Szabó, Istvan

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SZABÓ, Istvan

Nationality: Hungarian. Born: Budapest, 18 February 1938. Education: Academy of Theatre and Film Art, Budapest, graduated 1961. Career: Directed two shorts for Béla Balázs Studio, 1961–63; directed first feature, Almodozások kora, 1964. Awards: Silver Bear, Berlin Festival, for Confidence, 1980; Oscar for Best Foreign Film, David di Donatello Prize, Hungarian Film Critics Award, and Best Screenplay Award and FIPRESCI Prize, Cannes Festival, for Mephisto, 1982.

Films as Director:


Koncert (Concert) (short) (+ sc): Variációk egy témára (Variations on a Theme) (short) (+ sc)


Te (You . . . ) (short) (+ sc)


Álmodozások kora (The Age of Daydreaming) (+ sc)


Apa (Father) (+ sc)


Kegyelet (Piety) (short) (+ sc)


Szerelmesfilm (Love Film) (+ sc)


Budapest, amiért szeretem (Budapest, Why I Love It) (series of shorts: Alom a házröl [Dream about a House], Duna—halak—madarak [The Danube—Fishes—Birds], Egy tukor [A Mirror], Léanyportre [A Portrait of a Girl], Tér [ASquare], Hajnal [Dawn], Alkony [Twilight]) (+ sc)


Tüzoltó utca 25 (25 Fireman's Street) (+ sc)


Ösbemutató (Premiere) (+ sc)


Budapesti mesék (Budapest Tales) (+ sc)


Várostérkép (City Map) (short) (+ sc)


Bizalom (Confidence) (+ sc); Der grüne Vogel (The GreenBird) (+ sc)


Mephisto (+ sc)




Redl Ezredes (Colonel Redl)




Meeting Venus (+ sc)


Sweet Emma, Dear Bobe (+ sc)


Offenbach titkai


Sunshine (+ co-sc)


By SZABÓ: articles—

Interview with Yvette Biro, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), July 1966.

"Hungarian Director Szabo Discusses His Film Father," with Robert Siton, in Film Comment (New York), Fall 1968.

"Conversation with István Szabó," in Hungarofilm Bulletin (Budapest), no. 5, 1976.

"Mit adhat a magyar film a világnak?," interview, in Filmkultura (Budapest), January/February 1978.

"The Past Still Plays a Major Role," interview, in HungarofilmBulletin (Budapest), no. 2, 1979.

"Dreams and Nightmares," interview with L. Rubenstein, in Cineaste (New York), vol. 12, no. 2, 1982.

"Mephisto: Istvan Szabo and 'the Gestapo of Suspicion,"' interview with J.W. Hughes, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1982.

"I'd Like to Tell a Story," in Hungarofilm Bulletin (Budapest), vol. 2, no. 84, 1984.

Interview with Karen Jaehne, in Stills (London), December 1985/January 1986.

Interview with R. Pede, in Film en Televisie + Video (Brussels, Belgium), November 1991.

Interview with A. Crespi, in Cineforum (Bergamo, Italy), April 1992.

Interview with K. Csala, in New Hungarian Quarterly (Budapest), vol. 33, no. 125, 1992.

Interview with L. Joris, in Film en Televisie + Video (Brussels, Belgium), no. 432, May 1993.

Interview with Tomi Aitio and Peter von Baugh, in Filmihullu (Helsinki), no. 6, 1997.

On SZABÓ: book—

Petrie, Graham, History Must Answer to Man: The ContemporaryHungarian Cinema, London, 1978.

On SZABÓ: articles—

Jaehne, Karen, "Istvan Szabo: Dreams of Memories," in FilmQuarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1978.

Hirsch, T., "Filmek családfája," in Filmkultura (Budapest), March/April 1981.

"Colonel Redl Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), March 1986.

Christensen, Peter G., "Collaboration in Istvan Szabo's Mephisto," in Film Criticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), vol. 12, no. 3, 1988.

Gyertyan, E., "In Search of a Trilogy," in New Hungarian Quarterly (Budapest), vol. 29, no. 112, 1988.

Rutkowski, A. M., "Opera Europa," in Kino (Warsaw), July 1990.

Mills, M. C., "The Three Faces of Mephisto: Film, Novel, and Reality," in Literature Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 18, no. 4, 1990.

Blomkvist, M., "Maste det regna pa var karlek?" in Chaplin (Stockholm), vol. 33, no. 5, 1991.

Lefebvre, P., "La tentation de Venus," in Grand Angle (Mariembourg, Belgium), September/October 1991.

Bohlen, C., "Meeting Venus Sings of Politics," in New York Times, November 10, 1991.

McCreadie, M., "Istvan Szabo," in Premiere (New York), November 1991.

Baron, G., "Harom trilogia," in Filmkultura (Budapest), vol. 28, no. 2, 1992.

Landrot, Marine, "Les exorcistes," in Télérama (Paris), 14 December 1994.

Piette, Alain, "The Face in the Mirror: Faust as a Self-deceived Actor," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), April 1998.

Cockrell, Eddie, "Sunshine," in Variety (New York), 20 September 1999.

* * *

Istvan Szabó's films are notable because he works with a rich spectrum of possibilities and decisions, which only when seen in their totality attain the poetic quality that becomes the viewer's primary experience. Istvan Szabó reacts like a sensitive membrane to everything that has happened around him in the past or is just happening. At the same time he builds solely from motives that brand a film reel with the mark of an individual personality. This is true even when he strives for seemingly objective symbols such as, for example, a streetcar—"that constantly recurring, tangibly real and yet poetically long logogram for his individual and very special world." Such were the words of the noted Hungarian historian and film theoretician Josef Marx as he considered the work of director Szabó. They underscore the essential characteristic of Szabó's work: its inventiveness, which in his films takes on general forms in the broadest sense.

Szabó's first feature film, Álmodozások kora, together with Gaal's Sordásban, was the most expressive confession of an artistic generation and became a model for other artists, while his entire work has built up an unprecedented picture of contemporary life and its activities. In his earliest period Szabó's starting point was his own experience, which he transformed into artistic images. At the same time he carefully absorbed everything that was happening around him. He attempted to discern the essence of modern people, and to come to an understanding of their concerns, endeavors, and aspirations. His films examine young engineers at the start of their careers; the personal ideals of a young man on the threshold of maturity; the changing relationship of two people, framed within a quarter-century of Hungarian history; the dreams and locked-up memories of people living together in an old apartment building; the story of an ordinary city streetcar with an allegorical resemblance to our contemporaries; the love and distrust between a pair of completely different people in a charged wartime atmosphere; and a deep probe into the character of a young actor whose talents are displayed and subordinated by the totalitarian power of nascent German fascism.

All of these films are linked by the setting off of intimate confession against historical reality. The images of Szabó's films are full of poetry and the symbolism of dreamlike conceptions. They capture the small dramas of ordinary people—their disappointments, successes, loves, enthusiasms, moments of anxiety and ardor, joy and pain—as the history of post-war Hungary passes by in contrapuntal detail. Istvan Szabó creates auteur films in which the shaping of the theme and the screenplay are just as important as the direction, so that the resulting works bears a unique stamp. The heroes of his films are not only people, but also cities, streets, houses, parks. In his films, his native Budapest serves as the point of intersection of human fates. Under Szabó's creative eye the city awakens, stirs, arises, wounded after the tumult of the war, and lives with its heroes.

In the early 1980s Istvan Szabó deviated from the rule of auteur films (the model for his film Mephisto was a novel by Klaus Mann). This detracted nothing from the importance of the work, which won an Oscar and several other awards. Even in this film the director left his imprint; he managed to develop it into a picture of personal tragedy painted into a fresco of historical events. At the same time, it shows that the creative process is a tireless search for pathways. Only a responsible approach to history and the way it is shaped can help the artist gain a complete understanding of today's world.

"To awaken an interest in the people I want to tell about; to capture their essence so that a viewer can identify with them; to broaden people's understanding and sympathy—and my own as well: That's what I'd like to do," Istvan Szabó once said in an interview. His films are an affirmation of this credo.

—Vacláv Merhaut