In the first act of the film, we witness a monarchist world of masters and servants, where class seems to be the determining aspect of the characters and their actions. This episode takes place during the pre-socialist years of the Second World War. The film takes us to a mountain military outpost on some frontier, where a frustrated officer lives with his wife, two daughters and the orderly Morosgoványi. The oppressive circumstances of the situation manifest themselves in brutal verbal and physical abuse of the hare-lipped private by his superior: the former basically functions as a feudalistic servant to the family. Forced into a dull daily routine of chopping wood, feeding the animals and cleaning, Morosgoványi escapes into the private universe of his sexual imagination that will become a surrogate world for him. He is not able to distinguish clearly between his imaginary libidinal universe and the material reality of his life. As the film progresses along several scenes of ritualistic autosexual performances, the officer eventually shoots Morosgoványi to death after the latter presumably had sex with his wife.
The episode ends when the wife gives birth to a baby with a tiny tail, which seems to be the continuation of Morosgoványi’s birth defect (his hare-lip) and thus confirms that the child is his son. The episode continually overlaps images of naked female bodies with pig meat: in these perplexing sequences, the officer’s wife, his two daughters and a slaughtered pig are confused intentionally to depict the fantasy world of Morosgoványi. Additionally, this first chapter introduces the film’s focal point of the human- and animal body, alive and dead flesh or meat, and foreshadows the theme of devouring that dominates the second episode. While the grotesque overlapping of naked bodies and meat allows for the inclusion of hilarious sequences, these simultaneously express how the creation of the orderly’s fantasy-world is a direct reaction to the oppressive circumstances of the quasi-feudalistic world of the military outpost.
In this first stage of the film, the everyday routines of the main characters seamlessly mix with the more “celebratory” events. In Henri Lefebvre’s terminology, the festival and the quotidian overlap. According to Lefebvre, the festival develops on the basis of its anti-thesis, the everyday, and the
The two concepts allow for a criticism of social space and everyday life. As Lefebvre remarks, before post-industrial capitalism, this dialectic was more visible and integrated into the structure of society, as…
Lefebvre’s original concepts show their relevance for Pálfi’s film through everyday activities of the characters (feeding the animals, chopping wood), which at the same time represent the material reality of the historical situation. The bleak grey colours used to depict the scenery are not interrupted with more saturated colours, until the viewer is introduced to the fantasy-world of Morosgoványi. The dissimilar colour-schemes divide from each other the two realms of the orderly’s universe: in the first he is a servant, and the grey tones express the idea of his miserable condition. As soon as he finds refuge inside his invented mental world, vivid colours take the place of the earlier tints. In the feudalistic world of the first episode we witness a strongly repressive class-based mini-society, where Morosgoványi is an exploited servant. He is able to create a specific mode of cultural experience for himself that displays the qualities of the Lefebvrian festival experienced individually. His imagination turns the hard objectivity of monotonous work into a carnivalesque event.
This capacity for creating the ‘celebratory’ out of the ‘everyday’ manifest itself in the director’s depiction of Morosgoványi and his relation with objects. In one of Taxidermia’s visually complex scenes, the orderly is seen putting his face in the steam rising from the bathwater in a wooden tub. After a few seconds, a continuous 360-degree camera movement starts to circle around and above the bathtub. The floor of the room becomes a constantly revolving horizontal trap door and from the mobile shot it appears as if the camera was a planet in the orbit of the tub with its gaze fixated on it. As the circling movement completes an 180º-turn, it travels through the floor only to emerge on the other side revealing a new section of the family’s history.
The bathtub is literally the centre of the household, which remains static while the camera moves around illuminating the various activities it can accommodate: bathing, sleeping, making of bread, making love, giving birth, dying, washing cloths, storing food. Thus this object provides an anchor for the panoply of family members’ activities. The fact that people’s lives revolve around it in diverse phases demonstrates its essential function: it maintains a strong connection between the activities it allows to perform and the individuals. Here a synthesis of the quotidian and the festival reveals itself via the interaction of humans and objects. The bathtub is not a commodity, it rather displays how it can be employed to create a life-world around the characters, which remains capable of producing communal cultural practices.
Throughout the episode, Morosgoványi’s sexual fantasies penetrate the diegetic world of the military outpost. During a masturbation scene, the soldier imagines himself into the world of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Little Match Girl. The film visualizes this insertion by combining the animated (tale) with photographic image (filmic characters.) When he ejaculates, his sperm shoots up into the night sky and via a visual trick becomes the stars. In this sense, the orderly becomes the creator of his own imaginary universe. Half-real, half-imagined sexual experiences repeat when Morosgoványi has sex with his superior’s wife and fathers the latter’s son. The act takes place in the same bathtub, where the remnants of a slaughtered pig still lie around. Thus the images of the intercourse and close-ups of the meat are intercut, making in hard to know whether the orderly really has sex with a woman or is on top of a piece of meat imaging the act. The meat-flesh association is also depicted in another masturbation scene including a hostile poultry. As the orderly attempts to pleasure himself using a greased hole on the wall of the barn, a hen starts to peck at his penis emerging from the inside of the shack. The scene makes it clear how in the orderly’s mind the boundaries between everyday life, work, fantasy and celebration are washed away. One might look at Morosgoványi’s unusual sexual fantasies as bizarre, but one fact remains hard to dispute: they are real desires. Throughout the second and third episode of Taxidermia, the possibility of sexual desire will gradually fade away.
In the first part of Pálfi’s historical family saga, the characters’ lives unfold in a repressive quasi-feudalistic system. While the fantasies of Morosgoványi are escapist in the sense that they allow him to invent a safe world of sexuality and imagination, they always reflect back on and are rooted in the concrete materiality of the quasi-feudalistic setting. The modality of the orderly’s eccentric visions incites a structural understanding of the character as an exploited lower class subject. He remembers or performs his identity through obsessively reenacting this core experience that foregrounds his social status. In these reenactments, Morosgoványi repeatedly enters his imaginary world, where the practice of violating class boundaries becomes a re-inscription of those very boundaries that divide him and the other characters. The fact that these rites are essentially body performances shows us that “these practices (…) cannot be well accomplished without a diminution of the conscious attention that is paid to them.” Thus, Morosgoványi’s identity is not so much reenacted intentionally but more as a “gut reaction” through the body, and more specifically through his socially transgressive sexual fantasies. The overdrawn, sex-(and class)-obsessed Morosgoványi, as the film reveals, literally will became the “cause” (father) for the next generation. This would normally suggest that according to the film’s logic, the class-related frustrations cause (father) the socialist era.
Furthermore, the virtuoso mobile transition that connects the first and second episodes naturalizes this causality between the generations and the political systems.
In what seems to be a point-of-view shot, the officer is looking at his new-born son whom he holds in his outstretched arms. The camera starts to tilt down towards the ground, and after a 180-degree turn reveals the father himself upside down holding the baby. As the tilt continues and frames the blue sky above, three fighter jets appear in formation that are, as we find out in a few seconds, part of the socialist ceremony in the opening scene of the second episode. Here the continuous mobile frame pretends to preserve the continuity of time and space between the monarchist and the socialist times. A simple cut would have created a more disruptive transition between these two episodes of Taxidermia, but the camera movement seamlessly connects the two eras. However, the film seriously undermines this simple, causative logic by the caricaturized and hyperbolic characters, and by the porous line it draws between the real and the imaginary.
A rebellious body
In the second act, the Morosgoványi’s son, Balatoni Kálmán grows up to become a national speed-eating champion under the socialist regime. It is this part of the film that grossed out most viewers and reviewers, as the first part’s focus on sexuality gives way to all kinds of bodily functions related to eating and throwing up. Undoubtedly, the highlight of the episode is the socialist eating contest that features Russian, Bulgarian, Chinese and Hungarian competitors. It is here that the downfall of the protagonist, Balatoni begins, since he is forced to give up the game as a result of a lockjaw. The frustrated eating-champion becomes obsessed with his body volume, and tries to set up new world records in all kinds of bizarre eating categories. Pálfi here is focusing on the changes caused by socialism in people’s relation to the material object-world: the ideology of collective property and the lack of private ownership finds itself expressed in the grotesque distortions of devouring.
As the film progresses, the director’s assessment on the value and function of objects and sexuality changes, which in turn leads to his critique of the various forms of social-communal relations, politics and identity. In the second act, the viewer witnesses the socialist colonization of imagination through the story of the orderly Morosgoványi’s son. The figure of Balatoni Kálmán, a speed-eating champion, becomes a symptom for the distorted relation between individuals and the object world in Hungary during the post-WWII decades. In line with the official ideology of the Party, private ownership and property was banned, and every citizen of the state owned goods collectively. However, the popular term “existing socialism” came into existence when people started to realize that collective ownership is hardly more than a myth. In reality, the Party rhetoric barely hid the formation of the new ruling class living under significantly different circumstances than the majority of the people. While the original Marxist critique was directed at the phenomena of reification and commodification of social totality under the capitalist system, “existing socialism” in the East European countries also realized a specific form of class-based society. Since the political system did never allow the citizen to develop a “cognitive mapping function whereby the individual subject projects and models his or her insertion into collectivity,” society as an organic whole remained a utopia in spite of the official ideology of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party.
In Pálfi’s film, the characters’ fixations call into being a reversed fascination with ownership that is indicative of East European societies during the socialist system. The obsession with commodities is here not the result of capitalism’s alienating processes, but rather a frustrated surrogate activity: the lack of freedom and social justice coupled with the relatively low life standards made many people to compulsively focus on ownership of objects. In the second episode of Taxidermia, these objects take the form of food that is available to be eaten. Kálmán, the eating champion, and his friend Béla, will devour all the food (i.e. material wealth) that they cannot be the owners of. In the second act of the film, the Party organizes an eating championship between the sportsmen and –women of the friendly socialist countries, which gives the director the opportunity to restage the official, self-celebratory culture of the system.
In line with Lefebvre’s notion of the everyday and the festival, the Party is trying to accomplish a forced staging of the festival or the carnival. Among the theatrical sets of the typical socialist-realist Pantheon, each country lines up their players who compete in various numbers while in the intermissions vomiting out everything they ate in the previous rounds. The mise-en-scène of the scene carefully recreates and at the same time criticizes the idiotic efforts of the organizers to hold a carnival, the function of which, according to Lefebvre, should be the turning of the everyday into a work of art. The “antithesis of the quotidian and the Festival—whether of labor or of leisure—[should] no longer be a basis of society,” but allow for a synthesis of the two.
In a round stadium decorated with several elements of official Soviet-type celebrations (red flags, young pioneers and workers cheering, internationalist music playing all under the paternalistic-benevolent gaze of the Party secretaries), the staged eating contest among the socialist competitors results—as prescribed—in the Soviet participant’s triumph. As the camera cranes around the arena framing the applauding crowd, the official delegates and the eating-contenders, the efforts of the organizers become perceptible to depict a united Socialist camp: the delegates from socialist Mongolia and Bulgaria cheer back-to-back. The scene is a hysterical reformulation or parody of Stakhanovism, a movement that rewarded workers for extreme diligence in increasing production. In the factory, the Stakhanovist competition was supposed to increase the motivation of the workers to contribute to the set productions goals of the state. During the eating-carnivals, the price goes to the competitor who can devour the large amounts of food.
What the grotesque eating-carnival really accomplishes, however, is the making clear of two simultaneous attempts. On one hand, the Party’s efforts to compensate for the individual’s lack of freedom with a fake carnivalesque festival (panem et circem), and, on the other hand, the individuals desperate endeavours to own (i.e. eat) all the objects they can put their hands on. At the same time, the eating contest also operates as a metaphor for the contradictions of state socialist system itself. The obscene spectacle of the speed-eating male bodies attempts to display a richness of goods in the socialist Hungary, thus compensating the citizens with visual signs. Ironically, the obscenity of the devouring hints at the obscenity of consumerism in a uniquely socialist way, as the competitors stubbornly hold on to the signifiers of “plenitude.”
These signifiers also surface in the scene where Kálmán and his wife are invited to a boat excursion, where a high-ranking Russian party official is given a reception. Here the two are offered a fully paid summer vacation at a sea resort, if they eat about a hundred pounds of caviar out of a red star-shaped container to entertain the guests. Similarly to the other two episodes, the scene makes it abundantly clear how the protagonist, Kálmán is positioned as a subordinate clown who, nonetheless attempts to transform the event into a performative bodily rite that articulates his identity in the given political system.
As Kálmán confesses to his friend, when he started to train seriously as a competitive eater, there was one point where he realized: his stomach was larger than his body. Since outer freedom cannot be realized (the physical body is not free), the sports-eater internalizes this need, and gobbles everything that is put in front of him. Food becomes a surrogate for independence. This fixation with eating even dominates the sexuality of the characters. Kálmán and Béla regard Gizi, the female sport-eater, as a price to be won. The two men, who regularly compete at different eating championships, even train together, finally strike a deal: the better eater should win the woman as well. Although we will see Gizi having sex with Béla on the night of her wedding with Kálmán (she is chewing away on a large piece of pork while the man takes her from behind), this only shows how the female body has become a terrain of power-struggle, on which the male characters’ quest for self-determination is played out.
This aspect of the film’s representation of gender is actually in line with the other episodes, since the entire progression of the family and ultimately of Hungarian history is depicted as a succession of male characters. Almost all females who we encounter in the film play a supportive role, who have little or no impact on the decisive events. This can certainly be seen in the females of the first episode whose function is hardly more than to fuel the fantasies of the orderly. The masculine logic of progression is evident again in the socialist episode of the film with the competition of the two friends for Gizi, who passively accepts the advances of both of Kálmán and Béla. As I mentioned earlier in relation to the causative understanding of the connections between the episodes and thus the historical eras, the director himself puts the status of this logic into relief via the strong caricaturist style. Eating fulfills a similar function for Kálmán and Béla as autoeroticism for Morosgoványi, but each of these characters display such extreme symptoms of their manias that the effects of Taxidermia’s hyperrealistic representation of them is hard to take at face value. The director criticizes the apparent masculine linearity of the film through the ridiculed and overdrawn characters, their pitiful obsessive actions.
Taxidermia’s second episode realizes an image of a political setting where the individual is confronted with the oppressive power, just like Morosgoványi was in the preceding act. However, there is an important difference between the two. The lack of individual freedom forced the orderly to retreat into a world of carnivalesque imagination that remained intact in the face of the classist tyranny of the military outpost. But in the world of the eating champions, both the everyday and the festival are regulated by an official culture that is an extension of “existing socialism.” It seems that the director wants to capture the master narrative of the era via the activity of eating. This routine, which the body carries out to manifest its resistance to the official discourses about collectivity, becomes a mode of identity performance for the two contestants Kálmán and Béla. The question whether or not Taxidermia assigns responsibility completely to the historical-political circumstances and thereby relieves the individual from accountability is inextricably bound up with how the viewer evaluates the tongue-in-cheek obscenities of the film. On one hand, the monstrous scenes and their monstrous logic are supposed to gross out the viewer, but on the other hand it is hard not to notice the director’s intentions to criticize the represented via the ironic, hyperrealistic mode of representation.