BUDAPEST – It is a dark January morning in the small Hungarian city of Nyiregyhaza, and director Janos Szasz is ebullient. Why? Szasz, 39, is beginning directing a local stage version of the Chekhov play “Uncle Vanya,” a low-paying job in a far-flung theater. But he’s ecstatic to do it, despite his recent rise to the upper echelon of Hungarian moviemakers.
Clearly, staging “Uncle Vanya” in the sticks is not beneath Szasz, winner of a 1994 Felix Award (the European equivalent of the Oscar) and laurels in festivals from Budapest to Chicago. “It’s important to me to work in the theater,” muses Szasz. “I love it. It’s hard work. But I like it because in theater there is no escape. A film director can sometimes escape from decisions with actors. But a theater director cannot. Theater is good practice.”
It is practice that has paid dividends. According to colleagues, Szasz’s skill with actors was a crucial element in the dramatic success of his last two films, “Woyzeck” (1994) and “The Witman Boys” (1996) — features that made his career.
“When it comes to directing actors, Janos is one of the best in Hungary,” says Laszlo Sipos, producer of “Woyzeck.” “There are not many directors who are as talented in all areas of filmmaking.”
Critics agree. Both “Woyzeck” and “Witman Boys” were voted best film by the international press when they premiered at the Filmszemle, Hungary’s annual cinema festival; Variety called “Woyzeck” “moving, intelligent”; the Los Angeles Times called “The Witman Boys” “impeccable.” But the L.A. Times also cited “The Witman Boys’ ” “unremitting bleakness,” a criticism others have leveled against “Woyzeck,” Szasz’s version of the Georg Buchner play and Werner Herzog film.
Both films tell unquestionably dark stories — “Woyzeck” is the story of a lonely, humiliated railway worker who strikes out at the world by murdering his wife; and “Witman Boys” is a period piece set in a pre-World War I Hungarian village in which two young boys are driven by alienation to murder their mother. But bleakness is not Szasz’s intention. Szasz says his films are designed to highlight the plight of the common man in troubled central Europe.
“I am fascinated with very ordinary people,” Szasz says. “I have no car. This means I’m always on the bus. And this means that I’m always surrounded by the people. I’m surrounded by reality. For me it’s important to speak to them, and speak about them.
“That’s why I made a film in a railway station (“Woyzeck”), which centered on the life of this lost man, this nobody. The lost nobodies are very important to me — very simple but good people.”
Similarly, “Witman Boys” is not so much about matricide as the decline of values in pre-war Hungary. “I always wanted to make a film about this special period in Hungarian history,” Szasz explains. “Before the war, many terrible things accumulated in the people, the family and the little towns like the town where this movie is set. It was interesting to show that this place was not a proper place to live.”
Alienation is a theme Szasz comes by honestly. “I am a Jew,” he explains. “So maybe these stories of mine come from the war and the people in the camps and the people who were hated. The theme of my movies are about people removed from the system. However, this is not a question of homelessness, but prejudice. I lost half of my family in Auschwitz. So it’s important to me to understand what it means to be a Jew in this century.”
Szasz’s professional influences include pioneering Soviet films by auteurs such as Aleksandr Dovzhenko (“Arsenal,” “Earth”), and the guidance of Hungarian masters such as Oscar-winning director Istvan Szabo (“Mephisto”), who taught Szasz during his seven years of study at Budapest’s Academy of the Dramatic Arts. (Szasz first studied screenwriting at the academy, an education reflected in the high quality of his scripts, and then switched to direction and filmmaking.) As head of the Objektiv Filmstudio, Szabo later became a professional mentor by producing Szasz’s first movie, “Don’t Disturb,” in 1990.
Szasz’s eclectic background has given his work a quintessentially Eastern European flavor, uncompromised by the arrival of market capitalism and Hollywood movies to post-Communist Hungary. Where some East Euro filmmakers are responding to changing times by making “cheap pastiches of American action films” (in the words of the New York Times), Szasz is defiantly making movies he believes in, regardless of their commercial appeal.
As a result, Szasz is earning respect, and little money. But no matter. “I don’t work for success,” he mused. “I work for, I don’t know why it’s a job, but a job for no money. I’m very surprised when people are interested in my films. I’m surprised when they want to hear what I have to say.”
No matter how diverse his worldwide audience grows, Szasz has not lost sight of his true public. “Once, in Rotterdam,” he recalls, “I went to a screening of ‘Woyzeck’ and walked into the (cinema) at the end of the film. This dirty homeless man, who was watching the movie, came up to me and said, ‘You can’t watch only the last 10 minutes of this film. You have to see the whole thing because it’s beautiful.’ I was very moved. To me the words of this homeless man were worth 10 prizes.”