István Szabó is probably Hungary’s greatest living filmmaker (though some would argue on behalf of Bela Tarr, about whom a bit more later). No need to take my word for it, though — thanks to Pacific Film Archive’s Watch from Home series, recently restored prints of three of Szabó’s best features are currently available for rental.
The Oscar-nominated Bizalom (Confidence, 1980) depicts the confusing months following Germany’s occupation of Hungary through the eyes of Kata (Ildikó Bánsági), spouse of a resistance fighter being pursued by the newly installed puppet regime’s police. Assuming a pseudonym, Kata goes into hiding with deeply paranoid Janos (Péter Andorai, who passed away a few months ago), another resistance supporter also on the run from the cops.
Masquerading as a married couple recently separated from their daughter, Kata and Janos establish an uneasy relationship that isn’t easy to sustain — especially as they’re living with an elderly couple who aren’t in on the secret. Though the two slowly grow closer over the course of their enforced conjoining, things take a turn for the fraught when Kata’s real husband Tamas (Lajos Balázsovits) unexpectedly resurfaces.
1981’s Mephisto remains Szabó’s best known feature, no doubt because it took home the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1982. It’s also considered the director’s most personal work, with frequent collaborator Klaus Maria Brandauer (their most recent joint effort, Zárójelentés, opened in Hungary in February) headlining as a 1930s German actor torn between maintaining his artistic integrity and bending the knee to the newly empowered Nazi Party. Szabó’s past as a low-level intelligence operative for the Hungarian government during the 1950s clearly informs this powerful piece of artistic penance.
Oberst Redl (Colonel Redl) followed in 1985, and provides another portrayal of political and personal intrigue, this time set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the years immediately prior to the Empire’s Great War-induced collapse. Brandauer plays the title character, a deeply loyal officer tasked with identifying some suitable (and, if necessary, fictional) internal enemies for the Emperor’s political purposes. Also Oscar-nominated, Colonel Redl’s protagonist is a deeply flawed man determined to prove his loyalty to the crown in spite of rumors concerning his ethnicity and sexual orientation; inevitably, he becomes a pawn in his own game.
All three films reflect Szabó’s interest in and knowledge of Hungarian history and deep focus on questions of ethics and personal morality — but if you’re a Szabó skeptic and want to compare them to the work of the aforementioned Bela Tarr, PFA can help out there, too! Tarr’s magnum opus on Hungary’s communist past and post-communist future, Sátántangó (1994), is also available via Watch from Home, but be forewarned: it’s over seven hours long. Make an extra large tub of popcorn.
Finally, if you’re in the mood for something a little more frivolous, PFA is also streaming Jules Dassin’s 1955 classic Rififi. Shot while the blacklisted Dassin was in European exile, this prototype for the modern caper flick is anchored by a near half-hour long safe-cracking sequence that will keep you on the edge of whatever piece of furniture you’re reclining upon. François Truffaut famously described Rififi as the best film noir he’d ever seen, and he wasn’t far off the mark.