On the outskirts of Budapest, a big-budget period drama is recreating the fateful day that sparked the Hungarian war of independence in 1848. Construction is underway at the state-owned Mafilm studio complex on a massive set that will stand in for the Hungarian capital in the 19th century. With 100-plus shooting days planned through September, director Balázs Lóth describes “Now or Never!” as “the most ambitious Hungarian film ever made.”
That ambition is being matched by Hungary’s National Film Institute, which awarded “Now or Never!” a $12.5 million production grant — the largest amount given to a feature film since the fall of communism in 1989.
It’s the second big swing on a splashy historical drama taken by the NFI in the past year, after it awarded $29 million to “Rise of the Raven,” an epic drama series produced by Robert Lantos’ Serendipity Point Films (“Crimes of the Future”) and Beta Film (“Gomorrah”) that tells the story of the Hungarian warrior Janos Hunyadi, who led the defeat of the Ottoman army in 1456 — an event that Lantos says “changed the history of all Europe.”
Both are lavish productions that are determined to raise the bar for a local screen industry that is reaching all-time heights. Total production spend in Hungary reached a record $650 million last year, an amount that was nearly 30% higher than in the pre-pandemic year of 2019, with a total of 241 Hungarian productions — including feature films, shorts, documentaries and TV series — produced in 2021.
Despite such encouraging signs, not everyone believes the outlook for the industry is so rosy.
“It is booming. There is a lot of production going on. Budgets are high. The production values are rising constantly,” says one veteran producer, who asked not to be named. “But the industry is still in a very vulnerable situation where [financing] is getting less and less for many filmmakers who are already proven. They are not getting funding, or they don’t even apply with certain projects because they are very well aware that these stories are not likely to fly.”
Amid the country’s rightward turn under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who won a fourth term in a landslide vote in April, many Hungarian filmmakers see a deliberate effort to push a nationalist agenda in the film industry.
“I think [the NFI] have other priorities,” says Ildikó Enyedi, the Oscar-nominated director of 2017’s “On Body and Soul” and “The Story of My Wife,” which competed last year at Cannes. “They are supporting big-budget, historical films about the very heroic past of Hungary.”
Upcoming productions pulled from the history books include a film based on Hungary’s first democratically elected prime minister (“Blockade”), and a feature about an 18th-century Hungarian general sent to capture Berlin (“Hadik”). Among the subjects receiving documentary treatment are the three-time Olympic champion swimmer Katinka Hosszú (“Katinka”), and the composer György Kurtág, in a film from Berlinale Silver Bear winner Dénes Nagy (“Natural Light”).
Hungarian film commissioner Csaba Káel insists this wave of historical films is a consequence of the “huge debt” the country owes to a past that has rarely received big-screen treatment. Far from promoting a political agenda, he sees an effort to correct a market inefficiency.
“Hungary has produced very few big historical features — and no series at all — in the last decades, even if this genre is very popular at [international] markets,” he says.
Lantos adds that the successful execution of big-budget productions such as “Rise of the Raven” “will pave the way for future international investments in predominantly Hungarian productions.”
The Hungarian government, which in recent years has ramped up funding for the National Film Institute, has various roles to play in its support of the sector.
“The main job for decision-makers is to find a good balance between supporting talent and getting the most-talented Hungarian filmmakers out there … but also greenlighting films that work to get Hungarian audiences back into cinema seats,” says Kristóf Deák, who won an Academy Award for 2016 live-action short “Sing.” His feature debut, “The Grandson,” is being sold by NFI World Sales in Cannes.
The director credits NFI initiatives such as the Incubator Program, which supports emerging filmmakers developing their first feature films, for launching the careers of promising directors including Hajni Kis, whose debut “Wild Roots” premiered last year in Karlovy Vary.
“I’m very optimistic when I see my young, brave and fantastic colleagues coming out with some amazing films,” he says.
It is nevertheless an uncertain climate for filmmaking in Hungary. Independent media is increasingly being stamped out under Orbán, a hardline nationalist leader who has railed against immigrants and the LGBTQ community. The prime minister remains an ardent supporter of Vladimir Putin — though he has condemned the invasion of Ukraine, he declared Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy an “opponent” in his election victory speech — placing Hungary at loggerheads with the rest of Europe.
Such factors, however, only make the need for independent voices more urgent.
“You always feel that you are in the middle of history, but today, you feel it even more,” says Enyedi, who was born one year before Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to crush a Hungarian uprising. “What I always advise young filmmakers, or to the students I’m connected with, is to think in a more broad way and not to focus on this moment…because it will drive them crazy, and it will suck the creative energy out from them.”
Despite the challenges, she adds, many Hungarian filmmakers are finding the means to make movies and be heard, insisting: “Hungary is not Orbán.”