Here is a riddle. What do Budapest and Hollywood have in common? Okay, close to Budapest then. Just 26km (16 miles) from Budapest, in a village called Etyek with a population of 3,700, the construction is underway to create the Alexander Korda film studio. At an estimated cost of 150 million euros, the word is that this will be Europe's most modern film production center with some prophesying that "Etyekwood" has the potential to become the "Hollywood of Europe." The majority of the project initiators are Hungarian: producer Andy Vajna, real-estate broker Sandor Demjan, and his now-Canadian business partner Peter Munk are all originally from Hungary. Covering 15 hectares (37 acres), this facility has been designed as the most technically sophisticated international film production to be built yet. Six studios will spread out over 40,000sq. m (430,556 sq. ft). Get the big picture here? Not only will it be the world's largest film studio, but also it will have capabilities for underwater filming.
One often never pays much attention to the ways that the work of an ethnic group adds something to our lives. Although you will not find a plethora of Hungarian movies with English subtitles at your local movie rental outlet, chances are that some Hungarians have been responsible for entertaining you at some point in time. Here is a brief overview of the Hungarian impact on pop culture.
Wilhelm Fried was born to Jewish parents in Tolcsva, Hungary, but at the age of 9 moved to the U.S. with his parents. His name was changed to William Fox. As an adult he created the Fox Film Corporation in 1915, purchasing the equipment to create the Fox Movie, later becoming Fox Movietone sound-on-film system, commercializing talking movies. His name is still associated with 20th-Century Fox Studios and FOX Network News. Adolph Cukor from Ricse, Hungary was another Jewish immigrant who made film history. Changing his name to Adolf Zukor, he started in the entertainment business by creating a new chain of movie theaters with Marcus Loew. His Famous Players in Famous Plays evolved into Paramount Studios. He introduced the new phenomenon of combining production, distribution, and exhibition all within one company. George Pal, born György Pál Marczincsák from Cégled, Hungary was an animator in a few countries before landing in the U.S. to work for Paramount Studios, where he is credited for creating 40 Puppetoon films. As a director, producer, and cinematographer he is best remembered (depending on your age) for his science-fiction movies The War of the Worlds (1953), Houdini (1953), Tom Thumb (1958), and The Time Machine (1960), amongst others. He received six Oscars and a special Academy Award. Ivan Tors from Budapest was a playwright, screenwriter, film and television producer. His more famous television series included Sea Hunt and Flipper. His production company, Ivan Tors Films, did the underwater scenes for the James Bond Thunderball movie. Andy Vajna, formerly known as András György Vajna, left his home in Budapest in 1956. He joined up with Mario Kassar to form Carolco Pictures, making movie history with a new cinematic hero, Rambo. Other Carolco projects include Total Recall, Air America, and Jacob's Ladder. Vajna is credited with Die Hard: With a Vengeance, several Terminator movies, Basic Instinct, and a list of others.
At the Movies
If you want to see a bit of Budapest before arriving, you just need to rent the movie Munich (2005). Don't be fooled by those Paris scenes; they were filmed in the Paris of the East, Budapest. The whole area of the Opera House was converted to Paris streets. Locals had to remove their cars, so they could be replaced with French cars with French license plates. Stores and restaurants were refitted with French signs and displays. The old dance school across the street from the Opera House was made into a lighting store with an adjoining café. It was quite confusing when I tried going in for a coffee and was kicked off the "lot." The clue should have been the Paris Metro map that was on display when coming up from the metro station.
Two gripping movies tell the story of the Hungarian Holocaust in very different, yet poignant ways. The 1999 release of Sunshine follows the lives of three generations of Hungarian Jews. Neither allegiance to their country, celebrity as an Olympic fencing star, nor converting to Christianity is enough to save them. Written and directed by István Szabó, the first Hungarian to have won an Oscar.
Based on the book of the same name Fateless (Sorstalanság, the Hungarian title), directed by Hungarian Lajos Koltai, is the story of György Köves, a 14-year-old boy who is removed from a bus by the Nazis while on his way to work in a brickyard. He is sent to Buchenwald and into a life of forced labor.
Most of my Hungarian students and friends tell me they don't like Hungarian movies, yet continually I seem to be getting recommendations of what I must see, when they know it is has been subtitled in English. Hungarian movies tend to be dark, yet there are some with comic relief.
If you dare, watch the movie Kontroll (2003) before you arrive. It is in Hungarian with English subtitles. The entire movie is filmed in the Budapest metro and follows the life of a ticket inspector or controller named Bulcsú. After the film was released in 2003, some people were fearful to use the metro. Although the controllers have mellowed some since, or perhaps because of this movie, this dark dramedy (drama with comedy slipped in spots) will entertain and intrigue you, but will leave you with questions unanswered.
A young Hungarian director to keep your eye on is Krisztina Goda. She has two movies worth checking out. Just Sex and Nothing Else is a romantic comedy about Dora, a 30-something woman looking for that elusive love relationship.
Goda's second movie, Kaméleon (English title Chameleon) made its way to the Oscars in 2009 as Hungary's choice for Best Foreign Film. In this comedy/drama, Zsolt Kovàcs cleans offices for a living. However, by going through the trash, he learns more about the people working there than they ever suspect. Taking on different personas, Zsolt performs the ultimate con job.
History -- For an in-depth look into the country's history, culture, and economy covering 1,000 years from its inception to the 1988 elections, invest in A Concise History of Hungary by Miklós Molnár, translated by Anna Magyar (Cambridge University Press; 2001). Excellently researched and told with precision, The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat (Princeton University Press; 2004) by Paul Lendvai and translated by Ann Major is a whopping 608 pages. Explore how Hungary fared as the last ally of Nazi Germany in World War II and the destruction suffered as a result in Hungary from the Nazis to the Soviets: The Establishment of the Communist Regime in Hungary, 1944-1948 (Cambridge University Press; 2009) by Peter Kenez.
A former editor-in-chief of Simon & Shuster, Michael Korda's Journey to a Revolution: A Personal Memoir and History of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (Harper Perennial; 2007) intertwines memoir with history as he visits his father's homeland only to become part of the struggle. George Konrad, a world-renowned essayist and novelist delivers his personal history with A Guest in My Own Country: A Hungarian Life (Other Press; 2007). Gathering glimpses of his life from the Holocaust through the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, he transports the reader to another realm.
Jewish History -- For a comprehensive historical overview of Jewish history in Budapest and the region, the best you can get is Jewish Budapest: Monuments, Rites, History (Central European University Press; 1999) by Kinga Frojimovics, Geza Komoroczy, Viktoria Pusztai, Andrea Strbik. Filled with photographs, maps, and drawings, it brings the history to life.
Holocaust History -- One of my personal favorites is Nine Suitcases: A Memoir by Zsolt Béla (Pimlico; 2005). Being a prolific writer, he wrote 10 novels and four plays. Béla was part of the intellectuals who met in the historic coffeehouses of Budapest at the time. What is now in book form, was originally printed in installments from 1946 to 1947 in a Hungarian journal. Kati Marton tells the amazing accomplishments of scientists, computer pioneers, and others who escaped Hungary during troubled times, but in their newly adopted country had spectacular achievements to their credit in The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World (Simon & Schuster; 2007). An excellent accompaniment to any Holocaust collection, Ronald W. Zweig's The Gold Train: The Destruction of the Jews and the Looting of Hungary (Harper Perennial; 2003) is a fine account of the false confidence the Hungarian Jews had until the closing days of the war and their subsequent search for the stolen riches after the war was over. Many are familiar with Raoul Wallenberg, but in the book When Angels Fooled the World: Rescuers of Jews in Wartime Hungary by Charles Fenyvesi (University of Wisconsin Press; 2003), the author sheds light on other lesser-known names who were just as heroic in helping the Jews. The author and his family were aided by such "angels" later named Righteous Gentiles and honored in Israel.
Art & Architecture -- Zsolnay Ceramics: Collecting a Culture by Federico Santi Federico Santi (Author). Visit Amazon's Federico Santi Page. Find all the books, read about the author, and more. See search results for this author. Are you an author? Learn about Author Central and John Gacher (Schiffer Publishing; 1998); Herend: The Art of Hungarian Porcelain by Gyoza Sikota (Puski; 2nd edition; 1988).
For The Kids -- As a former elementary school teacher, I love it when children can be part of the discovery process in travel. The book Benjamin in Budapest: City Guide for Children (Palio Kft; www.benjaminguides.com) was written for children and illustrated by children in local schools in Budapest. Follow Benjamin through all seasons as he points out the best places for children to have fun while in the city.
The White Stag by Kate Seredy (Puffin; 1979) is for children 9 to 12 years old. The story is a retelling of the legend of the Huns' and Magyars' long migration from Asia to Europe where they hoped to find a permanent home. The Paul Street Boys by Ferenc Molnar (Corvina; 3rd edition; 1998) is a Hungarian children's classic and still required reading in many schools. The Paul Street boys share in tales of bravery, heroism, patriotism, honor, truth, love, war, and passion in the microcosm of two groups of teenage boys living in Budapest. They are about to fight for a small open space amidst the busy streets of the big city where they can play ball. But that's just the basic plot. It is recommended for pre-teen to young adult readers. Raoul Wallenberg: The Man Who Stopped Death by Sharon Linnéa (Jewish Publication Society of America; 1993) exalts the man who is credited with saving thousands of lives during World War II. This book is recommended for young adult readers.
Contemporary Fiction -- Hungarians are known for their artistic prowess in creating powerful poetry and extraordinary literature dripping with angst, yet compellingly so. This makes it rather unfortunate that so little of the work is translated into English. Here are some titles worth looking into. Leopard V: An Island of Sound: Hungarian Poetry and Fiction Before and Beyond the Iron Curtain edited by George Szirtes (Random House UK; 2004). The chosen pieces for this edited edition reflect the anxiety, disturbances, and murmuring of the Hungarian literary mind. Niki: The Story of a Dog by Tibor Dery (NYRB Classics reprint edition; 2009) delivers a parable of love and kindness through a dog's eyes in 1956 Hungary when a fox terrier adopts a family. Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy (Telegram Books; 2008) is the story of a Hungarian linguist who boards the wrong plane on the way to a conference and wakes up to find himself in a strange city with an incomprehensible language in an unknown country. This is the basic plot, but more intrigue awaits. Originally written in the '70s, it has just recently made its way into English translation. Some critics call it more Kafkaesque than Kafka himself. Under the Frog: A Novel by Tibor Fischer (Picador; 2001) is a story that mingles the evils of totalitarian oppression with the adventures of two members of Hungary's elite national basketball team. Timing is from the end of World War II through the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Fateless by Imre Kertesz (Hydra Books; 1996) is written with a master's stroke as he delivers a novel that follows the life of a 14-year-old who spends a year as a prisoner of Auschwitz. To Err is Divine: A Novel (Counterpoint; 2004) by Ágota Bozai is one of the first Hungarian books I read in translation and it was love at first read. Using religious symbolism, our main character, Anna Lévay, a not-so-nice English teacher, wakes one morning to find she has a halo around her head. As she unwittingly starts performing miracles, others realize a business opportunity when they see it. Prague: A Novel by Arthur Philips (Random House; 2003) only sounds like it should be in another of our publications, but it is really about Budapest. The story follows the lives of five expats from North America who venture to Budapest in 1990, after the fall of Communism, but have the dream of moving on to Prague.
For some light reading, I truly love the work of Canadian author Lyn Hamilton's archeological mystery series, but in particular The Magyar Venus (Berkley; 2005). Lara McClintoch owns an antiques store in Toronto, but when she is prompted to visit Budapest to determine the authenticity of the newly discovered Venus statute, things begin to unwind. It is obvious Hamilton has really researched the city, as you will still find the stores on the streets that she includes in her prose.
Contemporary Nonfiction -- Letters From Budapest by R. O. Atkins (Merari Fierro Villavicencio Publishing; 2007) chronicles the mundane to the extraordinary twists and turns of life in the fast lane, where one is not exactly sure which direction to take at that fork in the road. Bob, another founding member of my Budapest writers' group, offers a cheerful read in this book. Gastronomy and wine folks will appreciate Food Wine Budapest (Random House; 2008) by Carolyn Bánfalvi. As the title suggests, the focus is on Hungarian cuisine and wines. Carolyn shares the history of various Hungarian recipes, cooking methods, where to shop for specialty items, and dining etiquette in addition to providing an overview of various wine region offerings. She includes the other typical Hungarian drinks such as unicum and palinka.
A "Note" About Music
When investigating the musical culture of Hungary, what becomes apparent is that, especially through most of the 18th century, the country was filled with foreign composers, conductors, and orchestras mainly of German or Czech origin. The royal courts and homes of aristocrats brought these musicians to Hungary to have them in-residence becoming their benefactors as their personal musicians. The music of the country was that of the musicians who brought it with them.
Budapest and all of Hungary for that matter is synonymous with Gypsy music. In the late 18th century, verbunkos was used to develop an interest in serving for the military. Verbunkos is derived from the German word werbung meaning "to recruit." Verbunkos alternates between a slow (lassú) and a fast (friss) section. Employed by the emperor, Gypsy musicians were engaged to play verbunkos music, while hussars danced to it, creating a hypnotic frenzy that encouraged the youth to join the military before conscription was introduced.
The complete history is not known, but what is known is that the origins were rooted in Hungarian folk music with influences from Slav, Italian, and Viennese music. With its Hungarian origins, it became part of the national identity and was embraced by the Hungarian people. By 1780, beyond the borders of Hungary, Hungarian music was associated with the music of verbunkos. Easily recognizable, it had unique characteristics. Bokázó is a beat pattern like the clicking of heels, the Gypsy pattern of the lassú and friss tempos with widely arched melodies and flaming rhythm. This new style transcended other Hungarian musical styles. Liszt created his Hungarian Rhapsodies from the inspiration he garnered from verbunkos music. Bartók and Kodály also felt the effect of this music and utilized it for their own work.
Thought to be the premier Gypsy musician of the time, János Bihari (1764-1827) created dynamic interpretations suffused with heroism and emotion in his compositions of verbunkos style. To expand his repertoire, Bihari tapped into the music of the Kuruc (anti-Habsburgs) era to create a fusion with the verbunkos style. Considered among his contemporaries to be the foremost Gypsy violinist, he was highly sought after to entertain even the highest echelons of society, including the Vienna Royal Court. Bihari composed the musical piece Rákóczi March, using old Kuruc pieces of music. Franz Liszt was among his most fervent fans and said of him: "The tones sung by his magic violin flow on our enchanted ears like the tears."
In Pest, in 1837, the National Theatre with Ferenc Erkel had the first music director. Erkel composed operas and became known as Hungary's most renowned operatic composer. His creation of Hungarian operas was simultaneous with other European composers creating their own national culture-based operas. Erkel is best known for two works: Hunyadi László, composed in 1844 and Bánk Bán in 1861. These two pieces continue to be standard fare for opera performances in Hungary.
The best-known musicians of Hungary are Franz (Ferenc) Liszt, Béla Bartók, and Zoltán Kodály. Liszt was born in Doborján, a German-speaking Austrian town that was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He never spoke Hungarian, but said "Although, unfortunately, I don't speak Hungarian, I want to remain Hungarian in heart and mind from cradle to grave. I want to work for the development of Hungary's musical culture." Liszt's first visit to Hungary was in 1839. He raised donations to aid the city after Pest was devastated by a flood in 1838. Spending much of his time abroad giving concerts, he was only an occasional visitor to Budapest. However, in 1875, the king appointed Liszt to president of the Academy of Music in Budapest. At the same time, he became the head of the piano department; this is the academy that is now named after him. Note that in October 2009, the academy closed for a 2-year renovation.
Kodály and Bartók started their musical studies at the same time, becoming good friends. They spent summer vacations in the countryside making recordings on wax cylinders of folk songs shared by the villagers. Their collection of 60,000 folk tunes is preserved at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Both were professors at the music academy, but Bartók left the country for America before World War II. Kodály is well known for his fierce advocacy of music education in schools. The famous Kodály Method for teaching music was not created by him, but by some of his students based on his educational philosophy. Kodály is considered one of the most famous of the Hungarian composers.
This section would not be complete without touching on klezmer music. Klezmer originally referred to the instruments used, then to the musicians who played them. It was not until later that it became a genre in music. The music evolved from 15th-century, non-liturgical Jewish music used for celebrations such as weddings. From the 16th century onward, lyrics were added to some klezmer and today, the songs run the gamut from celebration to despair, but are usually accompanied by dancing.
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