Footnotes: Márta Mészáros in Bucharest

4 November, 2021
Collage by Elodie Chiper

I wonder why we needed so much time to start a serious discussion about Márta Mészáros’ time in Bucharest.

It wasn’t a state secret, nor a minor fact, that the counter-canonical director (born in 1931) entered the rows of the documentary filmmakers working at the “Alexandru Sahia” studio in ’56 or ’57, only for her to return to Hungary in ’59, where she would end up making history with her fiction feature debut, The Girl (1968). Even though Hungary didn’t offer much in the beginning – as the local film school was, at the time, only accepting male students –, her short stop in Bucharest is still somehow enigmatic from a professional point of view. The Sahia studio had started its activity in the latter months of 1950, after the Romania Film studio had split into half – into the Buftea studio, dedicated to fiction films, and Sahia, to documentaries. Meaning, the tradition of the studio was not the reason why Mészáros came to Bucharest.

“… what brought me here was not work, but love. I fell in love with a Hungarian boy from Romania in Moscow, where I had studied film, and so I followed him here. My son was born in Romania, in Bucharest, and will forever remain close to me. I am so very happy to present this film in Romania,” the filmmaker stated on the stage of TIFF, in Cluj, where, in 2018, she was awarded a distinction for her entire career, timed to coincide with the local release of her most recent film, Northern Lights (2017).

Márta Mészáros at TIFF 2018

The boy in question is none other than László Karda (Ladislau Karda), a long-running member of the Sahia studio – thirty years, a hundred films – to whom Mészáros got married, only for them to divorce later on, probably in the same year as she left Romania, and then, in the sixties, she went on to marry the legendary Miklós Jancsó.

It’s not an easy task to untangle Márta Mészáros’ biography; as in the case of most authors who have melded their own lives into their work. Her parents fled the fascism of the thirties, finding refuge in the Soviet Union, more precisely, in Kyrgyzstan; and that happened either in ’33, in ’35 or even ’36. But László Mészáros, a renowned sculptor at the time, was to be sentenced and killed; either in the same year (according to the filmmaker herself), or in 1945. Shortly after, her mother too would pass away – either during childbirth or by falling victim to typhoid fever. I’m lining all of these facts up to underline the urgency in tracing the history of Márta Mészáros; we have some data, and some films that might prove to be invaluable in this sense.

All the more so that the history of how her cinema was received by audiences in the former Soviet Block is not as smooth as many would assume. In fact, only the topic of how Romania reacted to the Eastern European new waves – the Hungarian, Polish, Yugoslav and Czechoslovak ones – could constitute the topic of an endless study. Particularly, we know that the erotic scene in Loves of a Blonde (dir. Miloš Forman, 1965) is missing from the analogue copy of the film that is preserved at the Romanian National Film Archives (ANF). Well, following a marathon of Márta Mészáros’ films organized by Film Menu in 2020 at the Eforie Cinematheque, I can bluntly state that at least two of her films from the seventies – Riddance / Szabad lélegzet (1973) and On the Move / Útközben (1979, starring Delphine Seyrig as the protagonist) – were also distributed in heavily-censored versions in Romania. Also, a spectator from the northern city of Oradea, who was also a speaker of Hungarian, told us that some of the first film’s cheekier lines were tamed in the subtitles. As the filmmaker had also been active in Poland, where she was to meet Jan Nowicki, another one of her loves, the story – a footnote of the filmmaker’s impressive run on the western festival circuit – doesn’t end here.

I was saying that these films could be very precious for the history of cinema; as per usual, the team of One World Romania, this time under the smaller umbrella of the Sahia Vintage cineclub, has the propriety of cinematic value. Their newest run brings forth three of the Hungarian filmmaker’s Romanian-era documentaries, together with seven other films, directed by the Yugoslavian Slavomir Popovici.

Márta Mészáros is Márta Mészáros is Márta Mészáros; and her early films are not hiding this fact. What makes her prime for the Romanian fifties-era documentary film production is her tendency to look back on the habits of interbellum society and at the horrors of war; cinematically speaking, that means looking for moments which are prime material for flashbacks. I’m not saying that other condemnations from the documentaries of fifties are unjust, but she has first-hand memory on her side. Să zâmbească toți copiii (1957)

Let All Children Smile (1957) I feel that my preference for Let All Children Smile (1957) is a bit of a trap. Since, of all of the films, this one lies closest to the “grand themes” that the filmmaker would end up exploring – in The Girl, Adoption (1975) or Diary for My Children (1985) – all of them regarding a cut-off maternity or questionable ways of belonging; a stranger as a mother, the mother as a stranger, the state as a mother, the father as an enemy of the state. But I’m not setting out to do some aesthetic bravado, like to search for another Mészáros. In her first Sahia documentary (out of five), the filmmaker gives herself to an ample visual construction in order to popularize the activity of the No. 6 Children’s Home of Bucharest, an orphanage for girls. Over a text written by Eva Sîrbu and images shot by Doru Segall, the film starts off with a pretty common narrative sleight of hand, from small to big – from ample panoramas of Bucharest to some run-of-the-mill houses in which children are roaming freely. Then, after a short visual poem dedicated to the school, she aims – all children learn how to say “mommy”, even the ones who have never known the caresses of one. Their sad eyes betray them; once she arrives at this point, the filmmaker virtuously reconstructs the memory of the retina, with tiny, alert shots which unleash the flames of war. This will not be the film’s only flashback that has a tinge of fiction, but it’s its most impactful one. With such a vizual here-and-fro, Mészáros seems too agile for this format; if one were to put their finger on this film’s flair, it would be at the point in which it becomes visible that a momentary little short does not stay stuck in the clunky voice-over.

1958 catches the filmmaker as she’s slowing down. The Women of Our Days is a sample of that particular strand of feminism that is typical to Romanian socialism; one that is discussed in a retrospective tone, that has seemingly solved all that it had to solve from its very first days. Now a collectionner, the filmmaker gathers the faces and voices of several women that hold key roles in society – a doctor, a judge, an artist, a teacher etc. – while candidly illustrating the state of grace that is maternity in parallel, all in the harsh light of the 8th of March. Here, too, we have the unmissable flashback – on her maternity bed, a woman briefly remembers the murky village in which she grew up, one of the countless places on the face of the earth where women had been aimless. Mészáros’ hands are again working to construct formal rigour, but the energy, the spark is lost; it’s much too similar to a film about women in general than it is to her films about women.

The Change of Tomorrow (1959)

Another one about the communist state’s care for its “23rd of August generation”, brought up in the brand new world, is the filmmaker’s final Romanian documentary, The Change of Tomorrow (1959). Showing the same sensibility towards details and faces, yet dedicated to constructivist imagery, Mészáros once again takes the path of strikingly reconstructing the world which still haunts those that have seen its demise. The young pupils studying in Bucharest’s professional schools might be tomorrow’s shift workers, but the one happening today belongs to their parents, who are precisely the haunted witnesses. But there is also something else – skipping through the pupils’ stories, the filmmaker runs into an orphan girl to whom she ends up dedicating a speculative visual incursion: what would she have become under the old regime? It’s clear that the forms of fiction and those of nonfiction are, in fact, little more than formalities in the eyes of Mészáros. In this sense, towards the end of the documentary, there is a remarkable moment. After their classes are over, the kids gather around to see an adaptation of Nikolai Ostrovski’s famous How The Steel Was Tempered, a milestone of socialist realism. “This is how they lived, fought and won, during those hardened years, the children of the proletarian revolution,” the voice-over ennobles the fiction film, mentioning the “parent-like care of the party”; the paternal metaphor, again and again. We are on a mined territory, in a perpetual time; still, let us name it, the fifties. The director’s nonfiction validates this fiction, in the documentary tradition in which the ideological document trumps the kind that is self-sufficient. And Mészáros herself would end up leaving numerous such documents behind, legible even in the absence of biographical or political details, yet hardly decodable. And such a body of work is not one that is easy to hint at.

Artwork by Elodie Chiper

Film critic and journalist. He is an editor at AARC and writes the ”Screens” features for Art Magazine. He collaborates with many publications and film festivals as a freelancer and he is strangely attached to John Ford's movies.