LAKE BALATON AND PRAGUE | Laszlo Takacs sweats over a bubbling fryer, deftly wielding his tongs to pull out another Frisbee-shaped langos. One swimsuit-clad customer after another requests Takacs’ deep-fried dough disks, especially the classic: slathered with sour cream, sprinkled with grated Trappist cheese, and drizzled with garlic sauce for good measure.
“Hungarians have always loved langos, and they always will,” Takacs says. “It’s a national specialty, like goulash.”
This was Hungary’s communist-era version of fast food – oily, cheap, tasty, and reliably belly-filling. Today it’s a relative rarity, overwhelmed by Western staples like pizza, hamburgers, hotdogs, even shwarma and Chinese food. Continue reading …
Ex-underground publisher and liberal politician, 1952–
“I was public enemy No. 1. And that’s why I became mayor,” Gabor Demszky said in a 2006 interview. “The connection is clear.”
Indeed, Demszky parlayed his unpopularity with Hungary’s Communist regime into one of the longest-lasting sinecures in European politics. He is now in his fifth term as chief executive of the country’s capital city – although whether he could win re-election in an increasingly fractious Hungary next year is unclear.
Demszky (center) at a conference of EU mayors
In his youth Demszky flirted with Maoism and critiqued the government from the extreme left, but he turned against communism and in his 20s balanced law and sociology studies with dissident activity, attracting regular police attention and getting suspended from the University of Budapest. (For a time he worked as a taxi driver.) Nevertheless, through the 1980s he tirelessly published banned books and magazines, did work fighting poverty in a country where the condition official did not exist, and forged ties with Polish anti-communists. He also helped found the Alliance of Free Democrats, a liberal party in which he is still a key figure.
His prominence in the now-legal opposition that emerged in 1989 won Demszky a seat in parliament in the free elections of March 1990, then the top job in Budapest city government that October. Remarkably for a politician who learned the ropes in those anything-goes early days, he still holds the job, winning re-election in 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2006.
But as Hungarian politics grew increasingly polarized into socialist and conservative-nationalist camps, the Free Democrats’ liberal stance has become less popular. The party barely squeaked into parliament in the 2002 and 2006 national elections, and Demszky himself was only narrowly re-elected mayor in the 2006 Budapest balloting, which closely followed revelations that his coalition partner, Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, had deliberately misled the public about the country’s financial state.
Amid the scandal, Demszky was criticized for municipal actions seemingly aimed at limiting the size of anti-government protests. Two years later the Free Democrats broke with the increasingly unpopular Socialists, after 14 years as somewhat unlikely partners. Demszky’s party suffered another setback in this summer’s European Parliament elections, losing the two seats it won in 2004 and doing poorly even in its stronghold of Budapest. These days the darling of post-communist Hungarian politics is a regular target of eggs, tomatoes, and invective hurled by nationalist demonstrators at the annual 15 March celebrations of the 1848 revolution.
Hungarian politician and international banker, 1948-
On 11 September 1989, thousands of East Germans began pouring out of Hungary and across Austria, en route to new lives in West Germany. Opening the border was the latest in a series of bold moves that would define, and mark the end of, Hungary’s unique brand of “goulash communism.”
The man most responsible for that event, Miklos Nemeth, had become prime minister at age 40 in November 1988, six months after the doddering Communist Party chief Janos Kadar resigned amid a devastating debt crisis. Nemeth and other “radicals” (such as future prime minister Gyula Horn) were keen to take advantage of Mikhail Gorbachev’s loosening of the reins and accelerate Hungary’s gradual shift away from centralized political and economic control. After visiting Gorbachev to check that the Soviets would not crack down, the reformers began lifting border controls in May 1989.
That summer, many East Germans holidaying at Lake Balaton decided not to go home, and thousands more headed for Hungary. By 25 August, over the heads of the East German leadership, Nemeth had struck a deal with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to welcome any East Germans already in Hungary. The move effectively tore down the Iron Curtain, threw the East German communist chiefs into terminal confusion, and helped galvanize Czechs and Slovaks to launch mass protests of their own a week after the Berlin Wall fell. (As they flew home after the meeting with Kohl, Nemeth recalled in a 1993 interview, one of his advisers mused that the day’s events could lead to redrawing the map of Europe – in five or 10 years.)
Hailing from a small village, Nemeth was little known outside Hungary before being named prime minister. He served only 18 months before sliding back into relative obscurity, taking a job as a vice president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. He made a final foray into politics after leaving the bank in 2000, campaigning for the leadership of the Socialist Party. He lost out to Peter Medgyessy, who had served in Nemeth’s cabinet as finance minister. The Socialists went on to win the 2002 elections and preside over Hungary’s EU entry.
Amid this year’s anniversary celebrations Nemeth has emerged again as an eminence grise of the Cold War’s end. At an event in September commemorating the Hungarian-German accord, former Prime Minister Viktor Orban of the nationalist-conservative Fidesz party – no friend to anyone on the left – praised Nemeth’s “chivalrousness and generosity,” noting in particular his refusal of Kohl’s 1989 offer of financial aid in exchange for opening the border. On 9 November, Nemeth and Lech Walesa toppled the first in a chain of giant dominoes marking the route of the vanished Berlin Wall as dozens of statesmen, many of whom likely didn’t recognize the former Hungarian PM, looked on.
But as Nemeth told the BBC recently, the approval he appreciated most came far from the spotlight of Budapest or Berlin. “After I had resigned as prime minister in 1990, I went back to my home village,” he said. “And my father clapped me on the back and said, ‘Son, well done, I’m still holding my head up high whenever I walk through the gates to my front door.’”
For some prominent film festivals in Central and Eastern Europe, the 20th anniversary of the mostly peaceful revolutions that emancipated the region from the crumbling clutches of communism were an occasion to dust off old documentary reels.
February’s Berlin International Film Festival offered a retrospective look at the years before and after the change, poetically titled “After Winter Comes Spring,” featuring, among other works, Helke Misselwitz’ Adieu Winter, a documentary about women of various walks of life in East Germany in 1988, and Polish documentarian Jozef Robakowski’sFrom My Window, which consists of footage shot from his Lodz flat between 1978 and 2000. “The Velvet Generation Comes of Age” at the Prague edition of the One World festival of human-rights documentaries offered the late Jan Spata’sThe Greatest Wish, which juxtaposes young people’s dreams in 1964 and 1989, and acclaimed surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer’s allegorical short The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia.
Moving eastward, though, the commemorative relay slowed down. Festivals in Sarajevo, Warsaw, Bucharest, Budapest, and Sofia paid scant attention, while the Moscow International Film Festival delved further back for a program marking 70 years since the start of World War II.
This lack of attention to the events of 20 years ago is reflected in the output of filmmakers in the region; films dealing with the anti-communist revolutions of two decades past are a relative rarity.
The reasons, experts say, range from aesthetic to sociopolitical. “The notion that a film’s characters can and should be reduced to mere ciphers for the historical and social changes that happen around them is a Marxist one,” says Andrew Horton, former editor in chief of Kinoeye, a now-defunct website that focused on Central and Eastern European film. “Hardly shocking, then, that directors [in the region] have rejected it so overwhelmingly.”
HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD
In throwing off old ideological strictures, many of the region’s filmmakers eagerly embraced mainstream techniques, even in films dealing with 1989, adopting the Western model of history as entertainment where “the political changes are more or less background,” according to John Cunningham, a specialist in Central European cinema at Britain’s Sheffield Hallam University.
With its Velvet Revolution subplot, the Oscar-winning Kolya was the first feature film – and to date the most internationally popular – to deal directly with the events of 1989.
Such was the case with the biggest international hit set in the revolutionary period, Czech director Jan Sverak’s Kolya (1996). With its endearing story of a Russian boy invading the life of an aging roue amid the heavy anti-Soviet mood of late-’89 Prague, the film charmed Western audiences and won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, but Czech critics still harbor misgivings about its sugary Hollywood approach.
In a similar vein, Polish director Juliusz Machulski’s How Much Does a Trojan Horse Weigh? (2008) is a whimsical family comedy involving a time warp to and from the last years of communism and conveys the simple message that things are a lot better now than they were then. The film was Poland’s third-biggest hit last year, according to boxoffice.pl, although its 155,000 viewers was half the total for the leader, Tomasz Konecki’s Ladies, a sort of Polish Sex and the City firmly anchored in the country’s capitalist present.
Reflecting on Hungarian cinema, Horton views the Hollywood influence as a positive development.
“Personally, I think most of the films ‘about communism’ have been some of the worst to have been released in the post-1989 period,” he writes in an e-mail. “Many young filmmakers seem to be inspired by the power of American film to reach its audience through easy-to-relate-to characters, an accessible storyline, and a strong setting immersed in popular culture, and this kind of film-making is what they aspire to.
“I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing, even if this approach to filmmaking seems to be a work in progress for Hungarian directors. At least it’s trying to build a relationship with young Hungarian audiences after decades of declining cinema attendance.”
The internationally recognized Romanian New Wave is the outlier, producing films that have poked and prodded at unwieldy and controversial recent history to wide acclaim. Three of the four Romanian films released in 2006 – Corneliu Porumboiu’s12:08 East of Bucharest, Radu Muntean’s The Paper Will Be Blue, and Catalin Mitulescu’s How I Celebrated the End of the World – offer intimate and wryly funny explorations of the events of December 1989, while Tales from the Golden Age, the new film from Cannes Film Festival prize-winner Christian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), is an omnibus of seriocomic stories set in the late Ceausescu years.
Porumboiu’s film, which won the Camera d’Or for best first feature at the 2006 Cannes festival, is emblematic of the Romanian approach, tackling the topic with depth, subtlety, and deceptive simplicity. The title refers to the town of Vaslui (where the director is from) and the precise moment Nicolae Ceausescu fled Bucharest in his helicopter – if there were no protests in Vaslui before 12:08 p.m. on 22 December 1989, did the revolution actually happen there? (The movie’s Romanian title translates as, “Was There or Wasn’t There?”) The final scene of a snowy Christmas Eve leaves audiences guessing as to the significance of this question for the ordinary townspeople.
“The idea was to focus on history, personal stories, memories, on the fact that each and every one of us changes history in order to justify his or her own existence,” Porumboiu said.
“I don’t believe in History with a capital ‘H.’ After the revolution there are only two or three heroes and two or three anti-heroes in the history books, but you will never get this other perspective, of normal people and their personal experiences and stories related to that event. So this is what I was after in my movie. It’s built like a kaleidoscope, with lots of personal views and different fragments.”
INTO THE LIGHT
What Porumboiu has elsewhere called “the uncertainty of the grand revolutionary narrative” is another factor inhibiting a regional cinema-of-’89
“Possibly the variations in approach to the theme of 1989 are connected to how the oppositional struggle developed,” Sheffield Hallam’s Cunningham says. “In Hungary there have been a number of films about 1956, probably because of its heroic resonances and its centrality in national mythology, in comparison with 1989, which was a fairly muted affair. Similarly, in Poland there appear to be more films devoted to the period of martial law and the resistance to it than to 1989.”
The whimsical comedy How Much Does a Trojan Horse Weigh? casts a contemporary Polish woman back in time to the eve of regime change.
In tackling history, most filmmakers, particularly those of older generations, stick to themes more firmly rooted in national stories. Witness the most recent works by Andrzej Wajda and Istvan Svabo, respectively Poland’s and Hungary’s most revered living directors: Wajda’s Katyn (2007) re-creates the World War II-era Soviet massacre that still haunts Poland; Relatives (2006) is Svabo’s take on an infamous 1930s corruption scandal.
While their forebears look back, younger filmmakers cast a wary eye on the present. History as such matters little in Czech director Tomas Vorel’s entertainment cinema (2005’s Skritek, 2007’s Gympl) or Hungarian Benedek Fliegauf’s psychedelic social dramas Forest (2003) and Dealer (2004). Social reality as it is, and individual destinies, absurd as they are, make up the world of such films – what Cunningham describes as “the revolt against history and grand narratives and a craving almost for the here and now.”
The echoes of 1989 do reverberate through such films, if only faintly, in their take on the disillusioned social life of the transition. “This is how we Czechs deal with difficult times – we laugh,” says cinematographer Marek Jicha, who regularly works with Vorel. Their latest project, Catch the Billionaire, is a social grotesque about contemporary Czech capitalism in which profiteers and victims alike are left shorn of their dignity.
Far removed in tone, Polish director Krzysztof Krauze’s The Debt (1999) and Savior Square (2006), also function as allegories for the transition years, emotionally claustrophobic narratives about men and women pushed to the edge by unbridled cruelty in their everyday life. Young Bulgarian filmmakers have been engaging in a different kind of allegory: Sofia and Sarajevo festival honorees Mila from Mars (directed by Zornitsa Sophia, 2004) and Lady Zi (Georgy Diulgerov, 2005) center on abandoned girls who stumble out of orphanages and must survive on their own in an inhospitable and absurd environment.
To Jicha, that subtext is the essential story of 1989. Asked how he would interpret the Velvet Revolution on screen, he describes an old Celtic myth about a knight lured deep into the woods and over a precipice by an elusive, shining nymph. “The faster he goes, the faster the light goes, and he falls off the cliff,” Jicha says. “The revolution was that hope, that light, and the poor man is the Czech people.”
Perhaps it takes an outsider to see the light of idealism where Jicha and many of his peers see the flicker of misplaced hopes. American filmmaker Gary Keith Griffin, a Sundance Film Festival award-winner who was studying at Prague’s FAMU film school in the fall of 1989, is currently at work on Listopad (November).
Bucking the trend of approaching the anti-communist revolutions at oblique angles, Listopad takes on the history head on, dramatizing the real-life story of three teenage boys who took part in the tumultuous events on the streets of Prague. (It will even climax with an on-site reenactment of the pivotal student march of 17 November 1989, staged on the 20th anniversary of the actual event.) Griffin – who was there, too, 20 years ago, filming all the while – met the principals and heard their stories years later, while shooting a feature in the Czech Republic.
“There are always differing opinions about great political and historical events, but one thing is certain: the truth belongs to those in the front lines,” Griffin says in a director’s statement at the film’s website. “For me, a hero is a person who takes action not because they believe they will succeed, but because they know it is the right thing to do. For me, the people in the front lines of November 17th, 1989, armed with nothing more than their beliefs, are heroes. I believe we should tell their story.”
Since before the fall of communism, Sandor Koles has been at the forefront of building civil society in Central and Eastern Europe. A Budapest native, he founded the Hungarian Village Development Association in 1987 to help rural communities establish local institutions and organizations. In the months leading up to the regime change, he was working with fellow activists from both sides of the Iron Curtain on regional development issues.
In the liberalizing atmosphere of late 1989, Koles entered into a period of what he calls “action research,” moving to the town of Alsovadasz in northeastern Hungary to work with locals there and in the surrounding Cserehat region. It was basic bottom-up organizing. “We didn’t plan to make any revolution,” he recalls.
When the revolution came, in the tumultuous October and November weeks when Hungary’s Communist Party gave up monopoly power and East Germany’s almost inadvertently opened the Berlin Wall, Koles was in Alsovadasz, far from the street protests and urban intellectuals usually associated with the collapse of communism, observing the changes through the prism of village life. Continue reading …
Will Rogers’ quip about statistics being less trustworthy than damn lies could apply equally well to opinion polls. Or rather, to the use of poll data by their most avid consumers, the media. Poll results, nicely tabulated and presented in bite-sized, quasi-scholarly chunks, are often reprocessed by harried journalists into quick news articles, not to speak of editorials.
Widely reported in the days leading up to the big Berlin Wall anniversary, a large regional opinion survey appears to back up a number of popularly held notions about attitudes toward democracy, market economics, and life in general in Central and Eastern Europe since the upheavals of the late 1980s and early ’90s. Continue reading …
Two pretty girls in their late teens walk arm in arm in front of a light-bulb factory in northern Budapest. Wearing red shirts and red berets, they hand out leaflets to workers coming to start the afternoon shift. Some ignore them and hurry past suspiciously, just as most Hungarians do when people try to hand them something in the street. Others stop to talk and take the flyer, which tells them how capitalism abuses workers and how the current economic crisis was caused by the wealthy but makes the poor suffer. A police officer stands across the street, watching another small group of young people, also dressed in red, handing out flyers at a bus stop. Continue reading …
By Boyko Vassilev, Lucie Kavanova, Anita Komuves, Wojciech Kosc, Sinziana Demian and Pavol Szalai
[As we look at how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the past 20 years, TOL correspondents in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Romania asked people in various professions to describe their working life today compared with conditions before 1989. This collection of interviews with doctors is the third in the series that resulted.
MARIETTA GECHEVA, 47, BULGARIA
Gecheva, a radiologist who specializes in endoscopy, worked in the Pirogov emergency hospital before and after 1989. For the past nine years, she and her husband have run a private clinic.
Some doctors profited from the change. Among the successful were those who could afford to join a good medical institution that functions absolutely professionally, without professional compromises. But that’s only a few people. That happened with [me and my husband], because we had the chance to have some land restituted, which allowed us to found our clinic. If the restitution hadn’t happened, we would have been working in state hospitals. Don’t get me wrong, they have good specialists as well, even extraordinarily high level medics. However, the financial problems in state hospitals matter and make things difficult for these specialists. The Hippocratic oath is fine, but it can’t do what machines can. And for that, you need money. Continue reading …