Small Hungarian Market Supports Big Cinema Ambitions

Domestic movies and local talent are thriving along the Danube

Kincsem Bet on Revenge Hungarian Cinema
Courtesy of Adrienn Szabo

When debuting helmer Laszlo Nemes nabbed the 2016 foreign-language film Oscar for “Son of Saul,” it confirmed that Hungary’s proud tradition of original and affecting filmmaking with top production values was alive and well. The win also marked glorious affirmation for the Hungarian National Film Fund and its funding choices since the 2011 reboot under Hungarian-born Hollywood producer Andrew G. Vajna, who still serves as the country’s film commissioner.

Under the aegis of Vajna and the fund’s CEO Agnes Havas, compelling, provocative, artistically significant Hungarian films are once again winning top prizes at international festivals and being picked up in significant numbers for international distribution. Moreover, Hungarians are watching more domestic cinema than ever.

How did the fund drive this new renaissance? “The system we created supports talent and creativity. We also promote cultural diversity where both art and audience movies can be developed and produced,” Vajna says.

In order to increase the competitiveness of domestic production, the fund also offers creative cooperation, professional expertise and training programs as well as international industry contacts for new Hungarian film productions.

“I truly believe one part of the current success of Hungarian filmmaking is the international education and film training for the new generation, especially for script development and producing. Obviously, our market is tiny, with one of the weirdest languages, but we are having international successes continuously,” says producer Judit Stalter, whose festival hit “Kills on Wheels” from second-time helmer Attila Till is being released Stateside by Kino Lorber.

“Our market is tiny, but we are having international successes continuously.”
Judit Stalter

In 2017, Hungarian films are on track to draw more than one million domestic viewers, a feat unmatched for nine years. Top among the local hits fuelling those numbers is helmer Gabor Herendi’s big-budget historical romp “Kincsem — Bet on Revenge,” which has exceeded 450,000 admissions since its March 16 release. It follows the real-life story of the eponymous thoroughbred mare who won every race she ran from 1876 to 1879. But the horse’s story pales in comparison to the fictionalized dramatic and romantic exploits of her owner, Count Erno Blaskovich, dashingly played by Ervin Nagy. The film will open the 17th annual Hungarian Film Festival of Los Angeles on Nov. 2.

Number two at this year’s box office so far is “Pappa Pia,” a contemporary musical comedy/romance, in which an old coot with a boathouse on the banks of the Danube unites the young and old of his community against a greedy developer. Gabor Csupo directs this action-laffer, which features a stack of oldie but goodie musical numbers but seems limited to local consumption.

The third-place slot belongs to the Berlinale Golden Bear winner “On Body and Soul” from seasoned helmer-writer Ildiko Enyedi (“My Twentieth Century”). It centers on a metaphysical romance between two employees of a slaughterhouse who learn that they share the same dreams night after night. This arthouse title, widely sold internationally by Films Boutique, including to Netflix for the U.S. market, is Hungary’s foreign-language Oscar contender this go-round.

“On Body and Soul” and “Kills on Wheels” are not the only Magyar titles nabbed for Stateside distribution this year. Another film making its way from the international festival circuit into U.S. theaters is Ferenc Torok’s “1945.” This finely performed, lustrous B&W period drama takes on a transitional time — the immediate aftermath of World War II — in Hungarian history with subtlety and nuance. And like Nemes’ “Son of Saul,” it offers a fresh cinematic approach to a difficult topic. A New York opening on Nov. 1 through U.S. distributor Mememsha Films will be followed by a national rollout.

The fund is behind two autumn premieres likely to score at the domestic box office and travel the festival and arthouse circuit. Nimrod Antal’s high-octane biopic “The Whiskey Bandit” offers a gripping account of the so-called gentleman outlaw Attila Ambrus, Hungary’s most-wanted bank-robber in the 1990s. At the same time, Eva Gardos offers adventure of a different sort with “Budapest Noir.”

Set in the politically fraught autumn of 1936, with Hitler looming on Hungary’s horizon, her stylish film follows a cynical crime reporter probing the seemingly unimportant murder of a young prostitute. He follows clues that take him into the city’s dark underbelly –– and lead all the way to the highest echelons of power.
Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated fund-supported productions will premiere in 2018. Among them is Nemes’ sophomore feature “Sunset,” a period drama set during the turmoil, chaos and eventual collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The many fans of singular talent Gyorgy Palfi (“Taxidermia”) will be glad to learn that he’s in post on “His Master’s Voice,” an adaptation of a Stanislaw Lem novel of the same title. The plot follows a 30-something Hungarian journalist as he attempts to track down the father he never knew, a scientist interested in extra-terrestrial life, who defected to the U.S. in the 1970s.

Karoly Ujj Meszaros, whose strange and wonderful 2015 debut “Liza the Fox Fairy” won a legion of fest prizes and international praise as well setting box office records at home, is in post on “X.” It’s a highly visual thriller set in contemporary Budapest with his “Liza” star Mónika Balsai as a troubled police detective/single mother who uncovers a serial murderer.

Who are the new talents to watch for in the future? Some names include award-winning shorts helmer Balint Kenyeres, whose first feature “Yesterday” is finally in post-production. Shot in Morocco with an international cast and crew, it follows a middle-aged architect on a North African building site who is confronted with memories of his youth. Meanwhile, Kristof Deak, a 2016 Oscar winner for his live-action short “Sing,” is developing his first feature as well as a pair of television projects.

Also worth mentioning: the animated action-adventure thriller “Ruben Brandt, Collector,” the first feature from talented animator Milorad Krstic. This sharp-looking noir set in the world of high-stakes art theft will go out in an English-language version for the international market and in Hungarian domestically.