Was the patriotic and government-financed A Hídember a failed attempt by the then ruling right-wing party to get it through the elections? Felicitas Becker looks at the film and its exploitation.
The release date for Géza Bereményi's A Hídember (The Bridgeman, 2002), a treatment of the life of Hungarian count, philanthropist and reluctant revolutionary István Széchenyi, had long been known: 11 April 2002. But only after 7 April, the day of the first round of the Hungarian parliamentary elections, did the significance of this timing become evident.
Fidesz, the right-wing party whose coalition government had supported the making of the film financially and ideologically, had done badly in the first round and looked set to lose power. Viktor Orbán, the party's leader and prime minister, responded with a last-minute campaign that tried to portray his opponents as "sell-outs" to international capital. So A Hídember, the story of the count who tried to stand up to Hungary's Austrian rulers during the revolution of 1848 to 49, suddenly looked like additional fodder for the party's publicity mill.
A tragic hero
The making of the film, its timing, and the rumours that surrounded it, were characteristic of the Orbán government's use of the media, at once sly and high-handed, and A Hídember is not the first epic with a patriotic regard for Hungarian history or culture to which the government has given enthusiastic backing. Csaba Káel's Bánk Bán (2001) and Gábor Koltay's Sacra coruna (Sacred Crown, 2001) are two other high-profile examples, and before losing office the Fidesz-led government alotted to money to forthcoming films on the popular renaissance king Matthias Corvinus and the inter-war conservative prime minister István Bethlen.
The amount of attention paid to such filma is a reminder of the weight Hungarians attribute to their history. Given this thick context, A Hídember is remarkable above all for being so slight, even naïve.
Széchenyi's heritage is highly visible to this day in Hungary's capital. His name has been given to the oldest and most stately bridge across the Danube (which he conceived of, hence the title of the film), the national library and some outdoor thermal baths. He is thought of as a progressive man defeated by his times, a tragic liberal hero. However, he was also a mentally unbalanced man who survived the failed revolution of 1848 to 49 in a mental asylum and killed himself 11 years later.
If one knows only this much about its hero, the film brings no surprises. It is sumptuously made, in the typical way of a costume drama. There is plenty of silk and embroidery, galloping horses and jealous ladies. And, of course, high-minded revolutionaries and scheming Austrian officials. Károly Eperjes—an accomplished actor, but one whose greatest qualification for having the lead role, according to some rumours, lay in his friendship with the prime minister— gives his Széchenyi a sad and tormented face from first youth.
This self-consciously tragic air permeates the film, but it is rarely sustained by its well-made but bland looks and narrow approach to its subject. The film has no time for the country and people that Széchenyi agonised so much over. It gives the impression that the revolution was fought and lost by a bunch of moderately competent aristocrats. The most striking moments come with the portrayal of the ageing and increasing loneliness of both Széchenyi and his great opponent, the Austrian prince and chancellor Klemens von Metternich, when the film briefly achieves an unwont coldness and lightness of touch.
Rewriting the history books
The prime reason for the anticipation with which the film was greeted in Hungary, however, was its budget. It reached over HUF 2 billion (USD 7.5 million); that is, several times the annual budget of the Hungarian film commission, which makes grants to Hungarian film directors and producers. Hungarian film-makers protested bitterly that it was far better to allow a larger number of more reasonably budgeted films to be made, giving work to a wider range of directors, and opposition MPs accused the governement of trying to build a clientele state.
In addition, Domonkas Kosáry, doyen among Hungarian historians of Széchenyi's times, dropped his role as historic adviser to the film's makers out of annoyance at the film's tampering with history, after an early version of the screenplay tried to re-interpret the main character's suicide as murder by Austrian secret agents.
In other words, the film was seen in Hungary as a pet project of the government which had devoured a disproportionate share of the country's scarce resources for film-making, and was bound to have a propagandistic edge to it. This was made all the more galling for Hungarian observers by the fact that the film's director, Géza Bereményi, has been regarded as an accomplished and progressive—both politically and artistically—film-maker since the 1980s.
In effect, A Hídember is patriotic in an almost didactic way, but it could hardly serve to pinpoint the Fidesz government's enemies as those of the Hungarian nation. Audience responses have not been unfriendly, but even film-goers supportive of the government that pushed for its creation can be heard wondering whether this film was worth starving the rest of the Hungarian film industry of subsidies. Viktor Orbán's party gained ground in the second round of the elections, but still lost them. A Hídember meanwhile has since its release been deflated from a political ploy to harmless costume drama.
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