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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Marta MESZAROS: Happiness is being strong enough to fight for yourself. And be cruel at times

12 August, 2010 - 00:00

Beyond doubt, Marta Meszaros is the most renowned of all Hungarian female film directors. She is a living legend of world cinema. Her work in cinematography stretches over 50 years. She started as a director of documentaries and short films, she made one of them in commemoration of her father, noted sculptor Laszlo Meszaros. She shot her first full-length film Eltavozott nap (The Girl) in 1968, which immediately won the special prize of the jury of the International Film Festival in Valladolid. She has acquired international fame owing to her autobiographical tetralogy, which began with the film Diary for My Children (1984, Grand-Prix of the Cannes Film Festival). Moreover, Marta is the winner of the Golden and Silver Bears of the Berlinale, Golden medal of the Chicago International Film Festival, Silver Shell of the San Sebastian International Film Festival, and the FIPRESCI Prize of the Cannes Film Festival.

However, when I offered Marta’s candidature for a jury member of the Second Kyiv International Film Festival, some professionals had to search her name on the Internet. Unfortunately, Hungarian cinema is hardly known in our country. Therefore, after communicating for a week with this strange and complex woman, listening to her colorful stories about the bright personalities of world cinema, her colleagues, and often friends, the hilarious verbal ­duels between Meszaros and Iosseliani (they have known each other for 50 years), I decided to fill at least a bit of this gap for cinema-lovers.

It was already several hours that we were sitting with Marta and her daughter Kasia at the terrace of the festival hotel ­Ri­viera. It was late night already. They were boarding a plane early next morning, but we catastrophically did not want to leave each other: sharp-tongued Marta, with the astute eye of a film director, was at her best.

Marta, I want to start our conversation with a general, but in my opinion logical question. Hungarian cinema has been historically renowned for talented film directors such as Istvan Szabo, Zoltan Fabri, Miklos Jancso, Janos Szasz, you (pardon the direct compliment). I can go on with this list. But those are all the names of old-generation masters, who started their careers under the socialist regime. What is the situation in Hungary’s modern cinema? What topics are stirring the young film-makers? What trends can be seen today?

“This is both a complicated and simple question at the same time. Indeed, movie making has always been strong in our countries, with a variety of styles, the commercial, avante-garde cinema... There have been wonderful screenwriters, film directors and actors. But in the 1990s state funding ceased, and this whole pyramid collapsed. The world is no longer interested in the films that bring the truth about life. When the former Soviet Union was living behind the ‘iron curtain,’ you would watch good, mostly talented Hungarian films and understand: the same people are living there, they drink alcohol, love, and betray. Now Hungarian movie makers have to come up with something new, which was hard, especially for our ge­neration. We have always kept telling people that socialism is a destructive regime, and that the revolution was inevitable. It was not money that we were working for, but for freedom. When they started to demand films that would be a commercial success, a long period of inertia came, until a new generation of film makers was born. Possibly, you have not heard about such a film director as Bela Tarr. This is a very talented man, he is working in the manner of Miklos Jancso. I would call his stream an ‘abstractionist realism.’ His films are five-to-seven hours long, but they are extremely interesting. Tarr was lucky: at the time the society started to analyze why the socialist system failed, what the old world was like. He was the first to shoot realistic philosophical films. The Germans, Americans, and French liked Tarr’s films very much. They enjoyed incre­dible success, both in New York and Cannes. He is the winner of numerous prizes and prestigious awards. On the whole, the group of people to which Tarr belongs, is extremely talented. But many began to follow his manner, make films purely for film festivals. Hungarians practically don’t go to the cinema, and Hungarian television is very bad. Our generation have remained classics, although my latest film The Last Report on Anna somehow enjoyed success, and even took part in the contest program of the Moscow International Film Festival this year. The topic of the film is Hungary in the 1970s. A noted literary critic Peter is tasked by the party and special services to go to London and convince famous Anna Kethly, who was a member of the rebellious government of Imre Nagy during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, to come back home. After the uprising was suppressed, Anna had to escape from Hungary, but even in exile, many years later, she continued to combat the socialist regime of Janos Kadar’s government. The meeting of Anna and Peter becomes a duel of minds, a logical game, whose apparent indifference was covering the still vibrant emotions connected with the events that happened 20 years ago. The main role, Anna Kethly’s, was played by the famous Hungarian actress and film director, head of one of the most popular theaters in Hungary Eniko Eszenyi. For the first time a Hungarian film told that there were many informants among our country’s intellectuals.”

Have your works taken part in the Moscow Film Festival before?

“No, my films were not admitted under the Soviet Union’s censorship. They were shown in the republics of the former USSR only after its collapse. However, once I was a member of the jury board at the Moscow Film Festival, where a retrospective of my films was shown. I came to Moscow on Oleg Yankovsky’s invitation, as the VGIK’s former student. Then, in the winter of my life, I had a premiere. It was pleasant.

“As for the future of Hungarian cinema, my predictions are quite optimistic. Like I told you, young people have started to make good films, and this is gratifying. However, as for me, two directions should be developed, both commercial, and author’s cinema. Hungarians should start going to the cinema again, recognize the names of their directors and actors, the country’s history. For this to happen, of course, one should promote new ideas, work with the form of the films. But a change of government has recently taken place in Hungary, and it is unknown what attitude to the policy of film-making development it will take. I have a very unpleasant feeling, which I used to have previously, when you are being dictated what you may tell in your works, and what you may not. Censorship has been reactivated. Time will show in what direction we are moving now.”


Taking into account the changes in the country, what is the life of the Hungarians like in the EU?

“I trust in it, although I understand that the European Union today is a hard test, both moral and material. But the very idea of its existence is a stroke of genius. Even the existence of a ‘world without borders,’ which enables you to travel across the European countries freely is very important. I think that the European Union is Europe’s future, because Europe is very small. Great China, America and Russia are huge empires, and for Europe it will be difficult to survive without the EU. However, we should get accustomed to each other, the Hungarians should recognize Romanians, Czechs, and Slovaks. This is not so simple. But hopefully my grandchildren will be living in a different kind of Europe. Surely, the national culture should be preserved, but the European Union should exist in terms of economy and territory.”

You were born in Hungary, but in 1935 your family emigrated to the Soviet Union. Your father died in the GULAG. But having emigrated from the USSR, you returned to this country several years later. What prompted this decision of yours?

“Everything is quite simple. My father died in 1938. My mother wanted to come back to Hungary, but this was impossible because our country was Germany’s ally at the time. The world was engulfed by Fascism and Stalinism. Then the war broke out: my destiny was no different from the destinies of Russians, Kirghiz, children of other nationalities: many starved to death, other children’s fathers were arrested, like my father. Others went to war and returned home cripples: with no arms or legs. Therefore I did not hate the people, I hated the system. At the time, however, I did not have a full understanding of what was going on, but I felt it intuitively. And I came back to Moscow when I was not enrolled in the Budapest Institute, and the explanation was that girls are not accepted to study for film directors.”

By the way, why did you decide to become a film director?

“I don’t know. I have been asked this question for my whole life, but I have no answer to it. The decision was nearly absurd. Perhaps, the roots of this desire go back to childhood. Besides, I wanted to spite everyone by becoming a director. I went to Moscow, did some tricks, and deceived everybody: they sent me to study economics, and I entered the film school to study directing (laughing).”

You are an adventurer.

“(Laughing) Yes, I am! That was a wonderful time, when I was studying in the VGIK. I have never felt hatred, dislike or desire to avenge my father. I felt that the socialist system would collapse sooner or later. Understan­ding that it is false, we hoped to see a different life. I even had an anecdote connected with this dilemma. Jan No­wicki was my second partner. He once asked me, ‘Are you afraid of death?’ I replied that I would not die until the Soviet Union collapsed. He laughed, ‘Then you will live for ever.’ Once, one wonderful evening I was cooking dinner in Krakow, Jan came from ano­ther room, fell to his knees, and yelled, ‘Martusia, darling, don’t die!’ I wondered, ‘I’m not going to.’ And he replied, ‘They’ve just reported that the Soviet Union has collapsed.’ (laughing) This news came as a shock for many people, but not for me.”


You have lived for a long time in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Poland. What country’s culture is the closest to you?

“My main sympathies in culture and arts are Slavic. I adore Russian literature and cinema. I don’t accept their modern films though, they are too harsh for me. Perhaps, it is just that I have not seen any interesting works, whereas those that I have seen were made in an untalented and careless way, for television perhaps. For me, the real Russian cinema ended on Andrey Tarkovsky and Hryhorii Chukhrai.

“I have never wanted to live in the Soviet Union or in Russia, but I liked Poland and this country’s language. Nowicki and I broke up four years ago, and I have been increasingly feeling myself a Hungarian. Having wandered across the world, I have chosen Hungary, and it has chosen me. When people grow old, they face a certain choice. I have worked a lot in Poland, I shot films in Hungary, France, and Canada. I have traveled across the world, and I liked this a lot. But with time I came up with a desire to relax, sit still, and contemplate. And it is very difficult to live far from children. After the socialist system collapsed my younger son, who had lived in Germany, came back to Hungary. Besides, I have wonderful grandchildren. I might not spend much time with them and don’t communicate with them without sloppy sentimentalities, but I love them a lot. Do you know, how they call me? Marta. And also Mamczi (smiling). Of course, I love my children, but I feel some ­physi­ological want for my grandchildren.”

You can talk without stop about your children, as well as about cinema, I think. What else do you like?

“I love life. I might have a good nature — I still enjoy life emotions. I like to talk, to have a drink, to quarrel. And I love men. And interesting books. And my dog.”

What kind of dog do you have?

“For a long time I have had a Jack Russell terrier. He died of old age. I decided to get myself a small dog, a Mexican terrier, a Chihuahua. I went to choose it. There were some 30 puppies, and one (a very small one) was sitting quietly, I chose him. Later it appeared that he was not of pure bred. Some crossbreed. Children laugh at me, telling that that was not me who chose him, but that he chose me. The dog — we named him Pedro — is strange. He is very nice and funny. He even has a sense of humor, can you imagine? And an original temper, he is not afraid of big dogs, barks at them, and bites them. He is funny. He is three years old. He is young, he wants to walk and run. In the evening, when I watch TV or read, Pedro is bored and sits near me. I talk to him: he looks at me like he understands every word. Then he gets offended and walks away. He is a good dog, but somewhat bigger than Chihuahua, I cannot take him with me on trips.”

You must be missing your pet. So let us come back to the cinema. You have worked with many European stars: Marina Vlady, Anna Karina, Fanny Ardant, Isabelle Huppert, Jan Nowicki, as well as with the Russian actress Olga Drozdova. What kind of film was that and why did you choose Olga?

“This was a joint Polish-Hungarian production Cury szczescia (Daughters of Happiness). Russians do not like this film, because for me the morals of the Soviet Union and Komsomol is a deceit. When the regime collapsed, Europe was flooded with ­Rus­sian prostitutes. I did not understand why this happened. I wanted to make a film about a certain situation. This kind of movie is hard to promote in Hungary, but I was given money in Poland. I saw Olga in Moscow. She came to the casting. Besides her, another very beautiful actress from Saint Petersburg was trying out, but she had mediocre artistic qualities and high financial pretensions. I approved Drozdova. She is extremely talented and we made friends. Olga played a mother of two children in my film, and did this very well, although she did not have children at the time. When she gave birth to a daughter, I was happy for her and Pevtsov.”

When you approve an actor for a role, are you guided by loud names or can ignore an actor’s popularity, relying on your director’s feeling?

“I am loyal. Many Hungarian and Polish actors have made repeated performances in my films. I like them very much. As for the French, Marina Vlady appeared in the film The Two of Them because back in 1977 Vladimir Vysotsky came to Budapest on a tour with the play Hamlet, called me and asked for a meeting. I picked him up from a theater, brought him home, and we have sat for a whole night together. He did not drink alcohol at the time, just sang for me. Next morning Marina came, we met her at the airport: she went out of the plane, fresh, somewhat plump, but tired woman. I had a script, according to which I was going to shoot a film: I gave her to read it, she became very glad. That is the story. Marina wanted to play Anna Karenina very much, but she was too old for this role. Had it been five or six years earlier… The circumstances were not favorable.

“Isabelle Huppert chose me herself. She phoned and told me that she wanted to play in one of my films, also as Anna Karina: I was very popular in France at the time. I wanted to work with Simone Signoret, but she died. With all these celebrities we had a mutual desire of cooperation: they wanted to play in my films, and it was interesting for me to work with them: that was a different culture, a different mentality.”

You studied in the VGIK during its golden period. Do you communicate with any of your friends of that time?

“Unfortunately, many of them have died. We were friends with Gleb Panfilov and Inna Churikova. She had shootings in Hungary, we went to festivals together. But Inna has changed a lot: you can’t phone her without a reason now, she and Gleb are living in a world that is not understandable for me. Neither can I talk to Gurchenko like in old times. What is interesting, only the ‘Russian tsar,’ not a very pleasant man, Nikita Mikhalkov always calls me back once he sees that I phoned, ‘Martusia, darling, do you need anything?’ Andron Konchalovsky also responds. There used to be a great fellow feeling between Oleg Yankovsky and me. We wanted to work together, but he died. And a great love linked me and Georgi Daneliya.”

Was it a platonic or real?

“It was real. He wanted me to come back to Russia. I refused, because my parents died there, and I could not live so far from my children. He is an incredible man of genius.”

Is a sense of humor important for you in men?

“Yes! Very much.”

That was in a sense a rhetorical question, because Daneliya’s humor is brilliant and extremely funny.

“Miklos Jancso and Jan Nowicki also have a great sense of humor. Especially Nowicki.”

You have mentioned several times this talented Polish actor, who must have been extremely sexual in his young years. I remember a phrase you cast by the way that you were lucky for men. Indeed, your first husband was legendary Hungarian director Miklos Jancso, then your partner became Jan Nowicki, who you’ve already mentioned. Abstracting yourself from a concrete situation, can you explain as a film director, what hidden qualities do you possess that attracted these unusual men?

“(Coquetting) I don’t know. (to her daughter Kasia) What?”

Kasia (in Hungarian): “Those men are handsome, interesting, talented, but not simple. It was difficult to live with them. But they loved my mother, because there is no woman in the world like her. She has a hidden strength of truth that is attracting like a magnet. Both like a woman, and a mother (both laughing).”

Indeed, Marta, you have two sons as well. When did you have time for all of this? To shoot brilliant films, raise children, and change talented men?

“I have never given it a thought.”

Were there nannies at the time?

“The children used to have nannies when they were small. I am lucky, I have good children. Sometimes we have conflicts, but the material was compliant from the beginning (laughing).”

Kasia is Miklos Jancso’s daughter. Has she taken much from her father?

“There is some. Don’t be deceived by her tenderness and femininity, Kasia is an extremely strong person. She is an artist. She took up ceramics, made beautiful things, but it is hard to earn your living by this craft, and she had two little daughters at the time. I proposed Kasia to make costumes for films, because she draws well. At first my daughter refused, but when she tried herself in this profession and felt success, she liked it. She has been working in the cinema for 20 years already.”

Your marriage with Miklos Jancso was long and seemed strong. Why did you split up?

“We have lived the best years of our lives with Jancso. We started to work together, we enjoyed success at the same time, created a family, and were happy. We could never imagine that we would divorce, and never wanted it. But life is complicated, it separated us. In those years we were extremely sought after in our profession: Jancso wanted to travel across the world, me too. I cannot be a servant by my nature, and Miklos wanted that. When I stopped ‘serving’ him, he found another woman, went to Italy and tried to live there. It is interesting that you ask about this. Much time has passed since then, everything has become normal, and we have been good friends for some ten years. We love each other and remember about each other. This is a true unity.”

You are emotional, lively, and youthful in your reactions. You are a coquette, whimsical, with a proper self-esteem. Are you able to fall in love today?

“I don’t think so, although miracles do happen. The nature of my feelings has changed. I was very happy with these men, we loved each other and lived happily when we were together. Therefore this side of human relations is not interesting for me these days: I know that I won’t find anything new for me. And to live with a person you don’t care for… It is better to live with a dog (laughing). If I have any troubles or I feel unwell I go to Kasia or my younger son. The older comes to me. At times I visit ­Jancso, to sit and talk.”

A banal, but eternal philosophical question: what is happiness? Do you know the answer?

“I think that happiness is the destiny to live. We don’t know why we come to this world, at a certain moment, in a certain manner. Neither do we know when we depart. This is a mystery, a great secret of being. It enables us to get to know other people, see trees, animals, and flowers: this is a huge happiness. We are talking now, and you have such eyes. I will remember this moment. There are young girls selling themselves, and an awful man is sitting next to him. He is trying to make himself look younger, but in fact he is old and disgusting. And nearby is a person who is eating in an obscene manner. This is life. Happiness is just trying to live. It may be immoral, but happiness is being strong enough to fight for yourself. And be cruel at times.”

Can you be cruel?

“Of course. (Kasia nods in ­agreement) One should be able to be an egoist.”

The publication was prepared thanks to the international brand Nemiroff


Marta Meszaros was born on Sept. 19, 1931.

In 1935 her family emigrated to the USSR.

She graduated from the VGIK in 1956.

She married and divorced Hungarian director Miklos Jancso, and later became romantically involved with Polish actor Jan Nowicki.

She has three children, two sons and a daughter.


The Girl (1968, special prize of the International Film Festival in Valladolid)

Adoption (1975, Golden Bear, Berlin International Film Festival, Golden Medal of the International Film Festival in Chicago)

Nine Months (1976, the FIPRESCI of the Cannes Film Festival)

Just Like at Home (1978, Silver Shell of the Saint Sebastian Film Festival)

Heiress (Second Wife in Soviet shows, 1980)

Diary for My Children (1984, Grand Prix Special du Jury, Cannes Film Festival)

Diary for My Lovers (1987, Silver Bear, Berlinale)

Seventh Chamber (1995, a biographical film about Edith Stein, a special mention of the Venice International Film Festival)

By Iryna HORDIICHUK, special to The Day. Photos from Marta Meszaros’s archives