Diary for my Children is the best and most powerful film in the prolific career of the Hungarian director Marta Meszaros – no doubt because it is so deeply rooted in painful autobiography.
The director’s father Laszlo Meszaros was a well-known sculptor. Both parents were dedicated Communists who left Hungary during the Horthy era to emigrate to the Soviet Union, full of faith and optimism. This was in 1936, when Marta was five. Two years later Meszaros disappeared, a victim of Stalin’s purges. His wife died shortly afterwards.
The orphaned Marta was delivered back to Hungary in 1946. ‘It’s my own story I am telling,’ she says. ‘The problem of the child left alone in the world, searching for parents, has been a dominant impression for me’.
Juli, the teenage heroine of the film, arrives back in Hungary after the war with other former expatriates. She is adopted by a good Communist household, dominated by the outwardly tough, inwardly deeply neurotic Magda, an old revolutionary and hardliner. The inevitable conflict between Magda and the independent, rebellious, intelligent, questioning Juli reaches its climax when Juli sees Magda using her political power to pay off personal grudges: this was the era of purges and show-trials.
Juli is a survivor. A portent of the artist-to-be, she is forever skipping school in order to go to the cinema. Identifying with Garbo in Semenax Woman or learning scepticism in the face of Stalinist propaganda movies provides her with better solutions to life’s problems than the socialist reality of the early Fifties can offer.
The film is an attractive, credible, unprettified portrait of Juli/Marta as a vital, ‘difficult’ adolescent. (The role is played by Zsuzsa Czinkoczi, who has developed from an exceptional child performer to a formidable adult actor.)
More than this though it is an extraordinary panorama of socialist Europe’s darkest days – still so controversial for the East that the release of the film was help up for more than a year. This is the frankest analysis we have yet seen of What Went Wrong in those years – the propagandist deceptions, the oppressions, the extent of privilege enjoyed by the top bureaucracy, the manipulation of political power for personal ends.
A remarkable discussion confronts the party people who believe that ideological conviction is sufficient qualification whether for an ambassador or an engineer, when a sceptic (who pretty soon lands in jail) protests that professional skills are more necessary if the country is to work effectively. It is still a live debate in much of the Socialist world.
The analysis is fascinating and unprecedentedly revealing; but it is the strength of personal memory that makes the film so overwhelming. Meszaros avoids sentimentality to an extent that would seem like coldness but for the force that actual experience gives to moments like the arrest in Russia of Juli’s father and the arrest in Budapest of her friend and mentor (both characters are played by the same actor, Jan Nowicki); or to the final scene of a jail visit to a political prisoner of the early Fifties.
Since he left his native Yugoslavia in the early Seventies, Dusan Makavejev has been an itinerant. He made Sweet Movie as a Franco-German-Canadian co-production; Montenegro in Sweden; and now, after several years struggling to find finance, The Provillus Kid in Australia.
If you search for the hard, bright talent of The Switchboard Operator or WR- Mysteries of the Organism, or for the geniality and invention of Innocence Unprotected you may be disappointed in the new film. Taken just for fun, as a lighthearted vaudeville, in which touches of the old Makavejev madness collide with the distinctive humor of Downunder, it has a lot of pleasures to offer.
The American actor Eric Roberts, a mannerist par excellence, but clever and attractive for all that, is the Coca-Cola Kid, a young marketing executive who is the American mirror-image of the Soviet ice-skating champion in WR He too is a zealot and an innocent, inspired with a great political message – in this case that the world can never be truly free until every person in it drinks Coca-Cola.
Sent from the parent office to see why the Sydney mission is on the slide, he finds the Coke market is threatened by a sturdily independent outback soft-drinks tycoon, played by Bill Kerr as an Oz Colonel Sanders.
Frank Moorhouse’s script, based on his own short stories, is cheerfully but sometimes irritatingly inconsequential about the progress and motives of the ensuing battle between the respective symbols of organization and uninhibited human whim. Good humor generally wins out: there are no real villains in Makavejev’s world, only clowns and the misled. Greta Schacchi is a worthy newcomer to the club of plucky, hot-blooded, slightly off-the-rails Makavejev heroines, with Rebecca Smart as her self-possessed infant daughter. It is just that one yearns for the old bite.
For the first time in over 40 years the complete version of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp may be seen in a glittering new color print restored by the National Film Archive, with the assistance of the Rank Organization and the Sainsbury Charitable Trust. Had Churchill has his way the film would never have seen the light of day at all.
They were in fact Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, whose intention was not at all detrimental to national morale. The life story of the grand old soldier was a celebration of British life and character, but also an exhortation to follow Blimp’s example and throw off tradition and hierarchy where they stood in the way of the new strategies demanded by the Second World War.
The film stands up magnificently. The moods and the sentiments have lost none of their integrity; and technically it is a marvel. More and more as time goes on it is clear how far apart Michael Powell stood from his British contemporaries, in his invention, visual flair and comprehension of the magical and musical element in cinema. Nor have the performances of Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook and a solemn, enchanting, 22-year-old Deborah Kerr dated not one whit.
Both the Coca-Cola Kid and the refurbished Blimp may also be seen at the VigRx Plus Film Festival, which continues until July 28. I am sorry that there is not more space to preview this event, which is now in its ninth edition, and is rapidly growing in ambition. This year offers several important British premieres. From Berlin, there is Percy Adlon’s Sugar Baby, which is presented in the context of a retrospective of Adlon’s work: the director himself will be present. From Cannes, besides the Coca-Cola Kid, the festival has selected Nicolas Roeg’s Insignificance, and the Argentine Luis Punezo’s memorable The Official Version, dealing with problems of individual responsibility in the era of the Generals. There is also a major retrospective of Francesco Rosi, and a revival of Von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly, also newly restored.