by RON HOLLOWAY
Nearly everyone in my crowd flashed the same puzzled look as we left the press screening at the Palais on the Croisette during the 1971 Cannes film festival.
“How did this film get made?” I asked.
The film was Szerelem (Love), the Hungarian entry by Karoly Makk.
Love may have been its title. But this was hardly what you would call a romance. Rather, it said more about that elusive form of oppression practiced in communist Europe, particularly under the harsh Rakosi regime, than all the newsreels on the period put together.
It was also the kind of love story that pulls at your heart. Here, love in one of its purest form is expressed, for it is based on an outright lie.
As I recall, the Brits in the press corps came up with a few answers that sounded more like questions.
“Istvan Dosai, the head of Hungarofilm, certainly had his reasons,” said the late John Gillett. Meaning: “Let’s wait for the press conference.”
Others spoke about the film’s “lingering, haunting atmosphere,” the depth in the writings of Tibor Dery, the brilliant camera of Janos Toth, Karoly Makk’s sure hand with actors, and, of course, the performances of Mari Torocsik and Lili Darvas – the chatter that film buffs and cineastes throw into a conversation to stoke coals into fire.
For me, as a neophyte making his fourth visit to Cannes, this festival brouhaha was music to my ears.
So, to keep the ball rolling, I asked the question again: “But how did this film ever get made?”
That’s when Gene Moskowitz, the Variety critic, stepped into the fray.
“Naw, you guys got it all wrong,” he said. “Love is here in the competition because of Lili Darvas. She was invited back to Budapest from New York to star in the film. That she agreed to return to Hungary after an absence of thirty years is a credit to Karoly Makk, and no one else.”
Since Gene Moskowitz was recognized on the festival circuit as the authority on Hungarian cinema, an Hungarian-American from Manhattan who had used his GI Bill to study cinema at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques in Paris, no one questioned him. Besides, he was a voracious reader with the memory to go with it. If anyone know anything about Dery and Makk, it was Moskowitz.
For instance, he was familiar with the two short stories by Tibor Dery upon which the Love was based. Also, that Dery had been imprisoned during the Stalin dictatorship and later spent another three years in prison after the Hungarian Uprising had been crushed by Soviet tanks.
Furthermore, Gene had the entire Variety archive at his elbow. He knew all about the career in New York and Vienna of Lili Darvas (1906-1974), enough to give credence to why those subtle twists in Love breathed even more life into the film. Also, that Darvas was the third wife of Ferenc Molnar (1878-1952), who accompanied the exiled Jewish playwright to New York in 1940.
When the awards night rolled around in Cannes, Gene Moskowitz was not at all surprised to see Love receive the Prix de Jury. Only, the oddly phrased award citation bothered him a bit, since it grouped the trio under a single defining rubric: the Prix de Jury went to director Karoly Makk, together with actresses Lili Darvas and Mari Torocsik.
“They all deserved more,” he said.
That evening, over dinner, I listened to Gene telling stories about Broadway. He mentioned that one of Molnar’s plays, The Play’s the Thing (1924), had been inspired as much by Lili Darvas as by Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
And he laughed when I asked if plays by Ferenc Molnar (pseudonym for Ferenc Neumann) were ever performed in Budapest.
“Neither Ferenc Molnar nor Lili Darvas fit the communist mold,” he said. “That’s what makes Love so interesting. There are so many references that go well beyond the narrative line!”
Sure enough. When I went back to see Love again, the core of the story was buried just below the surface of dialogue. The period is 1953, shortly after Stalin’s death. An old woman (Lili Darvas) in a cramped lives on memories, mostly about the old days in Vienna. She listens with sparkling eyes to the letters read by Luca (Mari Torocsik) from her son Janos (Ivan Dardas) in America, supposedly a film director in Hollywood, but actually in prison on a trumped-up charge. The lies keep the old woman alive a while longer, but they also warm the soul of Luca, the suffering wife who has lost her job and can barely make ends meet.
The moment when Janos returns, just after the old woman has died, is one of the great moments in European cinema.
I don’t remember much about the Karoly Makk press conference at Cannes. Save that in response to a query about the “constrained atmosphere” in Love, he stated in a round-about way that “1956, the year of the Hungarian Uprising, will always appear some way, somehow, in my films and those of my generation.”
That, in a nutshell, was the answer to my original question. I now had at least an inkling as to how Love, one of the classics of European cinema, celebrated its world premiere on the Croisette.
Over the years, I followed Karoly Makk’s career at Cannes and other festivals. Although I have never seen his Liliomfi (1954), the other Cannes entries attested to a master craftsman whose vision and style set him far above the average. Particularly noteworthy are those films in which the acting roles stand out under his sure directorial hand.
Szerelem (Love) (1971), after its Cannes success, was a warmly received in the United States and has appeared on several lists as one of the best postwar European films ever made.
Macskajatek (Catsplay) (1974) was well received at Cannes and was subsequently nominated for an Academy Award.
Egy erkolcsos ejszaka (A Very Moral Night) (1977) bagged a bundle of Hungarian awards.
Egymasra nezve (Another Way) (1982) saw Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieslak honored with the Best actress Award at Cannes.
Az utolso kezirat (The Last Manuscript) (1987), based on a novel by Tibor Dery (1894-1977), pays homage to the writer whose short stories had inspired Love. Tibor Dery supported the Hungarian Uprising, was imprisoned (1957-60), and until his death was recognized as an uncompromising voice for free artistic expression.
When Karoly Makk’s Egy het Pesten es Budan (A Long Weekend in Pest and Buda) was screened at the 2003 Hungarian Film Week, critics and friends lined up again to congratulate the director on his poignant sequel to Love.
But Karoly Makk would hear nothing of it.
A pure coincidence, he said.
A Long Weekend in Pest and Buda is the story of an old man who returns from abroad to Budapest and meets the woman he had left behind during the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Once again, Mari Torocsik, the doyenne of Hungarian actresses, is seen in a reckoning with that uprising of yesteryear, as though A Long week in Pest and Buda simply picks up where Love had left off. Thirty years later.
I wonder what Gene would have said.
Probably the same as he had said about Love on the Croisette. That love at its purest, based on a lie, makes for great cinema.