The Beginning

Hungary has always loved film. Their history is long and varied. Film in Hungary started but a few short years after it did in the US. June 13, 1896 marked the first showing of a film in a converted hat-shop. One Arnold Sziklai hired a mechanic named Mamoussen to run the projector. So started film in Hungary.

Sziklai and Mamoussen also shot the first film in Hungary, at the Millennium Exhibition. The Emperor Franz Joseph was filmed, but not well, and the film was a failure.

Budapest was and still is the center of Hungarian cinematography. After Józef Neumann and Mór Ungerlaider founded the Projector-graph company and the Apollo Cinema, Hungarian cinema took off. Cafes, the social centers of Budapest, often showed films.

During the early era of silent film in Hungary, Michael Curtiz (Mihály Kertész) distinguished himself as one of the most capable directors on Budapest. He defined early Hungarian film. After being a theater actor throughout Europe, he directed in Hungary. In 1914, he served in the army during WWI, and shot much of the war. After the war, he ended up in the US, end eventually directed a huge amount of films, notably Casablanca.

By 1912, one cinema existed per 10,000 Hungarians. In between then and World War I, several companies were formed and over 50 films were produced. Hungarians loved film, but they loved their books even more. As a result, Hungarian film is strongly influenced by literature.

Collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, rise of the national school.

Although Hungary suffered during the war, it had little impact on the film industry. It was an industry by this point, with several publications (Pesti Mozi) and strong support from traditional stage actors, who enjoyed doing film.

The rise of the national school of Hungarian film started immediately after the war. Sandor Korda and Morics Miklos Pasztory formed a partnership and produced a bunch of films. None of them have survived. Eugen Illes and Marton Garas are also of this school, and were trained in Germany.

Part of the reason the cinema was so successful was the government. In April 1919, it nationalized the film industry, yet relinquished artistic control to the producers. Only the distributors were screwed over, as prices were set and they could no longer exploit the studios. The government consolidated many small studios into six larger ones, and managed 31 films in four months. The Hungarian government collapsed in August, and so did the cinema. During this time of violent restructuring, many films were lost and the industry was destroyed. Almost all the artists emigrated to western countries.

Stabalization and Censorship

Unfortunately, stabalization came with a brutal dictatorship. General Horthy ruled with an iron fist. Censorship was extreme for films produced locally. THe oft-cited example is that of a producer who couldn't show horses galloping away in a cloud of dust. That scene supposedly reflected badly on the quality of Hungarian highways. Almost all films after the fall of the Republic were imported. In between 1919 and 1929, a mere four or five films were produced in Hungary. 1929 marked the slow return of locally-produced films to Hungary. The Singing Fool in 1929 was a hit in Budapest. In 1931, the first Hungarian talkie, The Blue Idol was released. Most Hungarian films were silent even through 1935, as it was cheaper. Talkies were dubbed in Hungarian and imported by major distributors.

Hunnia, a state-sponsored studio, opened in 1932. Hungary taxed imported films in an effort to support the local film industry. One film in 20 was supposed to be Hungarian. The taxes were meant to fund subsidies for the production of government-approved scripts. These films were horrible, bland and very popular. Any film, no matter how bad, sold at the box office if it was shot in Hungarian. There was nothing else to watch.

From 1919 until 1943, nothing new happened in Hungarian cinema, except sound. The only films allowed were formulaic comedies. Gyula Kabos produced the majority of these. In trying to break the mold the state had forced him into, he tried a few tragic comedies like An Affair of Honor. He was forced to leave and ended up in the United States. Film continued with very little new thing being done. A typical production schedule was two weeks.

During this period, many Hungarian ex-patriots worked in Hollywood, and some films were shot on location in Hungary. Pál Fejös was invited back to Hungary by the French Osso to do two films.

The Second half of the Century

After World War II, the Horthy government collapsed, and many filmmakers returned home. The Academy of Dramatic and Film Art was formed, and a small reniesance happened, albiet under Soviet influence. Soviet films were introduced. In good capitalist form, the Soviets and Hollywood both distributed a huge amount of films in Hungary in an attempt to capture the market. Locally produced films were only done under government license, and by 1948 the industry was again nationalized.

The rise of Socialism in Hungary in the late 1940s stifled much of the post war innovation. Almost all film followed a narrowly defined format. Histories, Socialist dramas, and light comedies were about all that was allowed. The Soviets sent "advisors" to make sure Hungary produced the correct types of films.

In the 1950s, there was a limited amount of artistic freedom, after the failed 1956 uprising against Stalin. The most notable films from this time period are Felix Mariassy's Anna Szabo and Zoltan Fabri's Fourteen Lives Saved. The late 1950's were surprisingly liberal, given that a revolution failed.

Creative freedom

In the 1960s, Hungary gradually opened up economically, but the cinema was still Socialist and nationalised. Cantata in 1962 marked this new wave of film. The government realised that other countries were allowing new, younger filmmakers to realise their art. It took them until the late 1960's to reform the Academy of Dramatic and Film Art. A whole new wave of directors, such as Ferenc Kardos did socially critical films, such as A Mad Night.

In 1989, Hungary became a partial democracy again, in 1990, the government gave up its autocracy. It saw a process of westernization similar to other Eastern European countries. Hollywood and Western European films were badly dubbed, but loved. The local production studios consolidated, because the government no longer supported them. Films similar to Underground were produced, reflecting upon a dark socilist history. Full integration into western culture happened in 1999, when Hungary joined NATO.


  • The International Encyclopedia of Film by Dr. Roger Manvell. Rainbird Referance Books ltd. Rugby, England, 1972. This is a 1972 tome that is a very complete encyclopedia of people, places and events. Pages 267-272 used.
  • The World Encyclopedia of Film by Cawkwell and Smith. November books ltd. New York City, 1972. This is about people only. Few pages used.
  • Interview subject: Margaret Burnette, National Geographic TV Senior Producer. She is a Stanford film school graduate. May 2003.
  • Stalin and Stalinism, by Martin McCauley, 1995.

Written for e2Film

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