You cannot be Sirius: Hungarian nationalist science fiction

Gergely, Gabor (2017) You cannot be Sirius: Hungarian nationalist science fiction. Studies in Eastern European Cinema . ISSN 2040-350X

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Abstract

This study of the Hungarian science fiction film Szíriusz/Sirius (Hamza, 1942) seeks to show that stifling state control and central oversight of production practices impacted on the aesthetics of Hungarian cinema. Hungarian films of the 1940s, shot on state-owned sound stages using identikit sets and costumes offered audiences visions of a glorious past characterized by interiority and drabness that pointed to a limit to the nostalgic imagining of Hungary’s past.
Hungary was not a prolific producer of science fiction films or literature. And yet of the three films Hungary put forward for competition at the 1942 Venice Biennale one was a sci-fi. The three Hungarian films in the running were to demonstrate Hungary’s cultural and technological advancement. One, Negyedíziglen/To the Fourth Generation (Farkas, 1941), a war film, stands out by virtue of its clearly recognizable Nazi aesthetic. Another, Emberek a havason/People on the Mountain (Szőts, 1941), a religiose melodrama, has long been celebrated as a film of humanism and beauty, with its radical nationalist ethos overlooked in favour of praise for its aesthetics. The third film, the superficially aesthetically unremarkable Sirius, tells the story of a time travelling nobleman who goes back to the baronial court of an ancestor. There he woos an Italian signorina and ruffles the feathers of Habsburg lackeys. This article demonstrates that the aesthetic qualities of the latter can be read just as productively to illuminate questions of Hungarian politics and national identity as those of the other two official entries.
In order to demonstrate the impact state policy had on film aesthetics I begin by setting out the context in which Sirius was made. I give account of Hungarian production practices and financing structures to show the minute control the state exercised over the film sector. I go on to demonstrate the timeliness of this investigation by showing that Hungarian film historiography has hitherto focused on exceptional texts and largely ignored the run-of-the-mill. Hungarian scholars have begun to turn their attention to the period’s output as a whole, but Nemeskürty’s habit of looking at ‘a few valuable films’ (1974, 95) dies hard. Király and Balogh set it as their goal to look at all Hungarian films in the 1929-36 period, but they fail to break with a value-oriented approach that praises some films and tuts at others. More recently Benke (2013), Lakatos (2013) and Vajdovich (2013) have struggled to shift the discussion towards ordinary texts, with the latter especially guilty: in an article on the structures of the Hungarian industry, the only film named is People on the Mountain. I argue that the consequence of this selective focus has been to promote the misleading claim that some Hungarian films successfully resisted the coercive power of the state. Having set out the film’s context and explained how unlikely it was for a critical film to get made, I make three claims in relation to Sirius.
First I make the point that the film’s aesthetics are, to a large extent, determined by production structures and state control. This study shows a link between the film’s aesthetics of interiority – which I argue typifies not just Sirius, but Hungarian films of the era in general – and Hungarian state discourse characterized by radical nationalism. Second I contend that the genre of science fiction allowed the filmmakers to conjure up a false analogy between Hungary’s twentieth century ruling elite and the modernizing aristocracy of the Reform Age. Third, I argue that Sirius can be productively read as an example of a state-approved Hungarian narrative about the country’s relationship with its increasingly overbearing ally, Nazi Germany. I suggest that the choice of genre authorizes the film’s frivolous retreat into a fanciful version of the past, in which the articulation of resentment and misgivings about the present are enabled.

Keywords:Hungary, Science Fiction Cinema, Nationalism, Anti-Semitism, Axis Alliance
Subjects:P Mass Communications and Documentation > P303 Film studies
Divisions:College of Arts > Lincoln School of Film & Media > Lincoln School of Film & Media (Film)
ID Code:25847
Deposited On:25 Jan 2017 14:40

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