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Past for the Eyes

Oksana Sarkisova
Péter Apor

Documents of Communism: Lost and Found


The Private and the Public in Kádár’s Kiss by Péter Forgács

Balázs Varga

Texte intégral

1More than fifteen years have passed since the change of the political regime in Eastern Europe, but the countries of the former Soviet bloc still face the fundamental challenge of how to deal with the events of their recent past, how to come to terms with the legacy of Socialism and its local versions. There are countless ways of approaching these issues, but I will focus on the possibilities of interpretation provided by creative documentaries. The material for my analysis is Péter Forgács’s film Kádár’s Kiss (1997, the original Hungarian title is Csermanek csokja, meaning Csermanek’s Kiss), which by its unconventional treatment of the “private” and the “public” offers a provocative and subversive interpretation of the most exciting period of the Kádár regime, the first half of the 1960s, often referred to as the establishment of “goulash Communism” or the post-1956 consolidation. This unique audiovisual collage unveils the dichotomy of appearances and the world behind them. This effect is enhanced by the juxtaposition of amateur films and archival footages through splendid sequences of montage.


2Contemporary newsreels and amateur footages constitute the visual source of Péter Forgács’s film. Amateur films are important documents of the period in question because of their role within society, their visual energy, and the wide range of possible ways of using them. Amateur films are also called family footages, private films, non-professional films, and home movies. These terms are frequently used as synonyms, and not always wrongly so, but it is important to note that they often highlight different aspects of the same phenomenon: one refers to the field of use, the other to the manner of application, the function of a medium or the technique. Amateur film is not a genre or theme, nor is it necessarily a technique-specific category. Moreover, as we will soon see, the dividing line between amateur films and the film industry (professional filmmaking) cannot always be accurately drawn. This is not only because of the usual problems of “categorization” but also due to rapid technological development which can turn a device used previously only by professional film-makers into a tool available to the general public, and thus part of “amateur” technology. Strange as it may sound, this also works vice versa. However, for pragmatic reasons, I would like to start by defining the social embeddedness of amateur film through binary oppositions, in order later to demonstrate their inadequacy; I will then analyze the possibilities of defining amateur film from a technical point of view.

  • 1 Patricia Rodden Zimmermann, Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film (Bloomington–Indianapo (...)

3When considering the field of “use,” a very tangible opposition emerges: it contrasts the public/professional sphere with the private sphere defined by family and private life. In this opposition everything that is left out from the public sphere belongs to the private: rationality versus emotions, efficiency versus freedom, impersonality versus the personal/ intimacy, uniformity versus personality, impersonal versus personal expression/creativity.1 Yet another opposition can be found in the use of amateur films and their role in social communication: amateur in this case is connected to free time as opposed to working hours, which in those days also implied the contrast between commercial and non-commercial usage. We can thus speak of amateur films only after filmmaking became institutionalized and the film industry was established—in the first decade of the last century. Amateur films and non-professional films have been traditionally synonymous and the distinction between amateur films and professional films seems clear.

4However, if we consider these binary oppositions thoroughly we discover that they are not sustainable for several reasons. Avant-garde filmmaking, for instance, annuls the opposition of commercial/noncommercial use, as well as the opposition of the field of use. Since its economic importance is minimal, its publicity is also limited. Considering the rapid development of technology, it is hardly possible to make a distinction between amateur and professional. Let us consider only the digital, network culture, where—in the world of YouTube—the division between amateur and professional becomes meaningless. For this reason amateur film is practically a historical category.

5The aspects of technological change unveil the constant interaction and reciprocal influence between amateur film and professional filmmaking. The history of technology is at the same time a history of style, so that by examining it we will have the opportunity to look also into the aesthetics of amateur films. Amateur film constantly aims toward professional filmmaking in its technical and stylistic instruments. While in the film industry, technical and stylistic norms (35 mm technology, narrative fiction, genres) were already standardized by the 1910–1920s, the same process took place at a much slower pace in amateur film. The first cameras for private use were appearing on the market as early as around 1900, but during the following decades countless companies, norms and formats were in competition. For example the Super 8mm format, one of the most widespread and popular formats even today, became popular in the 1930s. It was also during those years that the “institution” of amateur filming and the network of international festivals, clubs and professional magazines was established. Some amateurs were shooting their footages on 35 mm film even in the 1920s while film magazines dedicated to amateur filmmaking were full of questions like “how to make more professional films?”

  • 2 James M. Moran, There’s No Place Like Home Video (Minneapolis–London: University of Minnesota Pres (...)

6One of the possible ways was to adopt the technical and stylistic norms. Meanwhile other initiatives deliberately tried to separate amateur film from professional filmmaking. In the 1920s, for example, a new spring-driven hand camera appeared that offered a wider range of possibilities and much easier use, sometimes going against professional standards, plans and editing norms. Thus, often it was not amateur film that strived to follow the film industry; in fact, amateur film was an incubational, experimental field for professional filmmaking. This view emphasizes a developmental trend which is contrary to the conventional one: amateur technology, codes and style tend to appear in professional filmmaking rather than the other way round. World War II brought with it the standardization of the 16 mm technology used earlier by amateurs (newsreels on the front lines were generally shot with such equipment because it was handier than traditional 35 mm cameras). Hi-8 video technology was originally developed for amateurs, but due to its relatively high (almost broadcast) quality it quickly became popular among media professionals. Jump-cuts, a special narrative instrument of avant-garde and amateur films in the 1920s became standard features in commercials, music videos and fiction films from the 1980s onwards. And the voyeuristic, self-representing character of amateur, private films is often regarded as an important precursor of the reality shows aired by the television of the millennium.2

  • 3 Ibid., 33.

7Technological development was an important factor in generating the new cult of amateur films, and after the advent of the video image there was a nostalgic revival of Super-8 mm film because of its unique visual quality, suggesting something different, special, exotic, strange and old. From the technical and the stylistic point of view the Super-8 technology adds a special atmosphere to amateur films, facilitating their contemporary “recycling.” The quality of Super-8 footages, the scratchy, pixel-like texture of the images, is easily identifiable and creates an extremely exciting visual world. This explains why old amateur films shot at the beginning and in the middle of the last century have become so fashionable during the past two decades. In an era when digital footage is accessible in limitless quantities, low in price and improving in quality, old Super-8 films hold an outstanding atmosphere and visual energy. The aesthetic imitation of silent and amateur films—the stylization of the digital image by scratching it and making it look old—has also become very common and popular. This process started in the 1980s, with the spreading of video technique. At the same time the emergence of new media based on video technology provoked a debate centered around its main advantages: how low prices and accessibility actually work against selection. Since hours of footage are now easy to produce and everything can be recorded at any time, film themes are losing their value. In the video era of “here-and-now,” the epoch of the floating signifier of Baudrillard, Super-8 films raise the nostalgia of “there-and-then.”3

8While amateur film can be separated from professional films by its social embeddedness and technical parameters, this is by no means an essentialist distinction: there is considerable interaction and communication between the two. Amateur film is not a generic category. Within the category of amateur/non-professional films we can distinguish fiction films, avant-garde exercises and documentaries, or travel and ethnographical films just as we can do among the professional ones. Péter Forgács’s film, the subject of my analysis, uses the methods of amateur film to focus on a family’s private world.

9One of the most important characteristics of family footages is their lack of a traditional plot, their open narrative structure. Filmmakers shooting a home movie do not intend to create a work of art, but to immortalize some moments of their own life which they consider important. Family events, celebrations, everyday occasions are organized to form some kind of a series (through thematic and/or chronological editing), but the events recorded do not form a causal chain. Therefore one of the two pillars of the traditional narrative structure (temporality and causality) is missing—instead, the history of the family, an external form of knowledge which is not coded into those images, establishes the framework for its own interpretation. But although causality in the traditional sense of the word is absent, there is still an order that can be interpreted as causal. Posterity (the grandchildren or a filmmaker passing by) can recreate this self-constructing causal order by reediting, or remixing the footages. The story recreated in this way can be strengthened by the filmmaker’s or his/her relatives’ confessions, recollections or anecdotes, which always give the film a special, nostalgic flavor.

10Family films differ from other kinds of amateur film by their topics (events of everyday life and celebrations; personal and family legends). The amateur filmmaker shoots to preserve his/her and his/her family’s best memories. From the moment of their conception these films mobilize nostalgia for the past, an atmosphere of déjà disparu (the aesthetics of disappearance). They guide us to the private sphere and its intimate, happy moments, which is why they are often considered as micro-history or part of counter-history. Because of their particular theme, their special structure of causality, the stunning visual energy that derives from their technique, and their atmosphere of nostalgia, amateur family films can be described as “history from below.”


11When interpreting private film remixes, we have to consider both the epoch when the original footages were made and the time when these footages were collected and re-edited. It is even more so when both periods are marked by particular political contexts e.g. the consolidation of Hungarian Socialism, or the Kádár era on the one hand and the change of the political regime and transition on the other. Péter Forgács’s Kádár’s Kiss is a creation of this kind.

  • 4 The description of the collection is available on (accesse (...)
  • 5 The first piece of the Private Hungary series, called The Bartos Family (Bartos család, 1988), is (...)
  • 6 On Péter Forgács’s Private Hungary, see Ernst van Alphen, “Towards a New Historiography: Peter For (...)

12Péter Forgács is an independent filmmaker and media/video artist. He attended the Hungarian University of Fine Arts in Budapest, but did not take a degree. During the 1970s he participated in Hungarian neo-avant-garde art performances, undertook research in the social sciences, and engaged in psychodrama and psychoanalysis. He made his first short films at the end of the 1970s. At the beginning of the 1980s he established the Private Photo and Film Foundation, a unique collection of twentieth-century Hungarian amateur films. The basis of the collection is about five hundred hours of amateur footages, complemented by another forty hours of interviews with the films’ authors and/or their relatives.4 Forgács initiated his series, called Private Hungary (Privát Magyarország), more than twenty years ago, inspired among others by the key figure of Hungarian experimental filmmaking, Gábor Bódy, and his 1978 film Private History (Privát Torténelem).5 Private Hungary won Forgács a national and international reputation. This project is a re-orchestration of family footages, a kind of special archival remix, or a series of experimental documentary films.6

13It is important to point out that Forgács turned towards amateur films and started his research before the political transition. Whether on purpose or by accident, the first pieces in the series had serious political connotations for their time. The names of the foundation and the film series (Private Photo and Film Archive and Private Hungary) are not coincidental. In the middle of the 1980s, Hungary was a special field for different kinds of memory politics and their evolution. Research into the history of mentalities, micro-sociology, the analysis of everyday culture had already gained some space in the scientific sphere. However such work could not appear in mainstream academia, which was ideologically aligned with the system (Forgács himself was also working in what was officially regarded as a “second-rate” institution, the Hungarian Cultural Research Institute).

  • 7 On the history of Hungarian amateur film-making, see Márton Kurutz, “Pergő képek” [Revolving Pictu (...)

14In the 1950s, Hungarian Stalinism tried to dig deep into the private sphere, destroying the refuge people could find in private life. This involved the obliteration of certain existing subcultures and alternative politics of remembrance. Almost all privately-owned 16 mm cameras were confiscated and the amateur film movement effectively suppressed. The Hungarian amateur film association was not re-established till the beginning of the 1960s, in the consolidation period of the Kádár regime. During this time, the public sphere expanded slowly but gradually, and everyday life and private life escaped from the imprisonment of ideology. Nevertheless, the interwar “bourgeois world” could not be revived but remained a closed, untouchable chapter of the past.7

  • 8 Benedek Balázs Vasák, “Határesetek” [Borderline cases], Metropolis 2 (1999): 108–28.

15When in the middle of the 1980s Forgács started to collect amateur films from the 1920s and 1930s and to make unique audiovisual collages out of them, the word “private” had various political connotations. The first pieces in the series can be interpreted as a sort of getaway, presenting new values, introducing some kind of ideal within the still existing world of State Socialism—faded pink and riddled with dry rot as it was.8 These films evoke the life of middle class families: it is not by chance that the words “bourgeois” (polgár) or “gentleman” (úr) often appear in his titles or subtitles. Nevertheless, I do not intend to present Forgács’s work in terms of an underground romanticism or of nostalgia for the lost interwar “bourgeois” and “private” worlds. Another important point to bear in mind when defining the context of the genesis of the Private Hungary series is that in exactly the same period, the second half of the 1980s, just before the political changes, new themes appeared in Hungarian social research and the arts. Apart from the new wave of the history of mentalities these novel themes focused on the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the turn of the century, the bourgeoisie and Mitteleuropa—in fact the same private/bourgeois world that is evoked by Forgács. However, the recognition of Private Hungary and Forgács’s work with amateur footage did not start until the mid-1990s. Thus his pioneering work in researching and preserving certain values can be described only as a parallel process to the political transformations, and not as a direct reflection of contemporary social/historiographical trends.


16Two main strategies can be observed in the later use of amateur family films: the nostalgic reconstruction of family history, and the associative montage film. The first strategy is in fact an experiment in a new kind of narrative reconstruction: the re-evocation of past times often accompanied by added voice-over narration, where amateur footages often serve as mere illustrations. The second, in contrast, does not aim to retell the past through a life story, to rehearse family legends using traditional narrative instruments. Instead it relies on the atmosphere and visual energy of images, creating montage sequences of free association by the creative treatment of family history or life history. This second strategy is characterized by the refusal to use amateur footages in an illustrative manner, so that images are not subordinated to commemorative, nostalgic commentaries. Instead of using voice-over narration, the author adds music, noises, sound collages, attempting an associative audio-design that evenly balances visuals and sound. Péter Forgács, whose entire life is in one way or another linked to amateur film, is not interested in family amateur films as a family history writer or an “associator,” that is an avant-garde/ montage filmmaker. For his remarkable family archival remixes he does not choose any of the obvious paths, but creates instead a combination of these two peculiar, extreme strategies, characterized by narrative reconstruction and the use of the visual energy of amateur films.

17There are copious internal rhymes and connections between the different parts of the Private Hungary series, including some that deal with different chapters of the history of the same family. The episodes, structured as a kind of patchwork, offer a unique roman fleuve, articulating the history of Hungary in the past century in micro histories from the beginning of the 1900s to the 1970s. This stream has an inner dynamic of its own. The family footages which constitute each piece of the series differ significantly from each other. Among the authors some strive to document family scenes, others shoot fiction film (like László Dudás, the hero of D-Film, 1991 and Photographed by Laszlo Dudas (Fenykepezte Dudas Laszlo) 1991), some even took the camera with them to the war front (László Rátz, the protagonist of The Land of Nothing (A semmi orszaga) 1996) followed and filmed the catastrophe of the Second Hungarian Army in the Ukraine during 1942). While reconstructing and elaborating the archival footages, Forgács’s and his crew’s approach, attitude and attention undergo constant changes. It makes a great difference when the original footages were filmed: in the “happy peacetime” of the 1920–30s (Dusi and Jenő, 1989), during World War II and the persecution of the Jews (The Land of Nothing; Free Fall (Örveny) 1996), the post-war coalition years (Class Lot (OsztálySORSjegy) 1996–97), the Hungarian Stalinism of the 1950s (The Bishop’s Garden (A püspök kertje) 2002) or the post-1956 “consolidation period” of the Kádár regime (Kádár’s Kiss).

18The heroes of the films are usually ordinary people: entrepreneurs, clerks, civil servants, engineers. Most come from middle-class families, only occasionally do we find a baroness, a philosopher-scientist who has an important role in politics, a Calvinist bishop, or the like. The Bishop’s Garden and A Bibó Reader (Bibó breviárium, 2001) are novelties in the series because they explore the lives of two key figures of mid-twentieth century Hungarian history. The public and the private sphere, the world of politics and a family’s everyday life, are contrasted more directly, but at the same time in a more sophisticated manner compared to the earlier middle-class stories.

  • 9 Tibor Huszár, György Litván, Katalin S. Varga (eds.), Bibó István (1911–1979). Életút dokumentumok (...)

19The Calvinist bishop László Ravasz (who was a member of the Upper House of Parliament) played an important part in voting for the first two discriminatory “anti-Jewish laws” in 1938–39, but raised his voice against the persecution of the Jews in the 1940s. After the war, when the Communists came to power, Ravasz went into internal exile. István Bibó (the bishop’s son-in-law) was a political philosopher, jurist, social researcher and Peasant Party politician. During the 1956 Revolution he was the Minister of State in Imre Nagy’s government. On the day of the Soviet occupation in November he was the only member of the government to stay in the Parliament; he was also the author of the manifesto stating the aims and legitimacy of the 1956 Revolution. After several years of imprisonment he was amnestied at the beginning of the 1960s and worked as a librarian during the Kádár regime. Although his most important essays could not be published in socialist Hungary, he decisively influenced the thinking of the Hungarian opposition during the 1970s.9 Incidentally, the life stories of both families were shot by the son of László Ravasz.

  • 10 Tamás Fehérvári, János Weiss, J. A. Tillmann, “Képtudat és önismeret” [Image and selfknowledge], F (...)

20Both The Bishop’s Garden and A Bibo Reader show the ruptures and connections between the private and the public by means of stories of internal exile; and by quoting Bibó’s essays they reveal the multiple, metaphorical interaction of text and visuals, life and thought.10 Forgács’s films in Private Hungary are always re-compositions, constructed out of minute fragments. They are audio-visual remixes of the past. In the author’s own words:

  • 11 The Hitchcockian melody is the suspense deriving from the fact that we, the audience, know better (...)
  • 12 “At the center of Mitteleuropa,” Péter Forgács interviewed by Sven Spieker at (...)

the past is something that in a sense I make out of the bits and pieces, that I construct (…) Most filmmakers use archive material and home-movie to illustrate an idea, a problem, a sociological or historical fact for their film. For me it’s the opposite: it’s the message of the film fragments themselves that is important and my challenge is to put together a new story. The home moviemakers, creating these naive self-anthropology films, proving for themselves and for later times that they exist. Their film approach—perception—is completely different from that of a “professional,” and from mine. I want to compose something that could be called a private history in front of the curtain of public history. This dynamic relation between the elegy (of private saga) and the structure (of a historic perspective) with Hitchcockian melody is my message.11 The bits and pieces of old home movies are more like parts of a dream work. My re-contextualizing construction is more a kind of restructuring of the dream work and not an illustration with or by their lives. My aim is more to open up the secret vaults of a personal, private history memory archive of those lives (…) Reading a dream means that you offer a reading, which could have been replaced by a different reading, which is—or could be—just as true, as right as other, earlier readings. So you peel off the meanings—or the attributions of meaning—and the music helps, opens up The Gate in that way. It’s a kind of fluid in this procedure that helps you to rethink your own remembering. The music connects the mood and the structural elements, and bridges these gaps.12

21Forgács’s method goes back to the avant-garde filmmaking of the 1920s, the Soviet montage school, the eccentric style, the surrealistic, grotesque stylization and attraction montages of early Eisenstein films and the FEKS group, which aimed at contrasting images of differing emotional content and meaning. In Private Hungary, Forgács applies the contrapuntal structure on both the micro- and the macro-dramaturgical level, in short sequences as well as in the narrative construction of the entire film. Private (family) stories are contrasted to dramatic historical events such as World War II or the Holocaust. More precisely, Forgács shows family stories that end in historical traumas, which is why it is important to have some knowledge of the filmmakers’ and their families’ fate. Tiny slices are carved out of personal, local time and history, and the ordinariness of everyday life is contrasted to, and modified by, the “big” historical events. Private joy, passion, lost days gain emphasis in this way. The contrast creates the double effect of intellectual distance and emotional intimacy. The interruption of the emotional/narrative process obliges the viewer to reflect upon what she or he sees, and in the process new connotations, associations and allusions are created. Consequently, instead of adopting a passive, nostalgic attitude, the viewer is expected to play an active and reflexive role.

22“Making it visible” is the key element of Forgács’s work. His films bring to the surface experiences and memories not seen or felt before. They give a sense, a meaning and significance to those everyday experiences that otherwise would remain in an invisible and meaningless realm. This might explain why Forgács constantly highlights the importance of dream work and dream decoding in relation to the recreation of amateur films. Private footages need to be transformed and reshaped for such a creative reinterpretation/recreation. The audience undergoes a kind of initiation because it lacks information or insight (unless the outsiders’ voyeuristic energies are mobilized). Forgács re-orchestrates the private footages by emphasizing certain details and manipulating fragments, with the use of slow-down, freeze frames, collages and imagetext inserts.

23Kádár’s Kiss not only changes, removes and betrays the expectations and standard solutions of private films, but also offers a new approach compared to the structure of previous films within the Private Hungary series. Official versus non-official gains a particular connotation in this film. As I mentioned before, the traditional use of amateur films is unveiling: under or behind the public façade the private is shown; behind or under the big history the everyday experience is uncovered. Forgács’s film does not concentrate on individual/private/family stories, but on the big events of the Kádár era, particularly on the 1960s’ “consolidation.” It differs from the personal/individual character; it leaves behind the closed, linear narrative, and replaces nostalgia with irony. There is no standard, conventional narrative typical of the nostalgic portrayals made out of family stories. Kádár’s Kiss is not a linear story, but a diffuse, associatively constructed audio-visual collage, a deconstructive interpretation of the epoch.


  • 13 On the historical interpetation and characteristic of the Kádár-era, see János Rainer M., “The Six (...)

24The original footages of Kádár’s Kiss were made in the strange period—especially strange for those who were not alive then—of the Kádár era.13 The 1956 Revolution and its repression belong to the first year of this period. The entire period referred to as the “Kádár regime” covers thirty-three years, between 1956 and 1989, but the three decades do not form a homogeneous episode. As the theory of narrativity emphasizes, a story is usually defined by the perspective of its terminus. The terminus—in this case 1989, the year of the regime change—obviously refers back to the beginning, the Revolution of 1956. The reburial in 1989 of Prime Minister Imre Nagy and other martyrs of the Revolution is a symbolic moment. It highlights questions of continuity and rupture—the crucial problem of the Kádár regime. We could also ask: what do we consider the core of the system? The continuity with the Rákosi regime, the Hungarian version of Stalinism (this interpretation treats all four decades of the Hungarian “communist experiment” as a homogeneous, common history)? Or the relative calm of the reformist consolidation period, when Hungarians enjoyed “goulash Communism” in the “happiest barracks in Eastern Europe” (in this case the efforts aiming at changing the regime would be preponderant; some say that Kádár and his colleagues slowly and secretly fulfilled the demands of the 1956 Revolution)? Which moment, which phase is the essence of the Kádár era: the brutal reprisals and bloodshed after the Revolution or the period of consolidation and reform?

25This question is obviously provocative. The Kádár regime never realized either of the main goals of the Revolution—national independence and democracy—but the most important element of its self-image was cautious and half-hearted change. In order to have this “amended version” accepted by the people, the authorities had to make them forget the beginning, the reprisal that followed the Revolution. 1956 is the origo of the Kádár era and the goal of this “system without an ideology” was to forget 1956. The thirty-three years between 1956 and 1989 are marked by this paradox.

26During the years of repression after the Revolution, in the period of establishment and reprisal, one of the core elements of the demonstration of power was to repeat that 1956 was a counterrevolution. Political brochures, resolutions, novels and films were produced to justify this thesis. At the beginning of the period of consolidation, however, after the 1963 amnesty, the aim became political neutralization. The slogan in Kádár’s time, “who is not against us is with us,” allowed everyday experiences and private life to escape from the sphere of politics and ideology. After the devastation of World War II, the agitated coalition years, the Rákosi dictatorship, the Revolution and the reprisals, the 1960s represented a period of tranquility, offering a chance to look back and make an assessment. Kádár and his colleagues learned that relative peace and collective forgetting can be most easily achieved and bought by concessions, above all by raising the standard of living and by reigning in the ideological offensive (“buying” in this case can be understood literally: from the 1970s onwards the system obtained social tranquility by financing the “happiest barrack” with Western loans). Kádár’s Kiss unveils the falsehood of the early Kádár era, both the consolidation and the amnesia.


27The reading of the film and the interpretation of its meanings should start by decoding the connotations of the title. The discrepancy between the Hungarian and the English title, which do not evoke the same associations, from the start draws our attention to the interchangeability of “private” and “public.” The English Kádár’s Kiss keeps the alliteration of the Hungarian, but the use of Csermanek in the Hungarian title is deliberate. It was the politician’s original surname, Kádár being an alias he received in 1943 when the Communist Party was still illegal. Calling him Csermanek instead of Kádár bears multiple sarcastic and provocative connotations. It is also characteristic of Forgács, who in several interviews refers to Stalin simply as Dzhugashvili. He demotes Kádár, almost ignoring him as a communist politician: stripping him of the name and image of the public figure, he shows him instead as an ordinary person. This is particularly relevant because a central element of Kádár’s public image was his everydayness, the emphasis that the politician was also a human being, “one of us.” That is also why the Kádár myth could operate as one example of the classical “good king—bad court” story.

28However, the title also alludes to the common form of greeting used by communist politicians, the kiss—which appears in an archival sequence of the film, reminding us of a central element of communist choreography and rituals. Politics and pornography, public rituals and private lust are associated in a grotesque way. The next association is obviously the kiss of Judas, pointing to betrayal, which, as already mentioned, is the suppressed secret and essence of the genesis of the Kádár regime: the betrayal of Imre Nagy and the Revolution of 1956 by Kádár.


29Kádár’s Kiss shows the motionless world of the Kádár regime of the 1960s, turning it around and upside down. It takes us back to the construction of the regime, the “Hungarian road to Socialism,” the period of (relative) openness accompanying the local “Thaw.” At the very beginning of the film we see images of the destruction of a building, and later the collapse of the National Theatre. We are also shown shots of new blocks of flats going up. What is being built and what is collapsing? What is hiding under the surface? What is behind the motionless, ornamented façades? Forgács’s film comprises several audio-visual layers. This eccentric and grotesque structure shows the inner frustration and falseness of the apparently tranquil Kádár regime. The film is built out of private footages and photographs, news reels and film reportages, the radio broadcast of a theatrical performance and other radio materials such as news, excerpts from Kádár’s speeches and musical hits. On the macro-dramaturgical level Forgács uses collages and montages to assemble a structure of varying themes and motifs, while on the micro-dramaturgical level he resorts to counterpoint and “eccentric” montages.

30The structure of thematic variation is based on abstract binary contrasts: private and public (everyday events recorded in amateur footages versus official celebrations and marches), above and below (the political elite mentioned in Kádár’s speeches versus the home-movie makers), popular/contemporary and elite/traditional culture (frivolous hits versus performances at the National Theatre). The most important themes of the film can be organized in various combinations and contrasts according to these opposites. There are four different basic relationships in the combination and montage of image with image, text with text, or audio material with visual. The two layers may strengthen each other (the banality of contemporary musical hits paralells the empty clichés of Kádár’s speech) or form a provocative contrast (a radio announcement of the death of Mátyás Rákosi, the former party secretary and a leading figure of Hungarian Stalinism in the 1950s, runs parallel with images of women dancing and smoking). The relationship between the two layers may be neutral (a weather report accompanies footage of a family vacation). Finally, the two layers may have an associative/metaphorical relationship (amateur footage of a construction site is “commented on” by a literary text about a “colossal garbage heap”). The audiovisual collages of Kádár’s Kiss tend to use counterpoint and associative/metaphorical montage within one image (a naughty amateur recording of a naked woman posing in a living room is brought together with Kádár giving a speech in an archived newsreel on the TV screen), or within highly variegated montage sequences. A key motif in amateur films as well as in official propaganda productions is bringing together banality and ordinariness (the ancient peasant ritual of pig slaughtering and a newsreel report on a peasant successfully raising pigs). These sequences do not follow each other in direct counterpoint, but appear relatively far from each other in different scenes of the film.

31Another leitmotif is the series of feasts taking place in a private atmosphere (Christmas dinner, the family toast, vacation at Lake Balaton), or in public, official rituals (May 1st, a festive dinner with Gypsy music for a Soviet delegation visiting Hungary). These visual motifs are contrasted by different audio collages: Kádár, being greeted on his birthday, makes a speech on how he was raised without the celebration of wedding anniversaries, name days, or birthdays. He claims to be embarrassed by his own anniversary. The contrast between construction and deconstruction also appears in different combinations, from a very direct and concrete montage (the footage of the demolition of the National Theatre and the building of a new block of flats that we have already mentioned), to more complex, metaphorical allusions (quotes from Kádár about “laying the foundations of Socialism,” or making fun of people who like rhymeless poetry, and cannot bear short rhythmical poems).

32The associative/metaphorical structure is very important in the film because of another leitmotif: “mistakes” and “errors.” These turn up in both the audio and the visual materials: the radio newscaster muddles up the text of the news and starts laughing when she has to pronounce the name of a man accused of murder (which means blood in Hungarian). This theme is underlined by the text of some banal hits (“An old song says that if you tell a lie your voice will falter”) and amateur photographs, which according to traditional codes are “incorrectly set” and wrongly exposed (thus gaining the aura of non-professional, private, incidental objets trouvés). The dream-like visual interpretation of mistakes points to repressions and traumas, and smaller or bigger amnesias. This leads us to the core motif of the film, the topic of lies and betrayal. Variations on this theme move on the widest and richest scale, from the method of direct contrapuntal montage (the “comrade-like” kiss of Kádár and Brezhnev at the airport is accompanied by a contemporary hit: “You promised never to lie to me”) to the method of associative allusion which reappears throughout the film. Perhaps the most striking example of the dissonant use of the private and the public, of elite culture and ordinariness, is the radio broadcast of the Hungarian national drama Bánk Bán contrasted with archetypical amateur photos.

33József Katona’s tragedy was written in the first half of the nineteenth century and quickly became a key work of Hungarian national romanticism. Bánk Bán is a canonized national classic, subject to contradictory interpretations, part of the obligatory secondary school curriculum even during the Kádár era. Bánk Bán is a drama set in the thirteenth century, which can be read both as a story of Hungarian noblemen conspiring in order to protect their country against foreigners or as a complaint of the repressed peasantry/nation (the monologue of a peasant named Tiborc, one of the main characters, had to be learnt by heart by all pupils) or again as the conflict between loyalty and honor. This overrated, hackneyed piece of national self-pity and self-absolution allows completely opposite interpretations and could thus be used to support both Kádár’s self-absolving myth (we must choose the “least of evils,” being at the mercy of a foreign power), and a call for national resistance. One aria called Hazám, hazám [My Homeland, My Homeland] became the favorite song of many who requested it again and again on radio and television programs during the 1970s and 1980s.

  • 14 Szemző is a musician, composer, independent filmmaker, and author of soundtracks. He has been a lo (...)

34The radio coverage of Bánk Bán is the most solid pillar supporting the audiovisual collage of Kádár’s Kiss. Most famous performances of this classic national drama took place at the National Theatre. By quoting the text of Bánk Bán the film, on the one hand, strengthens the motif of betrayal/ lies (the kiss of Csermanek/Kádár/Judas). On the other hand, it alludes to the ambivalent character of the Kádár period of consolidation and modernization, whose public sphere was characterized by an advanced elite culture and a high level of education. It refers to the moment when the mass media (mainly television) suddenly redefined the relationship between public and private. The amateur footage mentioned above, in which Kádár’s speech appears on the living-room television screen, highlights this gesture of modernization, with the mass media entering the private sphere, and changing the pattern of amateur filming by including the past as an outworn play. All this creates feelings of destruction, ruin, the powerlessness of decaying traditions (the demolition of the National Theatre in the city centre in 1965 to make way for the construction of the Budapest underground; the counterbalancing of the high-flown drama by down-to-earth amateur photos), which is reinforced by the other central audio material, the performance by Tibor Szemző14 of a text by the esoterical writer-philosopher Béla Hamvas:

It is said there is a celestial body in the universe, one of its kind, Sirius Beta: a cold, dead star, a lusterless, heatless motionless body. Where the atoms are tossed about and piled on one another, in disarray, as on a colossal junk-heap, the rest perished. This is Sirius Beta, material par excellence. (…) When man becomes a materialist, or in other words, begins to believe that the world was and is of matter and he adheres to this material, and clings to it, and to him the material means gravity, environment, desire, religion, then man begins to feel obscurely that he is also a fallen and discarded, degraded and broken, being tossed aside and on a junk-heap, stripped of contact with the spiritual forces of nature, detached from the cosmos, aborted through some terrible catastrophe, his spiritual concern lost, and so he reverts and sinks.15

35The “colossal garbage heap” of the Hamvas quote suggests the melancholy of the brutal contrast between banality and monumentality. In Forgács’s words, it is as if this text were looking down “from outer space” on Kádár’s world, on the monumental utopia of the construction of Socialism in the 1960s and on everything that emerged from it all. While Kádár’s Kiss is a grotesque, sarcastic and eclectic film, behind the deconstruction and the rhetoric we can observe the intention to unveil the uniqueness of private lives, to show individuality and individual ordinariness, to discover the unique and unrepeatable lives of human beings, to search for a lost world. That is where the film finds its deep, inner melancholy. This melancholic tone also characterized earlier pieces of the Private Hungary series, but in this case it carries further connotations. Kádár’s system is the country of nothingness, the eternal present tense. An empire based on appearance, outer shells and banality. That is why Forgács so frequently uses excerpts from the speeches of Kádár—the recollection of banality, cheap and empty jokes.

  • 16 Peter Hames, “The Czechoslovak New Wave: A Revolution Denied” in Linda Badley, R. Barton Palmer an (...)

36The most important challenge the film faced was how to depict the banality and prudishness of the system. This was also the central issue of the Czech New Wave films: the cheerfully bitter images of Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel, Ivan Passer uncovered the poetry of everyday life and its great charm.16 They told simple stories of lost teenagers and puzzled fathers. These stories were revolutionary not because of their narrative style but because their authors understood the impossibility and absurdity of the social utopia and realized that one does not have to portray “existing Socialism” in openly political dramas and exciting critical parables, but may show it through the most ordinary and banal moments of everyday life. That is why they told stories of well-meaning but hidebound secretaries, absurd meetings of factory committees, celebrations drowning in beer and chaos, or firemen’s balls: their stories uncovered the unlivable, collapsed foundations of the system and at the same time offered strategies for survival, tiny adventures of happiness in everyday life as opposed to colossal banality, the banality of stupidity and the banality of a system devoid of ideology.

37Forgács’s film does not (or not only) operate with the silent irony of “intimate lighting,” but with the instruments of sharp and grotesque contrast. The tension, connection and controversy between the prudishness of official norms and practices and the joys of everyday life is created by the interaction between politics and eroticism, the public and the private spheres, the constant game of interpretation and reinterpretation of the desexualized public sphere (where a kiss is nothing more than the sign of socialist politicians’ fraternity) and the eroticism of the private worlds.

38The most important signification principle of montage is the exchange or transposition of the signifier and the signified. An example for this is the motif of sex: the naked, private images are sweet, innocent, they are found footages—while the political pornography of the public sphere propagating asexuality becomes visible. The use of amateur films and newsreels along with official propaganda texts suggests the inseparability of the private and the public. Forgács’s film shows the private within the public, and highlights this as the essence of the regime. The central message is the impossibility of getting through the banality, the façade, because the core does not lie behind it—banality is the core itself. A chain of associations of the mistakes and errors uncovers the big lie of the regime: the building of Socialism is destruction; the basis of Social peace is betrayal and suppression; behind the stillness there is frustration.


Fig. 1 Kádár’s Kiss. Courtesy of Péter Forgács

39Forgács’s film does not offer a representative image of the 1960s in Hungary, the consolidation period of the Kádár regime. The time frames are not clear: with most of the images and texts dating back to the first half of the 1960s, but some coming from the turn of the 1960–70s. There is no inner chronology since that is not the goal of the film: it does not matter which years are represented by more or by less material. Hungary at the beginning of the 1960s, (including 1963, a key date, the year of the amnesty granted to the majority of those imprisoned after the Revolution, which was the symbolic overture of the Kádár consolidation) and Hungary in the late 1960s and early 1970s (the time of the peak and subsequent slowdown of the economic reform) represent two different eras, raising questions about homogeneity of the period. However, this question is irrelevant from the perspective of the film, since Forgács’s aim is not to talk about periodization in terms of any historical analysis. Rather, he presents the Hungary of the 1960s as a timeless epoch, an everlasting present.

40Kádár’s Kiss uses a variety of themes, values, spheres and source materials in order to produce a contrapuntal narrative and a montage structure. It does not have a certain group or social class in its centre. In contrast with other films in the series, the amateur filmmakers, family members or friends appearing in the footages cannot be identified. No personal stories, destinies or family legends are connected with the images. The heroes rarely have names, and at most we know their forenames. This further highlights the fact that Kádár appears under both his names—his real name and the name he adopted during the clandestine period.

41By viewing the amateur footages, the places where they were most probably made, and the objects surrounding the people, we experience the petit-bourgeois milieu of the socialist regime of the Hungarian 1960s. For the middle or lower-middle class Kádár’s consolidation and the ambivalent modernization of the time meant extended opportunities, a change in lifestyle and an improvement of living standards (television, car, weekend cottage), which gave this period the nickname “refrigerator Socialism.” The images of the film reflect a pragmatic world, free of politics and ideology, with a happy and peaceful consumerist society: vacations spent at Lake Balaton and anniversaries celebrated in front of the television—a tacit pact of philistines not wanting to break with their ordinariness and politicians insisting on their own average, ordinary character. This interpretation is further strengthened by several Kádár quotes that appear in the film, in which he insists that Communists are not “extraordinary people”: they too are simple, average members of society, who sometimes make mistakes or take wrong decisions.

42This peace and banality as well as the reciprocal compromises are based on forgetting and the fading or downright disappearance of traditions and values. In a beautiful and metaphorical piece of amateur footage, beneath the ruins of the National Theatre, the workers are carrying an old ornament, a statue, once the pride of the building. From the external point of view of Hamvas’s text (“the colossal junkheap”) the world of Kádár’s consolidation seems like a cheap victory of materiality; while from the point of view of the 1956 Revolution and the reprisals against it—the starting point of the system itself—it is just a monotonous, grey and false period of betrayal and forgetting.

43Kádár’s Kiss unveils the falseness of the consolidation period under Kádár. It exposes the shallowness of a system devoid of ideology, where deleting the past, amnesia (“let’s forget about the genesis of the system”) and blindness towards the present (consolidation, neutralization) all mean self-betrayal. The crux of these lies and self-delusions is the distinction between the public and the private. The separation itself (when politics and ideology abandon everyday life), indeed the very possibility of separation, were only illusions; as such, they could only be kept up for a limited time. Forgács’s grotesque, sarcastic and deeply melancholic film shows the Hungary of the 1960s, an empty façade living its eternal present. As a saying of the time put it: the Kádár regime was like honey. Sweet, but it made you get stuck with it.


1 Patricia Rodden Zimmermann, Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film (Bloomington–Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995), 2–4.

2 James M. Moran, There’s No Place Like Home Video (Minneapolis–London: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 66.

3 Ibid., 33.

4 The description of the collection is available on (accessed 10 March, 2007).

5 The first piece of the Private Hungary series, called The Bartos Family (Bartos család, 1988), is based on the same amateur footages as the above mentioned-film by Gábor Bódy (the family footages are shot by Zoltán Bartos, merchant and composer, between the 1920s and 1960s). For a comparative analysis of the two films, see András Forgách, “Zárt kertek pusztulása. Forgács Péter és a film” [The Destruction of Closed Gardens: Péter Forgács and film], Metropolis 2 (1999): 58–74.

6 On Péter Forgács’s Private Hungary, see Ernst van Alphen, “Towards a New Historiography: Peter Forgacs and the Aesthetics of Temporality,” available at http://www.forgacspeter. hu/eng/main/press/articles/ernst%20_van_alphen.html (accessed 6 March, 2007); and Catherine Portuges, “Home Movies, Found Images, and Amateur Film as a Witness to History” in Jan-Christopher Horak (ed.), The Moving Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 107–23.

7 On the history of Hungarian amateur film-making, see Márton Kurutz, “Pergő képek” [Revolving Pictures], Metropolis 2 (1999): 92–101; and István Dékány, “Az amatőrfilmmozgalom története Magyarországon” [The history of amateur film-making in Hungary], Pergő Képek 5 (2000): 3–29.

8 Benedek Balázs Vasák, “Határesetek” [Borderline cases], Metropolis 2 (1999): 108–28.

9 Tibor Huszár, György Litván, Katalin S. Varga (eds.), Bibó István (1911–1979). Életút dokumentumokban [István Bibó (1911–1979): A life in documents] (Budapest: 1956-os Intézet, 1995); István Bibó, Democracy, Revolution, Self-determination: Selected Writings (Boulder: East European Monographs, 1991). On the relationship of Bibó and Ravasz, see László Tóth, “Ravasz László és Bibó István szellemi viszonya (Kapcsolódási pontok)” [The intellectual relationship of László Ravasz and István Bibó (Points of contact)] in Iván Zoltán Dénes (ed.), Megtalálni a szabadság rendjét: Tanulmányok Bibó István életművéről [To find the order of freedom: Studies on the work of István Bibó] (Budapest: Új Mandátum Könyvkiadó, 2001), 265–90.

10 Tamás Fehérvári, János Weiss, J. A. Tillmann, “Képtudat és önismeret” [Image and selfknowledge], Filmvilág 6 (2002): 17–9.

11 The Hitchcockian melody is the suspense deriving from the fact that we, the audience, know better than the amateur film-makers themselves. We know their destiny.

12 “At the center of Mitteleuropa,” Péter Forgács interviewed by Sven Spieker at (accessed 23 February, 2007).

13 On the historical interpetation and characteristic of the Kádár-era, see János Rainer M., “The Sixties in Hungary—Some Historical and Political Approaches” in János Rainer M., György Péteri (eds.), Muddling Through in the Long 1960s: Ideas and Everyday Life in High Politics and the Lower Classes of Communist Hungary (Budapest—Trondheim: 1956 Institute, 2005), 4–26; and Ignác Romsics, Hungary in the 20th Century (Budapest: Corvina, 1999).

14 Szemző is a musician, composer, independent filmmaker, and author of soundtracks. He has been a long-time collaborator on Forgács’s films. As a musician, he was the founder of the acclaimed Hungarian modern ensemble Group 180 and The Gordian Knot Company.

15 (accessed 23 February, 2007).

16 Peter Hames, “The Czechoslovak New Wave: A Revolution Denied” in Linda Badley, R. Barton Palmer and Steven Jay Schneider (eds.), Traditions in World Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 67–79.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1 Kádár’s Kiss. Courtesy of Péter Forgács
Fichier image/jpeg, 519k


Balázs Varga (b. 1970) is a film historian and researcher at the Hungarian National Film Archive. He is co-editor of the film quarterly Metropolis. He is currently finishing his doctoral project Ideologies, Politics and Social Representation in Hungarian Films of the 1950s and 1960s at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Budapest. His research interests include post-World War II European and Hungarian film history.

© Central European University Press, 2008

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