Emory Report
February 20, 2006
Volume 58, Number 20


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February 20, 2006
Partnership yields rare look at Hungarian film

Lailee Mendelson is manager of public relations for the Office of International Affairs.

A group of Emory College students have the opportunity this semester to participate in a unique collaboration between a top American film historian and one of Hungary’s leading poets.

Hungarian films, novels, poetry and history are on the menu for students enrolled in “20th Century Hungarian Film and Literature,” co-taught by film studies Professor David Cook and Hungarian poet and former politician Gyula Kodolányi, now visiting Emory for the second time through an agreement with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Both professors are passionate about the subject, and their collaboration is a result of personal and professional affinities.

Cook has been an admirer of Hungarian cinema since the 1980s, when he decided to add a chapter on Eastern Europe to his book History of Narrative Film, considered by many to be a definitive text on film history. Eastern European countries, Cook said, experienced a new wave in cinema in the 1960s and ‘70s, but in those days of the Soviet Iron Curtain, it was difficult for Western audiences to see most of the films. Cook was able to find some American distributors for the films of Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó and began showing them in his courses at Emory as early as 1978.

“The first Hungarian film I saw was Jancsó’s Red Psalm, made in 1971, and it simply blew me away,” Cook said. “I had never seen anything like it in my life, and I still consider it one of the 10 greatest films ever made.

“I began to research Hungarian cinema in depth and found one of the world’s richest film cultures in a nation of 10 million people, a simply astonishing fact,” he said. “The more I examined Hungarian culture, the more I discovered that this richness extended to all areas of life, both intellectual and material.”

“I had a very high opinion of David’s knowledge of Hungarian cinema,” said Kodolányi, who met Cook two years ago during his first visit to Emory. “I was actually stunned that he had never been to Hungary, because there was such an understanding and appreciation of the culture apparent in his writing about Hungarian film.”

After returning home in 2004, Kodolányi invited Cook to visit Hungary. Through his connections to the Hungarian Motion Picture Foundation (on whose board he sat), Kodolányi helped Cook organize interviews with some of Hungary’s leading directors, including Jancsó, Béla Tarr and István Szabó.

“To be able to meet these filmmakers whose films I had admired so greatly for so long was a transcendent experience,” Cook said.

Out of Cook’s trip abroad grew the idea of a jointly taught course, which would mix his expertise on film history with Kodolányi’s knowledge of Hungarian literature and deep personal connection to 20th century Hungarian history (he was active in the Hungarian opposition movement of the 1970s and ‘80s) and to Hungarian filmmakers, many of whom he knows personally.

Covering the general themes of the two World Wars, the 1956 Hungarian uprising and other broadly defined topics (such as “the Human Condition” and “Land, Nation and History”), the course includes weekly readings in Hungarian literature and history, and viewing of films.

Some of the films are being shipped from the Hungarian Film Archive—in an unprecedented exchange agreement with Emory—for what may be their first viewing in the United States (outside of small festivals when they were initially released). Such an exchange agreement is something the Hungarian archive has with no other U.S. university, and the films will subsequently become part of the University’s collection.

“One of the reasons we are using literature in the course is that the communication among filmmakers, writers and poets was very intense in those seminal 30 years between 1965–95,” Kodolányi said. “In Budapest there was a very lively and active art subculture, where all kinds of ideas were circulating.”

Kodolányi said much of the power of his nation’s films stemmed from their unique ability to subvert the oppression of the Communist era. “Art was the most vital area of communication,” he said. “On the one hand, the communists appreciated, subsidized and censored art, because of its strong communications appeal and a (fortunate) cultural snobbery built into communist dogma.

“On the other hand, films sent coded messages to their audiences while also constantly testing the frontiers of what was allowed to be said,” Kodolányi continued. “Through this rich and deep medium, therefore, we could daily reassert our individual and communal freedom.

“The imagination is hard to expropriate by power.”