JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Pálfi György, the director.

Many of the film’s posters focused on the comic aspects of the film.

The press-kit at the Hong Kong Film Festival: a chunk of meat.

Restorative visions of the history: Honfoglalás creates a heroic image of the nation.

In Sacra Corona the mythical past takes nostalgic forms.

In Hídember, the lone 19th-century genius is applauded.

Szabadság, szerelem depicts to the 1956 revolution within the romantic action-genre.

Sunshine addresses the topic of the assimilation of Jews in Hungary.

Fateless looks at the Holocaust through a young child’s eyes.

Archaeology of flesh:
history and body-memory in Taxidermia

by Laszlo Strausz

“The meaning of the fable then lies not in making a stab at interpretation, but (…) in locating and hypothesizing that feature of national culture and the national experience to which this peculiar interpretive dilemma can be said to be relevant.”
— Frederic Jameson on Days of Eclisse (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1988)
[1][open endnotes in new window]

The grotesque storyline and the hyperrealist visual style of György Pálfi’s 2006 film Taxidermia make it difficult for an international audience to watch it as a critical historical trope. However, under the façade of the film’s comic exaggerations that focus on various bodily obsessions, the director draws a complex image of Hungary’s 20th-century history. Through the story of a family’s three generations, the film depicts how the three main political systems have impacted the ways individuals use their body as a memory site that preserves the traces of dominant political ideologies.

Taxidermia’s black humour does not hide the ideological implications of its triptych-structured plot. The first section revolves around the adventures of the orderly Morosgoványi, who serves in the quasi-feudalistic setting of a military outpost during the Second World War. Exploited and humiliated by his superiors, the hare-lipped man creates a sexual fantasy-world, where the strict class-boundaries do not apply anymore. His inability to separate the reality of the military outpost and that of his imaginary world ultimately leads to his downfall. His son, who competes in speed-eating competitions during the Socialist era, illustrates the common man’s resistance to the official ideology of collective ownership. The morbid sport, illustrated in the film via a hyperrealistic visual style, grotesquely deforms his body, but, similarly to the first episode of the film, transforms it into the site of resistance. Taxidermia’s obsession with corporeality culminates with the third episode, where the speed-eater’s son, locked into a tiny, frail body, makes a living as a taxidermist. While for his ancestors the living body served as a site of resistance, the contemporary character in the post-1989 era loses the ability to performatively express his identity through his body: thus, as a final gesture, he stuffs his father’s and his own empty body later to be exhibited in a gallery space. Pálfi’s film draws a comic and grotesque image of the country’s past, which critical revisits the idea of teleological historical development as an important component of the nation’s identity during much of the 20th-century. The gesture of critically addressing the past in the cinema during the last twenty years in Hungary has been a rare phenomenon. Taxidermia, on top of its unique narrative and stylistic strategies, is an important film as it takes up the task of confronting some of the myths about the country’s recent history.

Taxidermia was sold as an odd body-film. The advertising campaign put into the forefront various aspects of corporeality.

Several years ago, as a young critic I was invited to take part in a roundtable discussion on the status of contemporary Hungarian cinema in Budapest.[2] What I witnessed during the debates and conversations was a “clash of generations.” The filmmakers and the critics in their forties and fifties insisted that the most relevant question for East-Central European cinema today is by all means a historical one, and kept questioning the younger directors: “Where is your political consciousness? Why don’t we see the current diverse political and historical shifts reflected in your films?” In face of this inquiry, the younger directors pointed out the ambiguities of contemporary social-historical experience and its connections to a past that are often mediated through the expectations of an older generation. Besides the numerous discussed shifts that have changed the face of film production and reception in the post-socialist countries (among others the dissolution of the state-financed film production, the competition for the screens with global products that have much a higher production value, the relative unpopularity of the historical film genre), from the roundtable meetings there seemed to emerge a sense of perplexity about how to cinematically relate to the past.

For those generations that created or critiqued motion pictures under the socialist regime, political art meant something entirely different than for the directors in their late twenties or early thirties. In the latter’s films, social criticism was shyer and subtler: it rather filtered through character types and not symbolic language, through available generic frameworks and not allegorical storytelling strategies. Not entirely unrelated to my own age at the time, I sided with the younger artists. In any case, it seemed that the two parties spoke a completely different language. Although both agreed on the issue that art and more precisely cinema should locate social problems and ask provocative questions about the changing historical realities, their ideas on how to achieve this could not have been more different. The significance of this generational divide during the roundtable discussions was not a self-contained one; for me at the time it was important since it showed that cinema is surrounded by the unspoken assumption that is should, in one way or another, interpret historical questions. What surfaced as a general problem during the roundtable meetings included several complicated theoretical issues that went unacknowledged: what is the role of cinema in creating memories of the past and the present? How do these images influence society’s understanding of its current self? Who should filmmakers address: the general film-going public or a smaller group of literati? What artistic strategies are best suited to accomplish the task of making films about social-historical topics? Here I certainly do not plan to answer these complex and much debated questions, but am interested in how history, and more importantly, historical remembering surfaces in arguably one of the most important Hungarian films of the post-1989 era, Taxidermia by Pálfi György. While many reviewers have focused on the scandalous or obscene aspects of the film and described it as a cinematic oddity,[3] I think it is a misleading approach since it hides from the spectator the analyses of the creators on the body and its relations to cultural memory.

During the Soviet occupation in East-Central Europe, historical or political themes in cinema had usually been addressed via poetic language. The parables or allegories grew out of the complex artistic images, or sets of symbols, which could be interpreted by the audiences as resistant or critical voices that attempted to circumvent politically motivated state censorship. In the countries of East-Central Europe, the various national traditions gave rise to significantly different forms of politically motivated filmmaking. Polish films earned the title of “cinema of moral concern,” as they attempted to analyse the personal-moral consequences of modernity and its various political manifestations. Andrzej Wajda’s oeuvre (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958; Man of Marble, 1977) clearly exemplifies this trend. Czech cinema came to be known for its sense of humour in depicting the life of the common man (Jiri Menzel, Closely Watched Trains, 1967). Black humour often surfaced in the works of directors in the former Yugoslavian state (Dusan Makavejev, W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, 1971). Hungarian cinema, and probably the best known Hungarian director, Miklós Jancsó was noted for the stylised, complex mobile sequences that repeatedly problematized issues related to the distribution of political power across various historical situations (e.g. The Red and the White, 1967). Taxidermia displays that it continues these aforementioned earlier trends, which become inflected with the historical perspective of the post-1989 era.

We can find numerous films about historical topics produced in Hungary after 1989 about both the immediate and more distant past. Using Svetlana Boym’s distinction between the two kinds of nostalgia and remembering,[4] these can roughly be broken down into two categories. On one hand, restorative nostalgia attempts to reconstruct a memory of an idealized era or event(s) and more importantly presents itself as the exclusive and unproblematic version of it. To this group belong films like Honfoglalás (Gábor Koltay, 1996), Sacra Corona (Gábor Koltay, 2001), Hídember (Géza Bereményi, 2002) or Szabadság, szerelem (Krisztina Goda, 2006). Each of these films depicts a select moment of the Hungarian past foregrounding its grandeur and celebrating the achievements of a few heroic individuals. The function of this type of remembering is to choose a point in historical past and to show the linear progression of the nation from this past to the present. Implicitly, the aforementioned films compare the hardships of these eras with contemporary ones, but seem to conclude that just like the ancestors, present-day society will overcome the difficulties it faces, since the present is a direct result of the past.

On the other hand, reflective nostalgia is interested in memories that shed light on what is fragmentary or changing, unstable and discontinuous in history. Films that realise this seconds type of nostalgic memory explore contradictions or fissures, and often focus on the quotidian as opposed to the extraordinary. Among many others, significantly different films like A részleg (Péter Gothár, 1995), Csinibaba (Péter Tímár, 1997), Sunshine (Napfény Ize, István Szabó 1999), Helyfoglalás, avagy a mogyorók bejövetele (András Szõke, 2000) and Fateless (Sorstalanság, Lajos Koltai 2005) attempt to depict a less homogenous and straightforward image of the past to shed light on what is underrepresented or problematic, changing or malleable. Their aim is not the accurate reconstruction of historical events, but much rather to speak of the multiple ways the past can be understood, used or represented. Asides from these explicitly historical themes in various films, there are several motion pictures produced in Hungary after 1989 that refer to history less directly but use formative events as a backdrop to the story with a not explicitly historical focus.[5]

The films mentioned can be regarded as various attempts to come to terms with the past in restorative or reflective ways. What they have in common, however, is that each of them aims to dissect specific events or focuses on historical agents, but not longer processes and more importantly, their connections, or the changes that separate them. Szabó’s Sunshine forms the exception here, and this film is structurally similar to Taxidermia: both attempt to give an overview of Hungary’s history across three generations of a family. However, while the goal of Sunshine is to meditate about the question of assimilation for the Jewish Sonnenschein family across the twentieth century, Taxidermia itself is a meta-historical work: on top of dealing with three historical eras, the film obsessively returns to the question of how our recollections are formed about these eras. In the following, I will argue that by ironically reconstructing the history of the twentieth-century Hungary in form of a family saga as an inevitable and linear succession of male generations, the director criticizes the idea of a teleologically progressing history, and displays his scepticism of the causal connections that exist between the separate eras and identities. This criticism becomes visible via the systematic overuse of the techniques of caricature and hyperbole and the hyperrealist visual style, which turn out to be Pálfi’s central tools in this body film based on several short stories of contemporary Hungarian writer Lajos Parti-Nagy. The writer is an emblematic figure of contemporary Hungarian literary life. His texts (poetry, prose, translations etc.) have often been described as “postmodern.” Typical characteristics of his work are the excessive transformations of common language, the usage of deliberately truncated or flawed elements, and the systematic placement of the absurd and the parodic in his texts. He regards his role as an author similar to that of a craftsman, who manually kneads language into novel forms. Pálfi has successfully translated the literary text into cinematic forms, preserving and further developing the qualities of the original. 

Memory, identity and the body

In Pálfi’s film, the events around three generations of the family unfold in three different historical eras. Each episode introduces a situation where the protagonist is exploited by more powerful characters, which is depicted along the lines of their increasing sexual failure. In this sense, Pálfi is trying to capture collective, shared experiences of the pre-socialist (one could argue that this section evokes the impression of the monarchist times, although there are no explicit references to this), socialist, and the post-socialist times by focusing on how the human body becomes a terrain for remembering, acquiring and sharing group identity—in reaction to the humiliation and exploitation it experiences. Remarkably, each of the episodes selects a recurring, performative corporeal practice, and these in turn display how the characters private lives are inherently bound up with the political sphere. The influence of the political on the private manifests itself in several different ways in Pálfi’s film, but I will single out the three axes of communal-social relations, the psychical object world and sexuality to represent how the rites performed by the respective members of the family change across the different political systems. By choosing the terrain of the body to contemplate the themes of memory and identity, Taxidermia aligns itself with an intellectual tradition that emphasizes structural connections between social norms, repetition and incorporate routines.[6] Along these lines, Paul Connerton has argued[7] that commemorative social rites as a form of social memory are often performed as bodily practices. So that I can situate the body performances in Taxidermia as a form of memory and identity practice, it seems worthwhile to revisit this argument.

The first generation in the pre-socialist era: Morosgoványi, the orderly.
The second generation in the socialist era: Kálmán, the speed-eater.
The third generation in the post-socialist era: Lajos, the taxidermist

According to Connerton, one way of creating group identity is by producing social habit-memories, which are different from personal and cognitive memories. Habit memories are “accumulative practices of the same,”[8] where ‘same’ refers to the recurring activities “within the mental and material spaces of the group.”[9] The continuity of identity, i.e. the belonging of the individual to the group can be understood as a formalized and performative re-enactment of a prototypical event that forms a core experience, or a “master narrative” for the given community. Connerton argues that this performative memory is located in gestural or bodily activities.

“Bodily practices of a culturally specific kind entail a combination of cognitive and habit-memory” [and] “it is precisely because what is performed is something to which the performers are habituated that the cognitive content of what the group remembers in common exercises such persuasive and persistent force.”[10]

In this sense, the separate generations of the family in Taxidermia perform their belonging to the group and their relations to the historical forces they have no control over by caricaturized incorporate gestures. In the following, I will try to show what “master narrative” is practiced by the characters across the various political systems of twentieth-century Hungary. Ultimately, by connecting these different performative rites through the classical novelistic grandfather-father-son structure, the film turns the progression of the male bloodline (here represented as history) into a comedy that ironically revisits and criticises the idea of causative historical progress.

To trace the development of different political systems through the film, and to break down how they mediate their regulations towards the individuals, I will focus on how the processes of bodily rites perform the function of collective remembering in Taxidermia. For the East-Central European viewer who grew up during the Socialist era, collective body memory is a familiar identity function that was practised in various Socialist celebrations and marches (for example May 1 – International Workers Day, April 4 – the liberation of Hungary by the Soviet troops in 1945), or youth movements centrally organized and controlled by the government as a tool of ideological education. The pioneer movement (membership was mandatory), somewhat similarly to the boy- or girl scout movements in other countries, put on celebrations or marches, organised various activities and summer camps, in order to create a “proper ideological environment” for the youth of the nation. These collective bodily rites are well-known to everyone in the region except the youngest generations: in the pioneer movements, the dominant ideology was turned into an experienceable collective practice. Thus, Parti-Nagy and Pálfi’s choice of rites that focus on the body is grounded in communal experience of the Eastern European audiences.

In my analysis of the individuals’ strategies to deal with the historical totality surrounding them, I will rely on Henri Lefebvre’s notions of the quotidian and the festival. The dialectical interplay between Connerton’s framework of collective remembering and identity formation, and Lefebvre’s descriptions about the function of the festival allows me to approach Taxidermia as a meta-historical text. Through a symptomatic-thematic reading, I will try to reconstruct another text that lies at the bottom of Pálfi’s film, which appears to be criticizing the idea that we can explain the present by pointing out its historical causes in the past. The question about the linearity or causality between the past and the present has significant political implications, and the pro- and contra arguments are part of the rhetoric of different political platforms that surround many important ideological questions in contemporary Hungary about race, sexuality or class issues.

According to Jameson, the critic should perform a

“diagnostic revelation of terms or nodal points implicit in the ideological system which have, however, remained unrealized in the surface of the text.”[11]

The fact that the discourses on national identity in Hungarian cinema remain hidden and coded, but often surface in the expectations of critics calls for an investigation of that “repression.” The interpretation of the critic “always presupposes, if not a conception of the unconscious itself, then at least some mechanism of mystification or repression in terms of which it would make sense to seek a latent meaning behind a manifest one, or to rewrite the surface categories of the text in the stronger language of a more fundamental interpretive code.”[12] Along the lines of Jameson’s description about the purpose of criticism, I will argue that the important social function of Pálfi György’s Taxidermia is that the film addresses the issue of historical (dis)continuity among the present and the past. Even if this topic remains buried in the discourses of resistance, sexuality and the material object world, it regularly breaks through the texture of the historical saga to show us its relevance for contemporary realities.

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