- In Retrospect
Paul Lendvai on Béla Tarr: A Laudation
Prof. Paul Lendvai, Austrian publisher of Hungarian origin, has been widely respected as a well-known expert on Eastern Europe for decades, far beyond the national borders. The 87-year-old commentator, moderator and frequent author of books, who has been given many accolades at home as well as abroad, recently held a laudation on Béla Tarr, who was honoured for his lifetime achievement at the fifth edition of the LET’S CEE Film Festival.
I was offered a choice of three languages – Hungarian, German or English – in which I would have to deliver this short laudation for Béla Tarr: of course I would have liked to speak in Hungarian, the only language in which Hungarians have no accent, as we all carry our origin in our accent, which acts as an indestructible and impenetrable armour plate. Regardless of whether we have an Austrian or British passport, whether you are a Nobel prize winner or a billionaire. But Hungarian is undoubtedly a beautiful language above all for poetry, love and cursing, however it is a language which very few people here would understand. And it is obvious that most non-German, non-Austrian or non-Swiss people prefer English as the lingua franca of our age.
I am neither a filmmaker nor a cinema critic, nor am I in any way connected to the film industry. Yet there are perhaps two more characteristics which connect me directly to Béla Tarr: as he once mentioned in an interview, he has been always a bit of a trouble maker; as am I – he with his legendary and majestic art of showing the naked reality hidden behind slogans, I with my journalism and books. And unsurprisingly, the both of us are among the black sheep in Orbán’s Hungary.
Béla is a creative genius not living in an ivory tower. He has been and still is today an example for what Pericles, the great Greek philosopher, said more than 2400 years ago: “The secret of liberty is courage“. Béla has been speaking out throughout his whole life against everything that is ugly, reprehensible and frightening above all in Hungary, but of course on a global scale, too. He had the strength of giving up filmmaking after his greatest success in 2011, receiving the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for his masterpiece, The Turin Horse. He is a fighter not willing to make rotten compromises with Orbán’s regime. And he did something which was just as admirable – he founded a film academy in Sarajevo, which ran for four and half years, but was forced to shut down last year due to the lack of funding (a frightening example of the destructive power of ethnic nationalism). Generations of young people learned from this modest and genuine film director, regarded by his peers as one of the greatest in the last four decades.
It is a stroke of luck that Béla found in the great Hungarian writer, László Krasznahorkai (Sátántangó), who received the prestigious Man Booker International Prize in London in 2015, as his congenial partner and scriptwriter. We must also mention his cutter, editor and co-director Ágnes Hranitzky, the composer Mihály Víg and the various wonderful cameramen working with them.
It is also important to say that this great filmmaker, known and admired around the globe, is in the best sense of the word a cosmopolitan, a humanist and an internationalist, who fights against ethnic nationalism, which above all since the refugee crisis is growing in Hungary, poisoning the social climate.
Let me say a few words about the nation, the Heimat. George Orwell, whose masterpieces Animal Farm and 1984 are becoming again very relevant for today’s Russia and perhaps tomorrow’s America, did amid all his outbursts against the English government distinguish between “patriotism as love of one’s own native land (so that anyone who grows into that love regardless of origin can be a patriot)“ and „nationalism as a claim to natural superiority (so that states must naturally consist of one nation and seek to exclude others)“. As the Hungarian poet Gyula Illyés expressed: the nationalist attacks, the patriot defends. Béla is a great patriot and a universal humanist at the same time.
For him the preservation and the defence of human dignity always were and are his foremost duty.
At a time when a greedy and profoundly corrupt group of people spend more money on soccer stadiums than on higher education, hobnob with dictators and neglect the health and the social system, build barbed-wire fences instead of schools, the voice of an incorruptible artist such as Béla carries is of great significance. He embodies – regardless of his current residency – the tradition of the greatest Hungarian composer, Béla Bartók, who turned his back to the Horthy regime in 1940, emigrating to the USA, or of the outstanding pianist, Sir András Schiff, who after hateful and personal, as well as anti-Semitic attacks against him has refused to play in his home country since 2011. The success of the young producer László Nemes, once assistant to Tarr, who received an Oscar for his film Son of Saul last year, does not legitimise, as Béla so aptly stressed, the regime of film financing in Hungary controlled by the Orbán friend, erstwhile Rambo producer and immensely rich entrepreneur, Andy Vajna, any more than Ernő Rubik’s cube would have legitimised the communist system.
Béla Tarr represents the human antidote and the international humanist challenge to a system which breaks the moral backbone of society. At a time when Putin and Trump de facto jointly threaten the values of a Europe, which today celebrates the birth of the European Union, such as the individual and collective examples of courage, integrity and determination, artists like Béla Tarr are more important than ever.
Therefore, it is fitting that this incomparable filmmaker received the Star of Urania, the recognition for his lifelong achievement from the LET’S CEE Film Festival, and I regard it as a great honour to have said a few words of laudation.