Monday, May 26, 2008

Budapest and Lodz

After a recent day trip to Budapest, I left believing it to be the most beautiful city in Europe. Yet, that Budapest is completely unrecognizable in landscape filmmaker Peter Hutton’s Budapest Portrait. Budapest dates its founding back over a millennium ago. How much could have changed since Hutton’s filming from 1984-1986? Certainly, the fall of Communism had an enormous impact on Hungarian life, but could the oppressive Socialist government literally depress the very brick and mortar of a city?

To be fair, Hutton never shows us the Budapest seen from tour buses—no St. Stephen’s Basilica, no Heroes’ Square. Hutton’s camera gravitates towards the Soviet industrial and the decrepit gothic. The Budapest we see is cold and inhospitable. He films huge Socialist Realist monuments, revealing their true purpose: not to commemorate a particular event or person, but to dehumanize those people they tower over.

For the people in Hutton’s Budapest life is constant toil. We either see them as ant-like specks against some state-planned monstrosity, or dozing off in nocturnal scenes from train stations, consigned to Hellish versions of Edward Hopper paintings.

I have never been to Łódź, so I have no basis for comparison, but given the city’s role during WWII and the Holocaust, it is hard to imagine it ever being a cheerful place. Through Hutton’s lens, the Polish city much resembles his Budapest. In Łódź Symphony (1991-1993), his choice of imagery takes on added significance when we see cogs in ancient gears and a large chimney. (We actually see many Łódź chimneys, as Hutton documents the city’s chimney sweeps at work.)

Given Hutton’s decidedly unromantic approach to filming the cities, it is really no small feat that he left both Communist countries with his film (not to mention his being) in-tact. Budapest was in fact the first film made by a filmmaker outside the Soviet bloc at Hungary’s BBS (Béla Balász Stúdió) and only the second from a filmmaker from outside Hungary. Evidently, the BBS made a few edits (including excising the late Andropov’s portrait) and added a soundtrack for a version of the film re-titled Memoirs of a City. The print MoMA screened as part of their Hutton retrospective carries the Memoirs title, but has no soundtrack, to the consternation of one of the most ill-behaved audiences I have ever sat through a screening with.

Hutton’s Budapest and Łódź are a bit demanding, in that there is no sound and they do proceed at a deliberate pace. One might not want a steady diet of his work, but at less than an hour together, the two films offered some striking images to those capable of sitting still long enough to receive them.