Movie Marathon, Major Exhibition Honor Hungarian Cinema

In Budapest

The stunning interior of Urania Film Theater, built in the 1890s. Apart from film screenings, the building, a nationally protected monument, also hosts many other cultural events.

Photo by Andocs /

Watching a scene between Jack Nicholson and Harvey Keitel in “The Two Jakes,” the 1990 follow-up to Roman Polanski’s classic 1974 movie “Chinatown,” I was momentarily distracted by the cinematography.

The two actors were bathed in the sumptuous golden light of a California sunset. When the credits rolled at the end, I wasn’t surprised to see that the cinematographer was the great Hungarian Vilmos Zsigmond.

Zsigmond, born in Szeged in the south of Hungary in 1930, escaped the country in 1956 after filming the events of the Hungarian Revolution with his friend, fellow film student László Kovács. The two men arrived in the United States as political refugees in 1958 and sold the footage to CBS for a documentary.

After working as the cinematographer on Robert Altman’s 1971 western “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” Zsigmond’s career took off. He went on to work with some of America’s greatest directors on movies that include “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). A newly restored print of this Spielberg classic is being shown on Saturday (September 25) in the square in front of Saint Stephen’s Basilica as part of the National Film Institute of Hungary’s splendid Budapest Classics Film Marathon.

Sadly, the marathon is almost at an end, but on September 26, you can watch a handful of classic films with a Hungarian connection. Among these is the intriguing “A Motorcycle Trip Among the Clouds,” made in 1926 and showing in the morning and afternoon at the French Institute not far from the Batthyány tér metro station.

Directed by Austrian photojournalist and sports photographer Lothar Rübelt, the movie follows a group of young motorcyclists as they ride from Vienna to the Dolomites in the Italian Alps. The marathon’s programmers describe the riders as exuding a “genuine Easy Rider Lifestyle.”

The 1969 movie “Easy Rider” was shot by the aforementioned László Kovács. Its theme of the impossibility of freedom is often seen as a coded commentary on the Russians’ brutal crushing of the Hungarian Revolution.

Hungarian Encounters

Interestingly, the marathon organizers offer an interpretation of “Close Encounters,” which also alludes to the Hungarian Revolution. They suggest it is as though the movie “expresses the hope that humanity (and not the individual) is not foolish and will not destroy itself and the planet on which it lives, it will not go up against an opponent whose power cannot be calculated. This naïve belief was at least as important during the Cold War as it may now be, during the ongoing climate crisis.”

Of course, Hungary did go up against an opponent whose power couldn’t be calculated in 1956, with disastrous consequences for the country.

Although it’s a little too late to enjoy everything the film marathon has to offer, the excellent “Wide Angle” exhibition at Budapest’s Ludwig Museum runs until November 14.

Hungarian theatrical film is regarded as beginning with the screening of “The Dance,” the first film made in the country to include staged scenes. It was screened at what was then the Urania Scientific Theater in Budapest on April 30, 1901.

The cinema is still there on Rákóczi út, is still open and is a beautifully atmospheric place to watch movies, though its name now is the Urania National Film Theater.

Incidentally, one of the stars of “The Dance” was Lujza Blaha, the hugely popular Hungarian actress and singer (known as “the nation’s nightingale”) after whom a square and metro stop is named. And the connections continue to come: Blaha starred in only one other movie, “A nagymama” (“The Grandmother,” 1916) which was made by Alexander Korda.

Korda was to become part of the diaspora of Hungarian movie talent. He worked in the Austrian and German film industries as well as in Hollywood before settling in the United Kingdom before WWII. Here, he produced many great movies, including 1949’s “The Third Man,” set in the underworld of post-war Vienna and starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten. Korda was knighted in 1942, the first film director so honored.

Cinematic Dawn

Apart from “The Dance,” this year also marks 125 years since it’s generally agreed Hungarian cinema (note the distinction) began with a screening of films by the Lumiere Brothers at the Grand Hotel Royal (now the Corinthia Hotel Budapest), and the opening of the Okonograph cinema at 41 Andrássy utca.

As you might hope from the name, “Wide Angle” offers a suitably wide-ranging overview of the history of Hungarian cinema over the past 120 years, from “The Dance” onwards. As the organizers say, “It invites the visitor on a special journey that leads from the birth of the film, through the silent film era and the invention of sound to the present day.”

You can learn more about the great Hungarian filmmakers and their work in a series of themed rooms with names like “The Art of Silent Film,” “Hungarian Hollywood,” and “Escape to the Cinema.” You are also introduced to works that are important in the light of the film industry but which have been overlooked.

Today, Hungarian cinema continues to impact international cinema with movies such as “Son of Saul,” which has a room devoted to it at the exhibition. But Hungarian movies that succeed internationally are sadly few and far between. Hungary’s influence on the modern global movie scene is pretty much limited to the technicians who work on international blockbusters, online streaming series, commercials, and pop videos at the Korda Studios, named for Sir Anthony Korda, just outside Budapest at Etyek.

While the existence of the Korda Studios is something to be celebrated, it would be fantastic if there was a new generation of Hungarian creatives making its mark here and internationally. I can’t think of a single well-known current movie actor, for instance, who was actually born here. Can you?

Wide Angle is at the Ludwig Museum until November 14. Go to to find out about the remaining screenings in the Budapest Film Classics Marathon.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of September 24, 2021.

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