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“The pinnacle of Hungarian cinema,” is how István Szabó described Merry-Go-Round (Körhinta), and since he directed Mephisto and Colonel Redl, he’s worth listening to. But what of Zoltán Fábri, director of Merry-Go-Round, two of whose later films were Oscar nominated, which is quite a feat considering the deterrent effect of the Iron Curtain when he was at his creative peak.

Not having seen any of his other films, I can only speak for this outing from 1956, which tells a familiar love story, adds just enough politics to keep the commissars happy (and allows for all manner of readings) and overlays everything with a heady wash of poetic realism, just like the French films of the 1930s that Fábri so admired.

It is a beautiful film, astonishingly shot and is most famous for its iconic merry-go-round scene, which arrives very early on, during which, spinning in an ecstasy of young love, pretty Marinka (Mari Törõcsik) and hearty Máté (Imre Soós) hold hands and embrace in an expression of their feelings for each other. An expression that comes crashing back to reality once Marinka is back on solid ground, where her father István (Béla Barsi) tells her in no uncertain terms that she’s not to see that boy again.

Máté’s family has no land and, as Marinka’s father later reminds her, “land marries land”, so Máté’s suit is impossible. But nor, as it happens, does István, because his is tied up with the local co-operative.

These are two different fields of transactional activity for the rest of the film. One – Marinka and Máté’s increasingly clandestine and desperate meetings, with the parentally approved but loutish and handsy suitor Sándor (Ádám Szirtes) looking on with increasing anger. This kettle will boil over at a dance on the eve of Marinka and Sándor’s wedding, where Fábri reprises the merry-go-round motif, this time more feverishly. Two – the more stolid efforts of István to get his land back so he can seal the deal with Sándor’s family. This will involve leaving the co-operative, which Máté in particular is dead against.

Mari's father and mother
Mari’s father and mother

Fábri is much more interested in the star-crossed young lovers than he is with the political dynamic of the collective versus the individual. He also wants to show us the joys of village life – how the old ways are the good ways. Though he paints a savage picture of patriarchal martinet István, whose wife (Manyi Kiss) trails along meekly in his wake, István’s verdict on the co-operative, which rewards hard work and laziness equally, seems fundamentally sound. With whom are we sympathising? Where is the party line?

Fábri is as agile with his camera as he is politically. Somehow he and his cinematographer Barnabás Hegyi always manage to get into the meat of the action, and are as adept at spinning with the lovers on the merry-go-round as they are in the entirely static, though dramatically explosive scene where Máté “just happens” to call at Marinka’s, sees that Sándor is there discussing something with her father, and works out instantly what it is.

They are very good performances – delicate Marinka, beefy Máté and slippery Sándor very well caught (you feel for Szirtes in the villain role) but also Barsi as the flinty István and Kiss as his wife.

I watched the Second Run Blu-ray, which is a version of the Hungarian Film Institute’s 4K restoration. As I write it’s not available everywhere but try and find it if you can. It is superb. The image is so sharp, bright and clear that you can spot the make-up on the face of face of male actors, Soós in particular.

On this evidence file Fábri alongside the other greats of Hungarian cinema. That is a hell of a list – István Szábo, Béla Tarr, Miklós Jancsó and György Fehér. Including émigrés you could also add Alexander Korda, Emeric Pressburger, Peter Lorre, John Alton, Vilmos Zsigmond and Michael Curtiz. It must be something in the water.

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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