While Hungary might not be a place that many think of when it comes to the classics, it has had and continues to have a significant part in the film industry. But though the country is commonly playing the role of other cities, it is also home to a number of influential directors, many of which have created some of the country’s most important titles.
Hungarian title: Kontroll
While this was once a cult classic, it’s hard to call it that anymore since it is the film that is most likely to come up when talking about Hungarian films. It’s a simple movie that focuses on the life of a Budapest public transport control officer, one of the unfairly despised men in charge of checking the validity of your ticket.
While on the surface it portrays the trials that must be suffered in what must be one of the worst jobs in the city, it also tackles concepts as broad as companionship, purpose and guilt. It’s particularly notable for its fantastic shots, making for a thoroughly absorbing experience that, even as it peters out toward the end, remains a beautiful film to watch.
Son of Saul
Hungarian title: Saul fia
One of the most well-known Hungarian films of recent history, Son of Saul won numerous awards when it was released in 2015. It makes for rather grim viewing – as any film set in the Holocaust ought to. The focus is Saul’s experience as he’s forced to assist with the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
Classic Hungarian films are well known for covering World War II since the period, and the years that followed, heavily affected the country. However, this debut film from László Nemes offers a refreshing take on the setting.
Hungarian title: Sátántangó
It’s hard to recommend a film that is seven-and-a-half hours long, which makes Satantango a film suitable for only those who want to enjoy a cinematic experience for the art of it rather than its inert entertainment value.
However, those that are able to endure the film’s length will find it to be captivating viewing. Its long shots – upwards of 10 minutes – still manage to keep the viewer interested and enthralled, as unlikely as that may sound. As it happens, it’s based on one of Hungary’s most important novels too.
The Whiskey Bandit
Hungarian title: A Viszkis
Based on the real-life story of Attila Ambrus, aka the Whiskey Bandit, this crime thriller combines all the aspects of the genre that you’d hope to get – love, risk and outwitting the law.
It’s actually the latest film from Kontroll director Nimród Antal and mimics many of the elements that made that movie a compelling watch. It’s not only about the action but about the characters – and not only its hero.
Hungarian title: Valami Amerika
Arguably the most quoted film among Hungarians, the plot revolves around a Hungarian film director whose project is cancelled due to lack of money… until he meets an American producer. It’s a tongue-in-cheek satire of Hollywood, of America and of our own lives – and it’s full of genuine laughs.
It’s particularly good for anyone learning Hungarian since a lot of the humour is directed toward the American’s inability to comprehend. While the first proved to be well-loved enough to make a name for itself, there has since been two sequels released that didn’t muster quite the same heart.
Hungarian title: Moszkva Tér
In the vein of movies like City of God (but without the violence), Moscow Square depicts the truth of youth at an important time for Hungary. Since the movie revolves around the fall of communism, it relies on some background understanding of the significance of the situation to really get the greatest value out of it. However, like all coming-of-age stories, it’s not an absolute necessity, making for a film that is able to express the absurdity of the moment for a collective youth that didn’t fully comprehend the issues they were suffering with.
Hungarian title: Az állampolgár
Considering the cultural climate surrounding immigration in Hungary since the 2016 release of this film, The Citizen is perhaps more pertinent a film than ever. It focuses on the story of an African man in his 50s as he tries to earn national status in Hungary.
There’s a deeper sense of heart to the film beyond its plot beats, since Dr. Cake-Baly Marcelo – the man playing the central role – was himself a refugee in the country. Though it is his first acting role, he plays it with a measured honesty that seems to be born from his own experiences in the city.
Hungarian title: A Tanú
This film is highly recommended viewing for anyone with an interest in Hungarian history. Banned for many years due to its satirical commentary on the post-WWII Soviet regime, it has since become integral to any Hungarian or foreigner living in the country – and a reminder of the way things were. If anything, that’s the most important aspect of classic movies such as this.
Hungarian title: Budapest Noir
There isn’t much for fans of the noir genre to savour when it comes to Hungarian films, but 2017’s Budapest Noir at least gives a taste. It might not be the most serious film on the list or even the most artistically strong, but an impressive range of acting and an intriguing premise is enough to keep things strumming along.
This movie is perhaps a film better suited to those with a penchant for brooding noir, but it’s well-executed all the same and a good example of what Hungarian talent can produce on a slither of the budget of Hollywood.
For Some Inexplicable Reason
Hungarian title: Van valami furcsa és megmagyarázhatatlan
Approaching his 30s and suffering from the same sort of funk that we all have (or will) experience at one point in life or another, Áron is a simple, slightly nerdy guy looking for something to inspire him.
For Some Inexplicable Reason is sombre in its honesty but rewarding because of it. The film encapsulates what it is to be a ‘young professional’ not only in Budapest but anywhere in the world. Its message is of a specific melancholy of life, and it isn’t willing – or required – to present an antidote for it.
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