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'Hungarians in Hollywood' at BAM

Magyars invade tinseltown, and the rest is history

Buda and Pest united, and one of the world's most civilized capitals evolved. Then wrong World War allegiances contracted Hungary's borders, and siege and sacking was followed by brutish Soviet rule. Now, BAM testifies to a national genius, displaced by the 20th century, with "Hungarians in Hollywood."

Magyar contributions to American cinema would overwhelm any one film series, though some exclusions here are surprising. There's no Shop Around the Corner, which built writer Miklós László's Budapest at MGM. Does the Hungarian Cultural Center, the series co-sponsor, not recognize Showgirls author József Eszterhas's contributions to national prestige? Mother of mercy, where's Ernie Kovacs?

Stranger Than Paradise star Eszter Balint was late off the boat; her father's Squat Theatre troupe, banned from public performance at home, came to NYC in '77, and she appeared in Jim Jarmusch's film just seven years later. Cornel (Weisz) Wilde was born in Manhattan—he directs and stars in 1967's Beach Red, a goulash of feral terror and home-movie flashbacks, the most horribly modern of five World War II films playing at the fest. Or is it? Bogie mows down surrendering Krauts in 1944's Passage to Marseilles, his reunion with Casablanca's Mihály (Michael) Curtiz and co-star Löwenstein László (Peter Lorre).

Immigrant careers wind together through time and borders. The great André de Toth, gentleman protégé of the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár (also curiously missing here), came to the U.S., bagged Veronica Lake, and burnt up genre pictures with acidic emotion—his Western, Man in the Saddle, represents. Earlier, de Toth worked for Sir Alexander Korda, who as good as ran U.K. filmmaking in the 1940s, literally building a kingdom for Thief of Bagdad, an Orientalist Technicolor overdose that should still leave kids gasping. The score was prestige maestro Miklós Rózsa, student of Magyar folk songs and Bartók premieres, who swells up Douglas Sirk's postwar return to Germany, 1958's A Time to Love and a Time to Die. It's love-among-the-ruins—the key image is a party dress blossoming in flames—during a late-war furlough to collapsed Berlin from the Russian front. (That Sirk's only son died there adds to the poignancy.)

You could assimilate behind the camera, but the Hungarian exile actor led a career of ambiguous foreignness: see Lorre play Japanese in the enjoyably dumb wartime espionage thriller Invisible Agent, foiled by Budapest-born Ilona Massey, best remembered for Nelson Eddy duets and picketing Khrushchev's 1956 U.N. visit.

Film students László Kovács and Vilmos Zsigmond were on the streets to shoot the '56 Revolution, getting out just as the Red Army rolled in. The lifelong friends became New Hollywood's house cinematographers in the '70s—each is represented here by career-high works: Zsigmond on Brian de Palma's ode to the secret emotional depths of genre, Blow Out (red-white-and-blue scumbag Philly, jarring deep-focus), Kovács on Paper Moon (b&w roadside Kansas, wetly black nights).

Finally, Ninotchka, written by Melchior Lengyel and featuring Béla Lugosi (also here in Dracula), reproaches the old regime. Greta Garbo visits Paris as an uptight agent of Stalin and melts an audience while melting for French chauvinism and decadent prosperity. The basic idea is that Capitalism trumps Communism because we produce frivolous hats, a truth no less compelling today.

 
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