One of the first films to explore "the complexities and passions" of the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, Szerencsés Dániel was a hit at the 1983 Cannes festival. Andrew James Horton reviews a new video release.
Hungary has, perhaps, of all European countries the most under-rated cinema history. Few nations have managed to produce so many masterpieces and yet receive so little international acclaim for such a rich film heritage. This is, of course, a viscious circle, with the reduced opportunities to view Hungarian cinema leading to less critical writing on the subject, which in turn creates less interest and less demand for further screenings.
Therefore, the re-emergence of any Hungarian cinema classic as a contribution to breaking this cycle is something to be welcomed—Facets Multimedia's recent video release of Pál Sándor's Szerencsés Dániel (Daniel Takes a Train, 1983) included.
In the ruins of the fighting
The film's story begins on 5 December 1956, after the failed Hungarian uprising that tried to overthrow Communism and was crushed by Soviet tanks. The Communists are regaining their grip on power, although Hungarian radio gives reports that demonstators outside the American and British embassies have been shouting "reactionary and fascist slogans." More menacingly, the authorities are starting to round up anyone who fought with the insurgents.
All of which means little to young Dániel Szerencsés as he dances with his 16-year-old girlfriend, Mariann Erdélyi, to the strains of Louis Armstrong. Mariann seems the more confident of the two, putting Dániel's hand to her breast and suggesting they both undress, much to the young lad's disbelief. Mariann's amorous intentions are thwarted, however, with the return of her parents, forcing Dániel to escape through the window. When he returns to the house the next day, he finds the door wide open and the house being looted. The Erdélyi's as "class aliens" have decided to flee to the West before the border is sealed.
Dániel decides to go after them, taking some money and a packed lunch given by his mother. With him goes a friend who he trusts absolutely, Gyuri Angeli, whose involvement in the uprising makes him a wanted man, although the event that pushes him to leave seems to be more an argument with his mother and father-in-law. Gyuri, however, soon emerges as less than worthy of Dániel's confidence: he is dismissive of his maturity, steals his money and leaves Dániel behind on the train. Gyuri doesn't escape the reliant Dániel, who used to stutter as a child, and the two end up hitching a lift to the border with the Russian soldiers on their way to help close it off.
The two find the way to the hotel where the trucks leave from across the border, and there Dániel meets Mariann, whose first attempt to cross the border was not sucessful, and the two make love. Mariann's parents are less than delighted with Dániel's re-emergence, seeing him—with some justification—as a loser who will never be able to support their exceedingly young daughter.
Gyuri meanwhile runs off again and finds his long-lost father, a former member of the Ministry of the Interior who later became a victim of the regime himself. A qualified engineer, he now has a job washing cars and sees no reason to leave. Yet, Gyuri talks him into it and they return to the hotel, where the extreme tension has been broken in the restaurant by a riotous rendition of "John Brown's Body."
Gyuri's father is disturbed when he sees the man responsible for his fall from grace, the sinister secret service agent Ivan Kapás, who also appears to be leaving the country. However, to Gyuri's astonishment his father rescues Kapás from a lynching and helps the erstwhile spook to get revenge on one of his attackers. Gyuri stops the beating with a menacing wave of his gun, and with that the two realise they can no longer stay together. Dániel witnesses the event from a hiding place.
|Dániel about to leave his mother|
After a long day in which he has left behind his family forever, witnessed death at first hand, seen couples separated (perhaps forever), lost his virginity, observed dreams and illusions shattered and watched on age-old tensions come to the surface, Dániel is forced to realise that the apparently oh-so-simple act of leaving the country is not as straightforward as it seems. Suddenly, the initial singular and pure motive he has for leaving seems irrelevant in the face of the vast, complex canvas of human feeling that has been painted out in front of him. He watches impassively as a distressed Mariann on board a truck about to depart for the frontier frantically scribbles a note she hopes someone will pass on to her beloved. As the vehicle pulls away he says a quiet "szervus
" to her, and that is it.
Gyuri chases after Dániel when he learns he has returned to Budapest. Unable to leave, unable to stay and having had his illusions of his lost father shattered, he throws himself from the train, leaving Dániel to scream his heart out.
A brave depiction
When Variety reviewed Szerencsés Dániel following its initial release, they noted that it captures the "complexities and passions" of the period. Sándor presents to us a whole variety of characters, some who chose to stay and some who chose to leave. Focussing more on the latter, he shows not only a variety of stances but also a number of contradictions within them: the wife who wants to leave and the husband who does not want to; the couple who are pretending to be engaged, except the man wishes they really were; and the intense flag-waving patriotism of those who are about to leave their country behind.
In one telling scene, a cabaret singer goes round the restaurant where the would-be emigres are waiting for the trucks to arrive. She picks out individuals and, addressing them as captain, asks them in song what cargo their boat is carrying. The answers reveal the range of emotions felt: two pairs of trousers; a Party card owned since 1945; pottasium cyanide; a sick husband, who can surely find treatment in the West.
To Sándor, nothing is simple. Indeed, the only person who seems to have a simple motive for leaving the country is Dániel, and, as the film illustrates, that doesn't hold up under pressure. The film refuses to paint those who stayed as patriotic or those who left as purely freedom-loving individuals running from a repressive regime. For this reason, Ervin Gyertyán, writing in 1983 for The New Hungarian Quarterly, wrote that the film is a "historically accurate, indeed brave description of the period." 
It is this complexity, though, that makes Hungarian film so under-rated. Szerencsés Dániel, which picked up the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes in 1983, is both an exemplary piece of Hungarian film-making, but also in some ways a very typical one. The unexplained and unresolved motives of the characters, the intense interest in Hungarian history and how it effects ordinary people, the unwillingness to conform to any sort of moral programme and the absolute faith in film as an artistic medium are all common features of classic Hungarian film, and all ones that that many non-Hungarian viewers find alienating. Quite simply, Hungarian film insists on making its viewers think, something that isn't always appreciated in an age in which audiences demand that cinema has an anaesthetic effect on the critical faculties. Perhaps it is worth noting too that Szerencsés Dániel, like many other Hungarian films, has a literary roots, being based on a short story by András Mezei.
Szerencsés Dániel, however, is a highly watchable film. It's intellectuality never overshadows the straightforward screen presence of the characters and it never becomes so political a work that it forgets that a film should strive to be of the highest aesthetic merit too (the solemn misty views out of the train window of the Hungarian countryside are especially striking). And despite its immersion in the specific events of 1956 and "Hungarian-ness," it is still a poignant reminder for viewers from any country that the emotions surrounding pivotal historical moments are never quite as simple as they seem in the history text books.
All of which should augur well for Facets' release, especially as it is a firm has built its reputation on it's unstinting support for world cinema, and Szerencsés Dániel takes its place among over 60 other well-chosen Hungarian releases by the Chicago-based company, including works by Miklós Jancsó, Béla Tarr and István Szabó. The down side, however, is the price tag. Although some of Facets's Hungarian collection retails for as little as USD 25, a more representative price is Szerencsés Dániel's USD 60. Facets admits that at this price it is mainly institutions, video stores and libraries that cough up, although a representative insisted to Kinoeye that such videos are brought by many individuals as well and they do market their videos at everyone they can.
But somehow, despite the aesthetic and human value of this film, I find it hard to urge readers to shell out USD 60 for it. Seeking out your nearest video rental store or institution specialising in Hungarian cinema is, however, highly recommended.
Andrew James Horton
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