Father (Apa) Review
Since the Oscar win of Mephisto for Best Foreign Language Film in 1982, István Szabó’s features have pretty much been guaranteed a cinema release here in the UK, oftentimes followed by a VHS or DVD and even the occasional television showing. Anyone with a slight interest in world cinema over the past three decades would therefore have seen, or at least been aware, of that long run of post-Mephisto works: Colonel Redl, Hanussen, Meeting Venus, Dear Emma Sweet Böbe, Sunshine, Taking Sides, Being Julia. Only the TV movies and 2006’s Rokonok have yet to see a British release of some kind; his forthcoming The Door stars Helen Mirren and so shouldn’t encounter any such difficulties. Yet for all this abundance since the early eighties, Szabó’s earliest films remain something of a mystery. Some would claim that they’re hidden in plain sight, given the Kino DVDs of Lovefilm, Father and 25 Firemans Street available to import from US and an English-friendly Budapest Tales available from its home country. But even these don’t plug all of the gaps (1979’s Confidence, which earned itself an Oscar nod for Best Foreign Language Film, is a major omission) whilst, in some cases, the DVDs themselves are arguably a case of ’could do better’. Indeed, this was no doubt part of the reasoning behind this new disc from Second Run: (re)introducing Father to British audiences (it received a theatrical showing here back in the sixties) and via a release that is undoubtedly superior to that old US edition courtesy of a director approved transfer, improved English subtitling and hefty booklet essay by John Cunningham.
Father was Szabó’s second feature, following a handful of student shorts made whilst at the Budapest Film Academy and 1965’s The Age of Day Dreaming. That film, so Cunningham informs us, was a coming of age tale set amongst Szabó’s own generation and influenced heavily by the nouvelle vague. Father is ostensibly similar both in setting and style, although it sets the clock back a couple of decades and charts its central character from the immediate post-war years through to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The father of the title is buried in the opening scene, an unseen narrator informing us that he died of a heart attack whilst working shortly after peace was declared. The off-screen voice is important as it becomes one we know we can trust. By contrast the young son, who must be around the age of seven or eight when we first meet him, keeps his father alive through fantasy, constructing careers and escapades with which to impress his school friends and to create a myth: the perfect father as, amongst other things, daring evader of the Nazis, top-flight surgeon, even Stalinist dictator.
Impressively, the young boy, named Takó and initially played by Dániel Erdély, dreams in a manner akin to various sixties cinematic new waves. His fantasies of his father are introduced via quick cuts, scored by János Gonda at his most infectious and possess an energy that’s full of charm and entirely at odds with the dour yet hyperbolic newsreels that punctuate the narrative or the more sober stylings of the real world. If we compare Father to other ‘children among the rubble’ films then Takó is living nearer to the harsh Berlin realities of Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero but imagining Ealing’s post-Blitz Hue and Cry. There is little or no fun in his everyday existence, yet the fantasies of his father bring with them action, excitement, drama and even a dash of humour. The scene of dad as dictator is a particularly wry imagining: a mass-rally in which, thanks to a very simple jump cut, the various posters and placards suddenly take on his visage, a symbol of adulation not only to the boy but to the population at large.
Of course the fantasising of a child barely ten coping with the recent death of a father and post-war austerity is hardly surprising. (Although, with that said, we don’t see it affecting Takó’s classmates, at least half of whom are in a similar situation.) The fantasising of a young adult, as we see when Father skips forward some years and replaces Erdély with András Bálint, is another matter altogether. Szabó doesn’t denote the exact year, merely that Takó is now taller than his father was. In fact, Szabó never names any of the years, using only allusions to historical events as a guide; a nod to the funeral of President Roosevelt in one of the earliest scenes is the sole instant that allows for a placing of an exact date. Nonetheless, these later scenes clearly take place around the time of the 1956 Revolution, possibly before, certainly during and after. To begin with Takó is still obsessed: Bálint’s first scene has him wearing the father’s suit despite its ill-fitting nature; his second has him donning his spectacles. Yet as the second half progresses he begins to question the myth he’s created and to slowly disentangle its mesh of fact and fiction.
Needless to say, the immediacy of those earlier sequences is replaced by an altogether more serious tone. Never is this more apparent that when Takó revisits the scene of one of his youthful imaginings. Whereas, once upon a time, it was the place of derring-do - the father takes on the Nazis and wins - it now becomes one of confusion: “That’s where Father hid… No, I only made up that story. [Pause] Or did he?” Takó’s newfound seriousness follows that of his friends as they too question the roles and fates of their parents during the Second World War with ideas of identity and duplicity coming to the fore (themes that would re-emerge with greater clarity in Szabó’s later trilogy with Klaus Maria Brandauer consisting Mephisto, Colonel Redl and Hanussen). Furthermore, this coming to terms with reality on Takó’s part is aped in his growing acceptance of the more general realities that surround him. No longer can he ignore them or disappear into dreams - he’s getting too old and the situations too grave for him to deny them any longer.
At the start of Cunningham’s booklet essay he notes Szabó’s reluctance to describe Father as an autobiographical effort only to provide some strong evidence to suggest otherwise (the film’s father and Szabó’s own were both doctors who died in 1945; the age of the protagonist roughly corresponds with that of Szabó, and so on). As such it’s very easy to see this is a highly personal work for its director much as it is with The Age of Day Dreaming that preceded it and Szabó’s third feature, Lovefilm. Indeed, in each we also find Bálint in the lead role acting as his surrogate. Yet if each is a personal work, then they should also be seen as films of their generation such is the focus on a very particular part of Hungary’s history. Takó may have a shared backstory with Szabó and possess many of the same characteristics, but his eventual questioning and realisations go beyond that of just one person. And so it is that Father works on both this small scale and the large, a film that is rich enough to encompass both a finely detailed character study and a wider historical piece, not to mention stylistically confident enough to take on both flights of fancy and harsh reality. Needless to say such a blend also results in a tremendously rewarding experience, yet another gem in the Second Run catalogue.
Father arrives onto UK DVD with arguably Second Run’s finest black and white presentation to date. Despite housing only the 85-minute feature itself, a dual-layered disc has been utilised and the transfer is practically flawless. Excellent levels of contrast and clarity are topped off by an equally superb restored soundtrack. (There is one instance of out-of-sync dialogue, though this would appear to be a fault in the post-production dubbing of the film and nothing to do with Second Run.) The print used is in generally fine shape; there are moderate instances of damage and you can see the ‘cigarette burns’ used to denote an upcoming reel change, but these are minor in the face of the detail behind such forgivable flaws. Szabó has also insisted on a 1.33:1 aspect ratio for this release (unlike the 1.66:1 framing used for the US Kino edition from 2002) and so the film is here presented open matte (as can be clearly determined by the visibly round corners of the frame). As said, there are no extras on the disc itself, but we can content ourselves with John Cunningham’s fine booklet essay which combines analysis with background into both Szabó and the requisite historical detail. Indeed, given Szabó’s at times allusive approach, this latter element will be particularly welcomed by many.