The poster of Kunsthalle’s exhibition What is Hungarian? Contemporary Answers, with the traditional Hungarian chilli peppers in the national tricolour – a clear reference to the “spicy,” subversive works exhibited.
The Witness (A tanú): Péter Bacsó’s film satire (1969) about the adventures of a god-willed antihero in Stalinist Hungary quickly became a national classic in Hungary, a cornerstone of identity-politics and roles of masculinity.
Hukkle’s expressive motto “Life, Death and Hiccups” already hints at the ways the film distances from idealizing or dramatic representations of life and death through the body and meaninglessness.
Pálfi’s Taxidermia (2006) tells the story of three generations of Hungarian men, all subdued by history in different ways.
The circle of death/1: the mole eats the worm.
The circle of death/2: the old woman digs out and kills the mole.
The circle of death/3: the woman’s black dog eats the mole.
The sad faces of these men, waiting for their dinner, suggest that they know very well that they are being poisoned. Yet, there is no drama, no fight, just silent submission to the inevitable.
The Midwife’s husband, awaiting death on the porch.
The flies in his meal are all dead.
Leonardo’s Vitrivius: the perfect human being represented as a man, idealized, in the centre of a meaningful, geometrical world.
A bit too close, a bit too far to be “human” in the classical sense.
There is probably no easier and quicker way of understanding the constructedness of history and collective memories than travelling. Changing location is equal to changing focus, perspective and significance. If you want to understand the US better, for example, you may go to Latin-America. For a better understanding of Britain you may go to India or Northern-Ireland. And in order to learn more about the Soviet Union’s role in history, you may visit the Eastern-European countries of the former “Eastern Bloc.” In other words, the “other,” (repressed and buried) history of the United States often resurfaces in Mexico, Vietnam, and Iraq; and the unofficial history of Soviet imperialism is partly written on Eastern-European interrogated bodies, unmarked gravestones and oral narratives. One only has to visit smaller countries, ex-colonies, losers of past wars, and one immediately understands that the world is a much more complex place than we are led to believe. These places are full of alternative historical narratives, counter-memories and a rich heritage of orally transmitted, fragmented historical knowledge that never makes into schoolbooks and “official” History.
Music, literature or film also often function as reservoirs for these unofficial heritages. Film, which establishes a direct sensuous, metonymical connection between the viewer and the objects filmed, often with only a very moderate degree of symbolic mediation, is especially valuable for such purposes. In the present paper I will mainly focus on the ways film may relate to historical narratives and collective memory, how it simultaneously preserves and produces counter-memories and counter-narratives. Focusing mainly on György Pálfi’s award-winning Hungarian film Hukkle (2002), I will also attempt to investigate how – through film – one may remember events that the community has agreed on not to remember, and how a film’s visual style may evoke memories while bypassing the compromised fields of ideology, history, and the social-symbolic order.
The idea that history and memory may function in diverse ways in different cultures has a long trajectory in the social sciences and the humanities (see: Troebst 146). Apparently, remembering, and also the various kinds of identity-politics that it may support, is culture-specific. A recently opened exhibition at Kunsthalle, Budapest, that focuses on ideas of national identity in contemporary art is entitled What is Hungarian? Contemporary Perspectives and includes interviews with a dozen established Hungarian intellectuals. One of their recurring clichés is that Hungarian public opinion is always split, and all social issues become immediately appropriated by sectarian party politics. As one of the quotes in the “reading room” of the exhibition by Lajos Kossuth, Hungarian prime minister at the time of the 1848-49 uprising against the Habsburgs, points out:
Apparently, for Hungarians the habit of resistance, opposition and swimming against the current is so strong that they do not feel comfortable swimming with the current at all even if it would take them where they would like to go. Swimming with the current of official ideology or hegemonic political power is suspicious whatever that ideology or power may be; on the other hand, resistance, dispute and dissent are common ways of relating to the grand narratives of ideology and history. The hot peppers (paprikas) on the poster of the What is Hungarian? exhibition clearly refer to this spicy attitude that may be both enjoyable and painful, sometimes simultaneously.
Apparently, in case of Eastern Europe, one of the most significant factors influencing memory-politics is the region’s frequently evoked tragic and traumatic past. Its peoples have often found themselves attacked, conquered, exploited or colonized by larger neighbouring countries and rising empires from the Mongols, through the Ottoman-Turkish and the Habsburgs to the Soviets. One of the results of this situation is that people often find collective memories and grand historical narratives (something that Hungarians definitely invented centuries before Lyotard) incredulous. The commonplace that History is written by the victors has a particularly bitter after-taste in Hungary. The narratives of official History have regularly been appropriated, constructed, re-fashioned by occupying forces and politically interested groups, imposed upon people by state authorities and institutions. Since these historical narratives were (and are) often means of ideological oppression, people in the region usually must remember against the grain in order to establish some form of identity and historical consciousness that they can call – more or less – their own. Consequently, the lack of grand (idealizing and totalizing) historical narratives typically becomes filled in by what Jan Assmann calls communicative memories, based on family anecdotes, local legends and personal experience. These are typically noninstitutional, “not supported by any institutions of learning, transmission, or interpretation,” not “summoned or celebrated on special occasions” and “not formalized and stabilized by any forms of material symbolization” (Assmann 18). Thus such communicative memories are much more appropriate for sustaining identities of resistance and rebellion.
As Peter Meusburger puts it,
As I will indicate later, film often functions as a medium in which such alternative histories and counter-memories can manifest themselves. As a medium that does not necessarily have to say, or clearly pronounce everything, film in Hungary from the 1960s on (when the “socialist” dictatorship was less strict) became a field wherein state censorship could be bypassed and political systems criticized. The best example of this trend is probably Péter Bacsó’s The Witness (A Tanú, 1969), a satirical film about the hard-liner communist days of the 1950s and their pre-arranged political trials. After 1989, when communist dictatorship ended, there might no longer be the same oppressing outer power to counter, yet, as Hukkle will show, film has still often served as a reservoir for that which cannot be publicly spoken. (For a more detailed analysis of Hungarian cinematic representations of the past see: Strausz).
Another important characteristic feature of Hungarian memo-politics is what Cooper and Jones (in a general Eastern-European context) refer to as “the co-presence of patriot/traitor narratives” (6), one aspect of which includes a lack of unambiguous historical figures. Most historical figures, events, or places within memory are contested, perceived in more or less different ways by people of different political affiliations (professionals included). Commonly the very same figure is staged as a hero by one historical narrative, as a victim by another, and as a traitor by yet another. In addition, idealization through narrative is problematic: a fact that obviously has far-reaching consequences regarding both identity-politics and filmmaking. [open endnotes in new window]
Hungarian public communication and the larger field of collective memory are saturated by taboos, silences, lies and historical minefields. Although these topics preoccupy much of the population, they are never addressed (except by some political extremists), for they are generally considered to be too dangerous to touch. Public figures who address these issues, furthermore, can very easily become stigmatized and outcast.
In such a context, counter-memory, individual recollections, family anecdotes, bodily memories and communicative memory in general may become more important than in case of “more fortunate” nations, where identification with the official national history and its ideology might not bring up as many traumatic memories for most people, as it would in Hungary and other (smaller) countries with stormy pasts behind them. In this respect, the Hungarian situation is much closer to that of the minorities in larger nation-states. Hopefully my application of the terminology of intercultural cinema to contemporary Hungarian cinematic phenomena later in this paper may reveal some productive insights resulting from this analogy.
The backside of History
Locating memories at such non-discursive, material surfaces as the body seems to be a central concern of director György Pálfi. While in his later film Taxidermia (2006), this use of “the body as memory site” is mainly connected to the human body and used to comment on the “dominant political ideologies” of the past (Strausz), Hukkle places the human body in the context of phenomenologically perceived nature, and it sets its characters (both humans, animals and plants) on the margins of history, distanced from political ideologies and historical narratives.
In the Hungarian context of abundance of over-politicized accounts of history, Hukkle is an odd one out: it creates a kind of depoliticised counter-memory. According to Lipsitz, counter memory is
Indeed, Lipsitz’s words about counter-memory characterise György Pálfi’s Hukkle in a most appropriate way. The film starts with the local: Hukkle is set in a remote Hungarian village. It also starts with the immediate and the particular. It shows the daily events of life: milk being poured, a garden gate opened and closed, a goose eating grass through the holes of the fence, a girl looking at a lady bug on her hand, an old woman picking flowers in a meadow, a cat enjoying the sun (see pictures). The spectator may get the feeling that Hukkle does not even want to build from here. It takes time till one realizes that there is a narrative, or at least there can be a narrative, established among the various pictures of plants, animals, inanimate objects and people. Hukkle also lacks dialogue: though sometimes we may see people talking to each other, it is always in the distance, we can never hear clearly what they are saying. There is no extra-diegetic music to conjure up emotions and strengthen identification: the void left by audible dialogue and music is filled by the noises of everyday life. The pictures of human beings are placed in the context of shots of nature: plants growing, animals doing what they do day by day. I will argue and attempt to show through the analysis of the film’s cinematic language, that Hukkle performs a revaluation of the human being, a dislocation of the human subject (as the subject of the gaze or subject of the story). It turns against the ideological and cinematic constructions of humanism, and connects the spectator with personal and collective memories in ways that bypass History, ideology and the symbolic.
In order to understand why a film may try to avoid dialogue, ideology or symbolic meaning, it is useful to look at the traces of a narrative left scattered in the film text. Hukkle is not utterly without narrative meaning, and the traces of the story that the spectator may (or may not) uncover actually lead to traumatic historical events. What one may realize during the film is that in this village women poison men on a regular basis, without any discernible motivation. They make, distribute, and feed the poison in a most natural manner, the same way as geese eat grass or a mole eats worms. These women kill and then bury men without any “human” motivation or feeling. In one telling scene we see a mole in its underground paths, moving, eating a worm; then we hear the sound of a hoe and we see the “midwife,” the elderly woman (who makes the poison for the whole village), working in her garden. She finds the mole, unearths it, hits it with the hoe, then throws it to her dog, who eats it. Except for the worm, all the characters of the scene are black: the mole, the black-dressed woman, and her big dog (see pictures). We see a chain of killing and death, in which the human being is only one link. Death is natural, there is no big deal about it. Our “characters” kill and die without tears, anger or drama; death is part of ordinary life.
The dark historical memory that this series of murders may evoke is usually referred to in Hungary (when it is mentioned) as the “Tiszazug” murders. The Tiszazug was an extremely poor area of Hungary, where in the 1920s the authorities revealed a strange and horrifying murder case. For at least a decade women (in several villages) kept killing people with arsenic. The murderers were exclusively women, the victims were either newborn babies (practically, poisoning babies was a form of birth control), or elderly men, who were not “economically useful” for the community any longer. According to the historian Gábor Gyáni:
One of the frightening and telling aspects of the case is that probably the men knew very well that they were being poisoned. The arsenic was given to them five or six times till it killed them, and it is likely that the men knew after the first or second portion what was going on, yet they did not go either to the police or to the doctor but accepted their fate and kept on eating the dishes that their wives put on the table. Apparently, most of the village communities knew about the unnatural causes of these deaths, yet nobody talked about them (see: Gyáni).
It is this (more or less repressed) historical memory that Hukkle deals with: in a sense, the film fills the void left by the silences of official history. This counter-memory is accompanied by a non-conventional, slightly experimental cinematic language that not only challenges “official” history, traditional story-telling and genre cinema, but also defies some of the ideological foundations of our view of history and subjectivity. From the point of view of the present study, the most significant challenges concern the traditions of humanism and idealism.
The way the Quattrocento’s monocular perspective was combined with particular cinematic techniques (the subjective shot, for example) and formations of subjectivity and meaning in the 20th century so as to produce cinematic and narrative space has been analysed in detail by film theoreticians as Stephen Heath or Laura Mulvey (see: Heath). Here I am only going to mention those features of the film that break with this ideologically laden tradition.
The first thing that strikes one’s eye is that the shots used in the representation of human beings tend to be different from what one is used to: typically, the camera either goes close to the human figure, in extreme close-ups, or goes too far for us to see the individual characteristics of the body or the face (see pictures). Medium shots – which follow the heritage of Renaissance portrait-painting, framing the person’s upper body, staging the human figure as central focus-point of artistic representation – are conspicuously rare in this film.
The other similar, and ideologically equally significant stylistic characteristic is that the human form is often not in central perspective, but rather an accidental detail, or part of a bigger picture. Moreover, subjective shots are very rare: the human being is very seldom the subject of the gaze. Apparently, the film tries to teach us to look at the life of the village and its surroundings from a non-human perspective (see picture).
Hukkle seems to create a film language that successfully breaks with the cinematic tradition informed by the ideology of individualism. Both the modern form of individualism and the iconography of human beings that cinema traditionally applies originate in the Renaissance, which clearly mark their ideological interconnectedness. The independence, freedom, autonomy and self-reliance of the individual, its role as central figure of the modern world view, its capacity for emancipation, self-fashioning and the morally good, its ability to see its own interest and act accordingly, that is, the classical characteristics of the modern individual (who is also the typical “hero” of films) are all consistently undermined by Hukkle. The characters (especially the male ones) apparently do not think, argue, fight for their lives, question their wife’s decisions; they do not express opinions, struggle for goals, turn their suffering into art or philosophy; they simply do their everyday duties and die when others consider that appropriate. The women, on the other hand, do their work, perform their household duties, murder and bury their husbands with the same natural, affectless attitude. We do not see tears, anger or anxiety. Only – as the caption on the film’s poster says – life, death and hiccups. As Anikó Imre rightly states:
The old man (who seems to be a bachelor, living in his run-down little house, sitting on his bench in front of the house, watching as people, animals, life and death come and go) may express the whole film’s attitude. He does not speak a word, he only hiccups and observes everything without judgement or action.
Obviously, from the point of view of gender all this could be (and was) read as a symptom of “an impending, full-blown crisis of masculinity” (Imre 179) and of “female monstrosity” (211), and probably the issue of gender is indeed the point where Hukkle gets closest to any kind of political meaning. However, what interests me most here is the general destabilization and dislocation of the discourses of history, ideology and humanist individualism by an “aesthetic strategy [that] seems to resist the elitist hegemony of ideal meaning” (Imre 211).
Hukkle takes the spectator to the margins of individualism, humanism and patriarchy, to a liminal space on the margins of history, which also happens to be a small Hungarian village in the middle of nowhere. One cannot be sure where and when exactly the film is set, and this any-place-whatsoever and any-time-whatsoever quality matches the rewriting of the above-mentioned ideological constructions perfectly. However, it is not only through these cinematic vehicles and techniques that this ideological-cinematic dislocation is achieved. The film’s lack of emotional drama, psychological depth and narrative story-telling is compensated for by the evocation of sensuous impressions and memory-traces, which (again) take the spectator into a rich world outside ideology, history and official politics of memory.