The Paul street boys sculpture in Budapest depicts a bullying scene from the novel.
1975: Cats’ Play (Macskajáték), directed by Károly Makk
Based on the novel by István Örkény, Cats’ Play tells the story of two elderly sisters who exchange letters and talk about their younger years. In addition to being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, it was entered into the 1974 Cannes Film Festival.
Hungarian actress Mária Mezei was set to star in the movie but dropped out one day before filming and was replaced at the last minute by Elma Bulla, who originated the role of Giza on stage.
1979: Hungarians (Magyarok), directed by Zoltán Fábri
Hungarians follows a group of landless peasants who accept work as migrant-laborers on a farm in northern Germany where the wages are good, and the wives and family are allowed to accompany them. At the conclusion of the year’s harvest, they choose to return to Hungary and are quickly swept up in the tides of war.
Starring Gábor Koncz, Éva Pap, Sándor Szabó and Zoltán Gera, it is Zoltán Fábri’s second film to be nominated for an Academy Award afte The Boys of Paul Street in 1969. It lost to France’s Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (Préparez vos mouchoirs). Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter won Best Picture.
1981: Confidence (Bizalom), directed by István Szabó
Confidence was István Szabó’s first of four Oscar nominations. Set in World War II, it tells the story of a make-believe couple hiding from the Nazis as they slowly begin to fall in love. Starring Ildikó Bánsági and Péter Andorai, the film was made while Hungary was under the control of communist and could be seen as a subtle commentary on the current times in Hungary in the 1980s.
István Szabó won Silver Bear for Best Director at the 30th Berlin International Film Festival, and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film the following year with his next film, Mephisto.
1984: The Revolt of Job (Jób lázadása), directed by Imre Gyöngyössy and Barna Kabay
Starring Ferenc Zenthe and Hédi Temessy, The Revolt of Job follows an elderly Jewish couple, Job and Roza, who adopt a non-Jewish child Nazi oppression threatens to engulf Hungary.
Dealing with the sensitive subjects of anti-Semitism and fascism, Imre Gyöngyössy and Barna Kabay said they had never worked in the state-approved genre of socialist realism and that their themes often stepped into controversial areas, drawing official criticism that they do not reflect ”Hungarian reality”.
For the participants in the film, some of whom had lived in the village before the war, the recreation of their earlier lives became an intense experience. After more than a month of filming, the directors said, the accumulated tension and exhaustion, the actors’ dedication and even the weather combined to blur the distinction between reality and reenactment as the villagers sat waiting in their wagons, reported the New York Times at the time.
1986: Colonel Redl (Redl ezredes), directed by István Szabó
Set during the fading glory of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Colonel Redl tells of the rise and fall of Alfred Redl, again played by Klaus Maria Brandauer, an ambitious young officer who proceeds up the ladder to become head of the Secret Police only to become ensnared in political deception. The film ends with a brief depiction of the notorious assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the resulting chain of events leading to World War I.
The film won the Jury Prize at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival as well as the BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Language Film, but lost the Academy Award to Argentina’s The Official Story (La historia oficial).
The screenplay is loosely inspired the play A Patriot for Me, by British playwright John Osborne, who charts the rise of inter-ethnic tensions in Austro-Hungary as they lead up to the assassination of the Archduke and to World War I.
1989: Hanussen, directed by István Szabó
István Szabó’s fourth nomination in nine years, Hanussen tells the story of Klaus Schneider, who later comes to be known as Erik Jan Hanussen, an Austrian hyponotist and clairvoyant performer, whose purported powers brought him to the attention of the Nazis, predicting their rise and their horrors.
Also starring Klaus Maria Brandauer, the film was entered into the 1988 Cannes Film Festival before being nominated for an Academy Award in 1989. According to Senses of Cinema, “Hanussen is a beautifully shot and brilliantly executed portrait of mounting doom as Germany succumbs to the eerie prophecies of Austro-Hungary’s most famous clairvoyant”. They add that “Klaus Maria Brandauer, in an outstanding performance equal to his Mephisto, is a much more controlled and multi-layered Schroeder who, as Szabó’s idealised vision of the Individual, appears swamped by the tides of history, powerful forces that are within his sight but outside of his grasp”.
An earlier version of Hanussen was released in 1955 starring Klaus Kinski.
2018: On Body and Soul (Testről és lélekről), directed by Ildikó Enyedi
On Body and Soul tells the story of two slaughterhouse workers who fall in love and, in their dreams, see themselves as two deer who meet in a snowy forest, far away from their grim workplace.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 89%, with an average rating of 7.34/10. The website’s critical consensus reads, “Tender performances and a strong sense of style combine to create an eccentric, dreamy portrait of love and loneliness in On Body and Soul.” On Metacritic, the film has a score of 77 out of 100.
Undoubtedly one of the best Hungarian films of the decade, On Body and Soul our list of greatest Hungarian films since the foundation of the Hungarian National Film Fund. It won the Golden Bear at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival and Alexandra Borbély won the European Actress award at the European Film Awards for her performance in the film.
While you’re at it, don’t forget to also check out our Top 10 movies shot in Hungary.