by Lisa Lieberman
As Russia annexes Crimea, bringing us back to the bad old days of the Cold War, it's hard to remember the allure that Communism once held, particularly among bourgeois intellectuals. All the old Marxist apologists have died, a good many of them having publicly renounced their faith. The bloom is off the rose. But amidst the devastation of World War II, Europeans dreamed of abolishing the injustice that economic inequality brought, abandoning the nationalism that had caused the war, and remaking their societies from the bottom up.
Playwright Gyula Háy was nineteen when he was forced to flee his native Hungary. Like other supporters of Béla Kun's short-lived Council Republic (an effort to establish a Soviet-style dictatorship of the proletariat in Hungary after its defeat in World War I), he was targeted in the subsequent White Terror instituted by Admiral Horthy's nationalist and authoritarian regime. Háy found his way to Berlin along with other Communists and fellow travelers. After the Nazis came to power, most of these radicals wound up in the Soviet Union, where they led a precarious existence, always at risk of being eliminated in one of Stalin's purges. Yet those who managed to survive emerged from the war with their idealism intact. Here's how Háy described his return to Hungary in a Soviet airplane in April 1945 after twenty-five years in exile, ten of them in the USSR:
All the way from Moscow to Budapest in a bomber over the Carpathians, a solemn feeling had been gathering in my breast. I had been able for ten years to watch one realization of the great idea, full of mistakes and loose ends. Now was my chance to realize the same idea in my own country.
The Song of Freedom
A famous 1947 Hungarian film captures the hope of the immediate postwar period quite well. Somewhere in Europe was written by Béla Balázs, a comrade of Háy's, who taught at Moscow's State Film Institute from 1933-1945. There he came into contact with the great Soviet directors of the revolutionary era: Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Alexander Dovzhenko. All were evacuated to the city of Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan during the war—Háy and Balázs included—where they set up a makeshift studio to produce propaganda films urging resistance to the German invaders. Somewhere in Europe demonstrates a good deal of Soviet cinematic technique, from the opening montage of marching German soldiers intercut with scenes of wartime destruction to the angled images throughout the film and the documentary feel of the first half of the picture, with its long shots and sparing use of dialogue.
In the chaotic final months of the war, a group of orphans band together for protection. The traumatized children have turned feral; all they do is fight with one another and steal food, inciting the anger of some villagers, who are still under the thumb of the fascist Arrow Cross. The orphans find refuge with a gentle old man who lives in a ruined castle in the steep hills above the village. He teaches them civility, offers a glimpse of a world without poverty, and trains them to whistle “La Marseillaise,” the anthem of the French Revolution. Armed with little more than the song and a few handfuls of rocks, they withstand the townspeople's assault on their safe haven and take possession of the future.
My favorite scene is when the old man, who turns out to be an internationally acclaimed orchestra conductor, Piotr Simon, is noodling on his piano. The melody resolves into “Für Elise,” but Beethoven is soon supplanted by the booming chords of Rachmaninoff's “Prelude in C-sharp minor.” Kuksi, the smallest and cutest of the orphans, has climbed up onto the piano. He asks Simon why he's playing his music all alone in the castle (side-stepping the question of how the old man got a piano up there, with the war raging all around).
“Down below in the world there's too much noise going on. They wouldn't hear the music,” replies the old man.
“What's music for?” Kuksi persists.
“What's music for? If something hurts very much, or if something is too beautiful to put into words, this is the way you tell it.”
Now things get serious. Simon launches into a rousing rendition of “La Marseillaise.” A young man wrote this song, he explains, and it quickly caught on.
“And when a sea of people were singing it, their song was answered by guns. Canons, tanks, and machine guns. But the song was always stronger. It went around the world because people understood what that young man wanted to say. It's about freedom.”
The oldest boy, a reform school escapee, scoffs at this. “Freedom. We played that game on the highway and almost starved.”
“You weren't free. Freedom means that you're not forced to suffer, do evil things or hurt others. The worst captivity is poverty,” Simon explains patiently to big and small boy alike, with all the other orphans listening raptly.
The Red Fairy Book
Paternalism is the reigning motif of Somewhere in Europe. Under the old man's tutelage, the orphans discover the virtues of solidarity and work. Together they patch up the castle, parceling out the chores according to age, gender, and ability, and making sure that each member of the group has enough to eat and a dry place to sleep. “The world is already yours. You just don't know it,” Simon assures them. Once the fascists are gone, he promises, “new people will write new laws in the name of all who need help.” He is so fatherly, so benign, that you want to believe him. Who could fail to be enchanted by this fairy tale figure, complete with castle, who has preserved the culture of European humanism within its walls?
Balázs had a thing for fairy tales. In 1912 he wrote the libretto for “Bluebeard's Castle,” the famous opera composed by his friend, Béla Bartók. The two men traveled together in the Hungarian countryside collecting folk music and fables, and during his time in Kazakhstan, Balázs continued to collect folk poetry in much the spirit of the brothers Grimm, or Andrew Lang, whose turn-of-the-century Fairy Books of Many Colors preserved the old, magical stories for posterity. In this he was a typical product of his time and place. Educated Hungarians who came of age before the First World War were steeped in western European culture, measuring themselves against their counterparts in France, England, Germany, Italy and particularly Austria, since the two countries were closely allied in the Dual Monarchy. Fin-de-siècle Budapest was a cosmopolitan city of cafés rivaling those of Paris and Vienna, home to a renowned orchestra and opera, its metro system second only to London's. Higher education, the arts, architecture, engineering, and finance all thrived in the Hungarian capital, whose population more than doubled in the final decades of the nineteenth century, making it the fastest-growing city of Europe, the sixth largest by 1900. Budapest was scarcely representative of Hungary as a whole, however. Most of the country remained agricultural, comprised of large estates in the hands of aristocratic landowners with peasant tenants living in dire poverty. Beneath the glittering surface of the Austro-Hungarian empire were vast economic disparities and deep national divisions, as was true in the Russian empire as well.
The way to reach the peasants and bring them into the modern age was by using a language that they understood. The Soviets knew this; when Balázs was out collecting Kazakh folk poetry, he was part of a broader endeavor to preserve the traditions of Asiatic Russia not simply for their own sake, but in order to harness those traditions to the cause:
The Soviet government not only had these glorious old epics written down but saw to it that the last generation of the akins (as they were called in the Kazakh language) turned their attention to the present-day life of the Soviet Union and sang not only of the old heroes but of the new exploits of the Red Army, while still preserving the old folk style and language.
Film, he believed, was the art best suited to imparting truth to the masses. He understood the techniques pioneered by the best directors, the importance of editing and camera angles, for example, the long, sustained shots of the documentary, the form most apt for conveying Socialist Realism. In his famous book, Theory of the Film (1948), he talked about music and gestures as well, and what it was about a great actor's face that made the films they starred in so unforgettable. “Greta Garbo's beauty is a beauty of suffering; she suffers life and all the surrounding world.” This suffering beauty affects us more deeply than some bright and sparkling pin-up girl, he continued. “Millions see in her face a protest against this world, millions who may perhaps not even be conscious as yet of their own suffering protest; but they admire Garbo for it and find her beauty the most beautiful of all.” Still, at the end of the day, the star's beauty and the director's technique were there to serve the story, and it is here that fairy tales came into their own.
Balázs worked in the spirit of an anthropologist who lays bare universal human experiences by finding their most primitive form of expression. He knew his Freud, too. “Our earliest experiences are the ones that are most deeply imbedded and stay with us longest. And childhood travels are surely some of the greatest, most important experiences a person can have in his whole life,” he wrote in 1925, on the heels of a trip to Vienna. Speaking to the child who still resides in all of us, he went on to describe his train journey in terms that evoke the experience of watching a film in a dark theater:
When you fall asleep on the train at night, no matter how hard and uncomfortable your bed, you have for a moment the marvelous, blissful feeling of completely surrendering yourself to some caring, benevolent power that is watching over you . . . And when morning comes you see wet, misty fields, and you are someplace else. You haven't traveled. You have simply gone to sleep and awakened someplace else. Just as in a fairy tale.
Lisa Lieberman is the author of Stalin's Boots: In the Footsteps of the Failed 1956 Revolution.