Documentarian Miklos Gimes grew up wondering about his father, a heroic martyr of the Hungarian revolt, but discovers that the greater mystery is his mother. Gimes masterfully meshes private and public history through a savvy mix of interviews, archival footage and home movies. But it is the unflinching honesty of his 81-year-old mother, survivor of two of the seminal traumas of the 20th century, the Holocaust and Stalinist communism, that make pic utterly compelling. With proper handling, limited theatrical play is a real possibility, with cable close behind.
Docu opens with extensive in media res coverage of the 1958 Tour de Suisse bicycle race, a cardinal memory for Gimes since on that day his mother learned of his father’s execution in Hungary and broke the news to 8-year-old Miklos (Gimes also provides shots of polished empty rooms in the Zurich house where they then lived). This bold appropriation of newsreel coverage of national happenings as bookmarks for private recollection typifies Gimes’ approach and proves particularly apt for an existence in which personal and political affiliations were so inextricably conjoined.
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Interviews with his parents’ relatives, friends and co-workers paint vivid vignettes of divided personal loyalties and confusions woven through a tapestry of newsreels, industrial and propaganda films, from the triumphant communist defeat of the Austro-Hungarian fascist government through the Stalinist purges and show trials to the 1956 revolt and its suppression. All the people interviewed played major roles in the events so strikingly depicted, not least of them Lucy Gimes.
Showing no signs of her 80-plus years, Lucy possesses a wry wit and a tendency to underestimate her accomplishments. As a Jew, she immediately understood the implications of Hitler’s rise to power and her deep sense of the “unthinkability” of Hitler in Hungary did not prevent her from obtaining false papers for herself and her family, thereby saving their lives.
In her description of her romance with her husband, it becomes obvious that Gimes hailed from a brilliant, well-educated family which far outshone Lucy’s intellectual bona fides. Under communism, which the couple embraced ardently as the only organized resistance to fascism, Gimes quickly rose to prominence as a newspaper writer, while Lucy gained less visible importance as secretary of a trade union. Lucy, desperately seeking clarity about her past, now wonders why she so blindly capitulated in condemning friends and colleagues. She compares Hitler’s rallies, which terrified her, to the communist rallies which she cheered and asks herself how she missed the similarities in gesture and rhythm.
One obvious answer is that any disillusionment she experienced with the Party ran counter to her larger disillusionment with her spouse who had begun to question the cause. Her husband’s discovery, on a trip to France, of the bigger social context outside of doctrinaire Soviet communism coincided with his rekindling of an old flame. Lucy was never fully able to forgive herself for convincing him to return to Hungary and, eventually, to his death. Her agonized decision to flee the failed uprising with her son ironically left her husband with yet another girlfriend, later designated his “official widow.”
Yet no sense of betrayal colors Gimes’ exhaustive narrative, just a sense of people of immense good will muddling through as best they could in times of monstrous pettiness and cosmic betrayals.
Tech credits are excellent: The quality and scope of archival footage is impressive, particularly in Gio-Reto Killias’ superb montages, the score subtly and uniquely evocative.