Hungarian animation is teeming with life, energy, pathos, and wit. From its beginnings in 1915, it has featured artistry and experimentation, steadily building up an international reputation for excellence and imagination and an intriguing mixture of traditional and modern storytelling. While it all makes for fascinating viewing, our focus today is the midcentury animation of the 1960s-1970s. After years of Soviet control, the Uprising of 1956 led to a Hungarian Thaw, allowing for greater cultural freedom and the animation of the period is particularly varied and captivating, with Pannónia Filmstúdió becoming a central influence. Gyula Macskássy was one of its key directors, and his collaboration with artist György Várnai resulted in the minimalist and abstract Pencil and Eraser (1960) – a film whose disarmingly simple style works to augment its complex self-awareness, moving from conflict to transcendence (even of film itself). Tibor Csermák was another Pannónia prodigy. His film The Red Polka Dot Ball (1961) tells the story of a feisty and imaginative girl who visually transforms her surroundings. Featuring arresting perspectives and a gradual transformation into watercolor backgrounds, it continued the move away from realism. A large diaspora of Hungarian émigrés also became influential, and one of them – János Halász – founded a major studio in Britain with animator and wife Joy Batchelor. Halas and Batchelor produced a remarkable range of work, and For Better, For Worse (1961) is typical for them: it ambivalently explores the so-called benefits of the new phenomenon of television, in stylish modern animation.
The economic reforms of 1968 brought increased autonomy and growing critique. József Gémes’s short film Concertissimo (1968) makes that transition clear with its flat yet colorful skewering of bourgeois complacency and militaristic nihilism. Another influential member of the Hungarian diaspora, Péter Földes directed Hunger (1973) – notable as an early computer animation. Its surreal gluttony documents the progressive destruction of bodily appetites without limits with ingeniously morphing black and white drawings set against brightly colored backgrounds. Ottó Foky’s stop motion Scenes with Beans (1976) also tackles consumerism and aggression. A sophisticated, clever, and fantastical foray into a world made by beans, its landscape of 1970s repurposed objects is sure to delight. Made with marzipan and gingerbread, Honeymation (1975) is a delicious, romantic, and folksy stop-motion film by Ferenc Varsányi – well-known for his later work in the U.S. on Rugrats. Finally, Sándor Reisenbüchler’s Panic (1978) features an eclectic visual design incorporating rich and colorful textures, pop art, traditional folk style, and fantastic sound design. Clearly antagonistic towards consumerism, Panic also critiques militarism: its imperialistic humans are punished for capturing aliens when their prisoners morph into kaiju and destroy their captors’ city. Panic, like all these Hungarian treasures, continues to be both relevant and riveting.
PENCIL AND ERASER
A ceruza és a radír, Hungary 1960
Director: Gyula Macskássy, György Várnai / Screenplay: Gyula Macskássy / Cinematography: István Harsági / Editing: János Czipauer / Sound: László Vargányi / Music: Gusztáv Ilosvay / Production: Pannónia Filmstúdió / Producer: Miklós Bártfai / Print Source: KAVI / Format: 16 mm / Language: no dialogue / Duration: 9 min.
THE RED POLKA DOT BALL
A piros pöttyös labda, Hungary 1961
Director: Tibor Csermák / Screenplay: Tibor Csermák, László Hárs, Antal Lukács (dramaturge) / Cinematography: István Harsági, Irén Henrik / Editing: János Czipauer / Sound: István Bélai / Music: Sándor Szokolay / Production: Pannónia Filmstúdió / Producer: Miklós Bártfai / Print Source: KAVI / Format: 16 mm / Language: no dialogue / Duration: 9 min.
FOR BETTER, FOR WORSE
United Kingdom, 1961
Director: János Halász, Peter Sachs / Screenplay: Joy Batchelor / Animation: Harold Whitaker, Geoff Loynes, Tom Bailey / Music: Matyas Seiber / Production: Halas & Batchelor, Philips / Producer: János Halász, Joy Batchelor / Print Source: KAVI / Format: 16 mm / Language: Finnish / Duration: 12 min.
Koncertisszimo, Hungary 1968
Director: József Gémes /Screenplay: István Bélai / Cinematography: István Harsági / Production: Pannónia Filmstúdió / Print Source: KAVI / Format: 16 mm / Language: no dialogue / Duration: 3 min.
La Faim, Canada 1973
Director: Péter Földes / Screenplay: Péter Földes / Animation: Nestor Burtnyk, Marceli Wein / Cinematography: Richard Michaud, Alan Ward / Editing: Pierre Lemelin / Sound: Michel Descombes / Music: Pierre F. Brault / Production: National Film Board of Canada (NFB) / Producer: René Jodoin / Print Source: KAVI / Format: 16 mm / Language: no dialogue / Duration: 11 min.
SCENES WITH BEANS
Babfilm, Hungary 1975
Director: Ottó Foky/ Screenplay: József Nepp, András Osvát (dramaturge) / Cinematography: János Tóth, Ottmár Bayer / Editing: János Czipauer / Sound: András Imre Nyerges, Zsolt Pethő / Music: Zsolt Pethő / Production: Pannónia Filmstúdió / Producer: Gergely Levente Magyar / Print Source: KAVI / Format: 16 mm / Language: no dialogue / Duration: 12 min.
Mézes-táncos, Hungary 1975
Director: Ferenc Varsányi / Screenplay: Marcell Jankovics, Ferenc Varsányi / Cinematography: Ottmár Bayer / Music: Ferenc Sebő / Production: Pannónia Filmstúdió / Print Source: KAVI / Format: 16 mm / Language: no dialogue / Duration: 5 min.
Pánik, Hungary 1978
Director: Sándor Reichenbüchler / Cinematography: Irén Henrik / Editing: Magda Hap / Sound: András Imre Nyerges / Production: Pannónia Filmstúdió / Print Source: KAVI / Format: 16 mm / Language: no dialogue/ Duration: 9 min.
John Grierson would have loved to know Jennifer Barker, for the breadth of her interests in cinema mirrors his ideal of the perfect director: someone who’s as at ease with documentary as with animation. For Barker this means: After dealing with all kinds of political narratives, fiction and documentary alike, in her 2012 book The Aesthetics of Antifascist Film: Radical Projection (now also out in paperback!), she’s now, for her next book, looking at early US animation’s influence around the world – what did Finns, Austrians, Japanese, Portuguese make out of Felix the Cat and his many contemporaries, how did we appropriate those images and narratives, make something our own out of them?
In her research and writing, Barker loves to go where the contradictions get heavy and heady.
She worked on early Black US Cinema, wrote veritable reveries on subjects like Tilt-Shift Photography and the Modern Flâneur or the Feminism of Hermína Týrlová, contributes regularly on animation matters for Mubi, and will now once again unleash on Sodankylä’s audience a true bonanza of animated images of fluff and fury! (Olaf Möller)