JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

copyright 2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 53, summer 2011

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.

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.

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.

A symptomatic-thematic reading: a sexualized body

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

“festival differ[s] from everyday life only in the explosion of forces, which had been slowly accumulated in and via everyday life itself.”[13]

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…

“[f]estivals contrasted violently with everyday life, but they were not separate from it. They were like everyday life, but more intense; and moments of that life—in the practical community, food and the relation with nature—in other words, work—were reunited, amplified, magnified in the festival.”[14]

Lefebvre’s original concepts[15] 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.”[16] 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.[17] 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,”[18] 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.[19] The “antithesis of the quotidian and the Festival—whether of labor or of leisure—[should] no longer be a basis of society,”[20] 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.

An empty body

Finally, following the ironically depicted causative logic of Taxidermia (according to which the generations of the family, and in analogy the different political eras have almost automatically led to the next one), the last act of the saga deals with Kálmán’s son, Lajos, who is the exact antithesis of his father. As a taxidermist, he stuffs dead animals in modern-day Budapest by turning their bodies inside out and filling them with lifeless material. The negative parallel between binge eating of his father, and his activity of filling cadavers with straw speaks of the emptying out of the strategies Kálmán used during the Socialist episode. In the contemporary world Lajos has become a secluded character, with no interpersonal connections at all: he only talks to his monstrous, former speed-eater father who grew out of proportions and cannot move anymore, and the pretty supermarket clerk Lajos attempts to talk to does not react at all to his advances. After the accidental death of the super-obese father (he is eaten alive by the speed-eating cats he is trying to train), Lajos takes the last logical step in the progression of his family’s story: he commits suicide by constructing a machine that kills him and finally stuffs his body. The film ends with the images of a postmodern gallery that has the exhibited body-artefacts of both father and son. A gallery crowd all dressed in white stands by while an arrogant connoisseur gives a speech on the artistic value of the suicidal gesture.

As the film moves into the third episode, the director again composes a transition between the parts that suggests continuity and causation using a hyperrealistic camera movement. At the very end of the middle episode of Taxidermia, we see the huge Gizi and Kálmán staring at their tiny new-born son Lajos in the hospital in disbelief: presumably they expected a more “healthy-looking” baby. After a quick cut the camera frames the mother breastfeeding Lajos. This static close-up turns into a panning movement away from the feeding baby, and the camera “travels” through the milk glass hospital door and arrives at the extreme close-up of rear of a defecating bird. The white bird faeces land on the sidewalk right on front of the taxidermist shop of Lajos, obviously several years later in the contemporary era. While the director’s comparing of mother’s milk with bird faeces seems to depict a troubling family lineage, the fact remains that the mobile frame establishes a strong causative connection linking the two generations and thus the two political eras.

Lajos’s father, Kálmán has become so fat that he is completely immobile: taking his obsession with eating somewhat too far, he is the prisoner of the body that he once used to revolt against the lack of personal freedom. For the first two generations of the family, there was a real possibility to rebel against the social exploitation, but the post-socialist world of the third act removes all visible sources of oppression. There is no monarchist-feudalistic ruling class here, and the Party secretaries of Socialism are also gone. In the presence of an oppressive political power, identity was easily defined and recognized: acts of resistance in themselves became ways to articulate it. Nevertheless, this framework suddenly disappears in 1989 and the historical changes in Eastern Europe create a vacuum: the resisting identities of the past decades become dated, and the new ones emerging were corrupted by their real or imagined connections with the past. The collective political-ethical standards of the East European nations in the post-WWII world were defined by the Manichean ideology of resisting and collaborating subjects. Taxidermia creates a mythology that puts the notion of body as a site for memory and political-cultural resistance at the centre of this struggle.

While for the grandfather resistance meant the creation of a sexual fantasy-world, a site for remembering and identity performance where the quotidian and the festival overlapped, the father revolted against the fakeness of “existing socialism” via literally turning his body into a food container. In the wild-capitalist world of contemporary Eastern Europe the space for the resisting mnemonic body ceases to exist. The sexualized body of Morosgoványi, or the rebellious body of Kálmán become gestures of the past, and the contemporary body is projected as an empty hull. It turns into a signifier or copy that no more maintains a connection with its original. What remains is a caricature of its original functions: it becomes the ultimate object. The third, post-socialist episode of the film collapses the three themes that are symptomatic for the family’s history. Interaction between subject and history (social mediation), the relevance of objects or the role of sexuality negatively refer back to the same phenomenon: how the human bodies are really just duplicates of something they symbolically used to be. They cannot socially interact, they cannot relate to the object world and their sexuality is rendered meaningless. The possibility of the festival, or an “authentic” social-cultural experience disappears in contemporary society, and in the post-industrial capitalist world commodification has reached a new level, where images and reality turn into simulacra.[21] This is the experience that the performative rite of Lajos expresses repeatedly by stuffing lifeless cadavers for well-paying customers (which, again foreground the class-distinction between him and the clients: similar to his ancestors, the film render Lajos as a subordinate clown).

His activities take the concept of Connerton about the body as site of identity performance to a level where this performance destroys the subject attempting to remember. While the body was a resource, which the rebellious Morosgoványi and Kálmán used to perform resistant political body gestures, in the contemporary era the body itself becomes erased in the ultimate performative rite. The loosing of the body’s capacity to serve as a carrier of memory and identity reflects back on the political system that contributed to this shift in the function of corporeality. The falling apart of Lajos, his suicide hints at the perplexity, the confusion and the vacuum that the falling apart of the Socialist system has left behind.

After the death of Kálmán, his son Lajos stuffs him like an animal. The turning of the human body into an object occurs a second time, when a wealthy customer walks into the taxidermist’s shop with a disturbing request: he wants a fetus to be put into a glass ball on a keychain. Finally the viewer witnesses a third incidence of human taxidermy, but this time Lajos turns against his own body. He constructs a machine that decapitates him, but is programmed at the same time to automatically stuff his body after his death. The family saga ends with a scene in a modern gallery where Lajos’s and his father’s bodies are admired as works of art by a snobbish crowd dressed in all-white. The taxidermist’s customer, who earlier ordered the bizarre keychain, now talks to the gathered people about the last thoughts that might have crossed Lajos’s mind before his machine killed him. As he puts it,

“there are things that just cannot be mounted. You can mount your father, or so to speak your whole family, but somehow, what you feel when the blade gets nearer the head, what you feel then, just cannot be mounted. This is a part of who Lajos Balatoni really is.”

The power of this closing scene comes from the theatricality and pathetic melancholy that these thoughts express: the speaker cannot have any idea about who Lajos really is. As Baudrillard puts it,

“[w]hen the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning.”[22]

The stuffed and exhibited bodies of Lajos and Kálmán symbolically point to the twentieth-century Hungary with its political heroes and cultural myths. Instead of being understood and processed they are beheld with an empty gaze. The trendy gallery-crowd in the colourless outfits depicts the basic ahistoricity of contemporary society: by contemplating the human statues as remarkable objects it fails to recognize their relevance for present-day social totality.

According to Niedermüller,

“Today in Hungary most political and social problems can be traced back to the fact that the economic and cultural modernization occurs at a different pace, and that in terms of cultural modernization, the difference between Hungary and other European countries is not diminishing.” [23]

Cultural modernization (also) results in the formation of a modern national identity, which moves away from inventing the country for almost a hundred years as a martyr nation. However, the 20th-century history of Hungary is an imagined story a large portion of which is dominated by occupying foreign powers. As the story goes, until 1918 the Habsburg House maintained its influence over the entire East-Central European region. Then the alliance with Germany from the mid-1930s had a decisive impact on the country’s future and after World War II, Hungary was under Soviet occupation. For the almost the entire century Hungarian collective memory bore the imprints of foreign invasions. Regardless whether these were the results of short-sighted decisions on part of the Hungarian politicians, or in fact unavoidable conflicts with the neighbouring powers, national identity shifted towards an often exaggerated and romanticized notion of the “enslaved” underdog.[24]

Pálfi’s film succeeds in turning the tragic-heroic understanding of the succession of the male generations into a parody. The critical tone manifests itself in the caricaturized depiction of each of the characters‘ actions, the director’s tendency to take the performances of sexual fantasizing, eating and stuffing of bodies to extreme ends and the creation of unavoidable connections between the generations. As I have indicated earlier, the main issue with the tragic-heroic resistant nation myth is that it diverts the attention away from individual and collective responsibility and positions the entire community (the nation) as passive and suffering. Taxidermia targets this logic through the overdrawn, hyperbolic story and its frequent forays into stylistic hyperrealism.

The progression through the episodes of the film shows the disappearance of a ritualistic quality that is depicted through the triptych of the body as a historical entity. As the mnemonic capacity of the performative body is questioned (it destroys itself), in the contemporary section of the film the director foregrounds the problem of historical memory, and consequently that of identity. This provocative gesture does not offer ready-made solutions to the problem it locates, but provokes the viewer to face the questionable nature of the causal- and tragic-heroic mnemonic program. The protagonists in the first two episodes of Taxidermia created a universe, a cultural performativity that allowed them to reenact group identity. Morosgoványi is repressed and he creates a secular bodily mythology and retreats into a private world. Eating for Balatoni is a sport that allows him to escape the repressive bounds of the system, although his body becomes seriously disfigured in the process. This resilient attitude became hard to adopt after 1989. For the taxidermist there is nothing he could resist, he is unable to develop his own ceremonies so he turns against his own body.

Historically, the resistance under both the feudalist-monarchist or the socialist systems facilitated the creation of a cultural attitude that can be described as a negation to the disruption of social totality. However, this is not taking place under the fetishizing capitalist system, as for Adorno: the negation of classist monarchism or feudalism, or the negation of socialism develops this resistant attitude as well.[25] Thus the characters of the first two generations in Taxidermia “survive because they create:” they work out the immanent, dialectical contradictions between their subjectivity and the political reality by using their bodies as mnemonic sites. For the orderly Morosgoványi and for Balatoni, their bodies are at once autonomous works that constantly refer back to their social character but also produced artefacts that position themselves as experienced phenomena. Finally, however, the last descendent of the family looses his mnemonic capacity, which reflects back on the director’s opinion on the faulty logic that he ironically followed throughout the film: the causal narrative of oppressed heroism in twentieth-century Hungary.

According to Adorno, works of art function as monads that are autonomous, since they do not directly reflect on society but are socially anchored (they hide manifest historical tensions and bring to light its surrounding social process).[26] These social monads reveal the significance of art under contemporary capitalism: as independent entities they can articulate a criticism that in turn has a social character. Paradoxically, what the taxidermist as a filmic character is unable to accomplish—use art to reenact and remember social totality—comes to life in director Pálfi György’s film. He is able to display through Taxidermia, a film that functions as a social monad, that the most problematic consequence of a historically causative memory is that it depicts the present as a direct result of the past. This teleological pattern then has the chance to determine current political and ideological positions. The recognition of this dynamics would be a major step in coming to terms with the Hungarian past.

Notes

1. Jameson, Frederic, The Geopolitical Aesthetics (Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1992), 88. [return to text]

2. “Szájtépés filmszakadásig,” Roundtable Discussion on Contemporary Hungarian Cinema. Budapest, Hungary, June 3-4 2001.

3. A quick glance at the reviews collected on Rottentomatoes.com shows the general tone of criticism on the film. [cited November 20 2007]
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/taxidermia/

4. Boym, Svetlana (2001) The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books.

5. For example Szép napok (Mundruczó Kornél, 2002), Fehér tenyér (Hajdú Szabolcs, 2006).

6. This tradition relies most importantly on Foucault’s work on power and subjectivity in The History of Sexuality (London: Verso, 1990);Judith Butler’s influential notion of performativity explains gender identity as
a social construction that manifests itself through constant repetition of gender norms, see Bodies that Matter (New York: Routledge, 1993).

7. Connerton, Paul (1989) How Societies Remember. Cambridge University Press.

8. Connerton, 34.

9. Connerton, 37.

10. Connerton, 88.

11. Jameson, Frederic (1981) The Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 48.

12. The Political Unconscious, 60.

13. Lefebvre, Henri (1991) Critique of Everyday Life I. London, Verso. p. 202.

14. Critique of Everyday Life I, 207.

15. Originally he develops the notion of the festival based on sociological observations he made in secluded Pyrenean communities.

16. Connerton, 101.

17. In this sense the film almost invites an interpretation along Kristeva’s theory on abjection Kristeva, Julia (1982) Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Columbia University Press. In my reading, however, I am more concerned with the social construction of identity and memory.

18. Jameson, Frederic (1988) The Ideologies of Theory, Essays 1971-1986. University of Minneapolis Press. 1466.

19. Lefebvre, Henri (1971) Everyday Life in the Modern World. Harmandsworth: Allen Lane. 204.

20. Everyday Life in the Modern World, 36-37.

21. Baudrillard, Jean (1988 ) ‘Simulacra and Simulations‘ in Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster. Stanford University Press. 166-184.

22. Baudrillard “Simulacra and Simulations,” 172.

23. Niedermüller Péter, “The dilemmas of modernization” ÉS, 51, 29. [in Hungarian, translated by author]

24. This romanticized notion of national identity is related to another typically East European phenomenon, which is not an integral part of the collective memory. As Niedermüller points out, the three phases in the history of the 20th century Hungary (monarchist feudalism, Socialism, contemporary capitalism) have followed each other too soon: their boundaries are blurry, they overlap. (“The dilemmas of modernization.”) In the three episodes of the film, the characters are trying to work out similar problems (social mediation, relevance of objects, sexuality) to which they do not find the solutions. One could say that the mythologies of these different political systems did not organically grow out of the social-cultural progress.

25. Adorno, Theodor W. (1982) Aesthetic Theory. London: Routledge. 323-324.

26. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 257-260.


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