Culture & Society Hungary

What’s the purpose of historical fiction? – The Informant (A Besúgó) review

Besúgó-HBO

Though it’s sometimes held back by rushed plot points, HBO’s first-ever exclusively Hungarian production makes creative decisions with its characters and has a lot of valuable things to say about the Kádár-regime and what it did to the Hungarian psyche.

When HBO announced that filming started on The Informant (A Besúgó, in Hungarian) in Spring 2021, there was a widespread buzz among the Hungarian public. A series about the democratic opposition in the late Kádár-era, produced by one of the most prestigious Television studios, was bound to excite Hungarians who were starving for quality historical fiction.

The first reviews matched the initial enthusiasm. Premiering two days before the Hungarian elections, reviewers highlighted just how relevant some of the series’ themes were in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. They also highlighted how well The Informant captures the atmosphere of the 1980s while remaining fresh and easy to consume for general audiences. Once the series reached its ending, however, the initial enthusiasm waned among critics.

Most criticisms highlighted the historical inaccuracies in the series. Others complained that the „soap opera elements” were holding it back. The most common complaint was that, unlike it appears in the series, informants were, in fact, not spies and they did not have to chase individuals they had to report on. Among those criticising The Informant for being „unhistorical,” was Róza Hodosán, former SZDSZ MP and iconic member of the Hungarian Democratic opposition in the 1980s. She also called out the exaggerated role of informants and said that the state would not have blackmailed people with life-saving medicine. She also stated that the meetings of the anti-communist movement were portrayed inaccurately because in reality, people “were not waffling about democracy” but engaged in serious intellectual work.

There is a layer we must take into account when engaging with Hodosán’s criticism. She openly said that her main concern was that her generation – and by extension her former party, SZDSZ – are being erased from the popular memory of the Hungarian change of regime. This is a valid concern, as in recent years Fidesz tended to exclude the other change-of-regime parties from public anti-communist memory narratives, which now centre around Fidesz and mostly the person of Viktor Orbán. The Informant focuses on the university experience of anti-communist resistance, which was and is widely perceived as the Fidesz experience of the late 1980s. Therefore, it is possible that the series is contributing to establishing Fidesz’s narrative about the change of regime, although it is clearly not its intention.

Interestingly, despite all the criticism, general audiences continued to love the series all the way through. Comment sections below negative reviews or interviews are always full of angry comments accusing the author or the interviewee of snobbery. Interestingly, series creator Bálint Szentgyörgyi himself openly said in an episode of the Hungarian-language film podcast, Filmklub Podcast that he doesn’t really mind the reviews as long as audiences like what he created.

But what should we make of The Informant? The series follows a group of young students in 1985 who are organising a resistance movement against the communist regime while living in a top faculty college, Kilián, in Budapest. The main characters are Zsolt Száva (Márton Patkós), the charismatic but impulsive leader of the group, his smart and much calmer girlfriend, Katka (Júlia Szász), who is starting to be fed up with constantly being dismissed by Zsolt, and Geri Demeter (Gergely Váradi), a talented but innocent young man from the Hungarian countryside who just received a scholarship to join the college. On his way to Budapest, Geri is approached by the Hungarian secret police; he must join the anti-communists at Kilián and report on them or else, his younger brother would stop receiving his crucial life-saving medicine from the state. What follows is an eight-episode spy thriller where Geri has to decide where his true loyalties lie.

The cast, largely composed of newcomers, has excellent chemistry. Patkós will likely go down as the main breakout star of the series. But the supporting cast is also abundant with talent. Mariann Hermányi as the enthusiastic socialist, Adél, Abigél Szőke as the rebellious singer, Judit, and Ádám Varga as the archetype of a 90s Hungarian entrepreneur, Máté all deliver particularly memorable performances. The characters (who are much less black-and-white than in your average anti-dictatorship heroes in fiction) are one of the series’ best assets as they and their decisions keep the viewers engaged even in the weaker episodes. The series does a good job of creating a 1980s atmosphere with its costume design. The soundtrack also helps, however one feels that the creators could have gone a bit wilder with the 1980s hits and could have used them more often.

The series is, of course, not perfect. Sometimes the dialogue feels a bit anachronistic or clunky. It is also true that some events in the show are not only historically inaccurate but are on the verge of ridiculousness. However, the greatest fault of the series is by far that while The Informant makes extremely creative decisions with its characters, it doesn’t always build up these decisions properly or leave enough time for the characters to contemplate them. This might be because the series writer and creator Bálint Szentgyörgyi is used to working on short films. It is also possible that the producers insisted on the eight-episode format. Whatever the case, if The Informant returns for a second season, this is the key area it must improve in.

To address the most common points of criticism; yes, informants were not spies and they were not required to chase people around in cars or steal important documents. It is also true that the anti-communist opposition did significantly more reading than they do in the series.

However, the thing about these criticisms is that, despite being right, they are completely irrelevant. Works of historical fiction are primarily fiction and not history. Their purpose is multifold. One: they need to say something true about the era they are set in. Two: like all works of art, they have to say something true about the era they are made in. Three: if done well, these can be done at the same time. The great thing about The Informant is that it manages to do all of these things.

The series could have exclusively consisted of university students reading or informants typing in a dark room. But, first of all, that way only depressed, cardigan-wearing intellectuals in the Buda hills would have watched The Informant and the series would not have reached the volume of general audiences it managed to in its current form. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, though that would have been a more accurate depiction of what factually happened in Kádár’s Hungary, in itself, it would not have been true to the collective mental experience of Hungarian society in the Kádár-era. Because the main reason why the Kádár-regime is interesting and relevant is not the exact way the secret service operated or how much time its opposition spent reading. It is relevant because of what it did to Hungarians and how they coped with the system.

And that is precisely what The Informant is about. Throughout the eight episodes, we see how certain characters compromise on their values more and more in order to further their material advancement. They might start collaborating with the system in order to protect their families, but as time passes, they do so purely out of self-interest. As they slowly compromise their values more often and more easily, though they don’t necessarily stop being a victim, they definitely become a collaborator of the regime.

And, in Szentgyörgyi’s interpretation, the most corrosive legacy of the Kádár-regime is that it taught Hungarians to maintain this attitude even after it collapsed. In the final episode, when a character’s family and they themselves are safe from the secret police, they use what they learnt in the regime one last time to advance their own interests. With its final scene, filmed in front of the Hungarian parliament, the series manages to sew its message about the present-day right into what it has to say about the Kádár-regime; the average Hungarian learnt how to operate in a soft autocratic regime and how to cheat the system to further their self-interests so well that they are unable to behave in any other way. The Kádárist reflexes remain and they are unable to adjust to a new, democratic reality.

Or as the theme song of the series, Európa Kiadó’s 1994 hit, Mocskos idők, puts it:

I don’t love you, I don’t love you
But if you disappear I’ll find you!
Baby, baby, you miserable beast,
I never wanted anything that’s unlike you.

The Informant (2022) is streaming on HBO Max in 61 countries.

By Ábel Bede

Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and has two degrees in History from Durham University. He specialised in Central Europan history and has been contributing to Kafkadesk since 2019. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here!