The image of loving life: Károly Makk

Article published on May 20, 2006
Article published on May 20, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The Cannes film festival is in full swing, and we talk to Károly Makk, the acclaimed Hungarian film director, who won the Jury Prize in 1971. While he lived through WWII and communism, he still hasn’t lost his love for life and film

On the front of a traditional house in Budapest there is a flashing notice in neon: Alex’s Candy Store. That’s where I am waiting for Károly Makk, the famous Hungarian film director. The place isn’t known for its comfort; it is as if it was a mixture of a candy shop of the seventies and a hunting lodge. Only the shouting of the waitresses breaks the silence. The director arrives, but does not walk straight up to me; instead he gives a nod to people at other tables. He is a regular customer here. He is wearing a casual blue shirt and his white hair, which frames his old crinkly face, smells of a sweet perfume. ”This is a candy shop which never goes out of style,” he says. “I am so familiar with the three waitresses, and I live quite close so I visit this place almost every day.”

Life is Joyful...

Károly Makk is undoubtedly one of the most emblematic figures in Hungarian films. He was born in 1925, in the eastern part of Hungary. He grew up in rural Pusta in Berettyóújfalu, with a father who worked in the local cinema in the first half of the twentieth century. The young Károly Makk spent his youth wandering between rolls of film that held the greatest silent films of the age.

He lived and worked through the tumultuous events of the twentieth century: WWII, the era of socialism and then the first free elections in Hungary’s history in 1990. Throughout the years of communist control over the state culture Makk was working in national studios. In an age where Marxist ideology dominated the visual arts and media, he could not address political issues directly. Instead, his films investigated universal emotions. In doing so, they captured how living under communist oppression effects fidelity, love and faith. Makk’s films have erected a testament not to the horrors of totalitarianism, but to the traces of humanity that persist in such difficult times. Makk told me, “I love life, with all its troubles and miseries. This is something one cannot avoid, it is impossible to always walk on the bright side of life. One has to engage with life as a whole.”

And films are too...

Makk brings the same spirit of joy to his movies, starting with the classic comedy Lilomfi in 1954. During the eighty years of his life he has directed more than two dozen films – most of which have won recognition at home and abroad. In A Very Moral Night (1977), and The Gambler, he showed his astonishing eye for detail and his talent for lyrical photography. Love (1960) and A Long Weekend in Pest and Buda (2003) showed his ability to portray personal and historical dilemmas. In these films he strived to “mock the charming patterns of a backward society where laughter and joy are essential elements of the human character.” He believes that the joy and love one can find in his films can help to tackle the problems of fate we encounter in our lives, and appreciate the simplicity of good things.

Károly Makk is also the mentor of today’s young generation of Hungarian directors. He draws a parallel between the challenges of the young generation today and the opportunities in film just after WWII. “The beauty of Italian neo-realism [an Italian movement which used stark realism to portray issues with a social consciousness] was a way of trying to make the hidden desires of society visible, which is very similar to what is happening in European film today.” Makk, in his throaty voice, often return to his memories of the great European festivals. It is this passion, rooted in history, which still informs his love for cinema. Makk explains, “the motion picture is the most adequate form for our age. Sometimes in film, like in life, we just do things instinctively. The essence of making a film is the beauty of a danger. Namely, the danger is that everything that is shot on celluloid remains the same forever. The creator will have to live with this all his life. That he has transformed contingency into something that remains.”

Moving everlastingly

Károly Makk talks to me while eating his Hungarian cream cake, and his eyes sparkle around the room, smiling at the people coming in. He is a well known personality in European cinema, regaling me with stories about Vittorio de Sica and Alain Delon, both of whom he knows personally. It is easy to imagine how this gentle and refined man finds ways to lead his actors to perform with joy in his films, even in the days when freedom of speech was so restricted.

Makk is ambiguous about the rise of democracy, “democratic choices are the death of decisions, because no consensus will ever bring a solution to the problems which are inside of a society.” It is certain historical circumstances, he claims, that can give birth to great films. Such circumstances avoid the situation where films are just consumed as commodities. Makk says that “American films are popular because they simplify life into good and evil. In contrast, European cinema has always taken the side of the defeated, analysed the complexity of individual fates and united the language of cinema with literature. European cinematography bears testimony to a spirit of solidarity and understands that film should be directed towards ending social and political exclusion. Makk believes this attitude has been transposed into the cultural life of Europe over the last century.

As we end our conversation and finish the sweet cakes and coffee I ask him why he isn’t making films at the moment. He looks at me with sadness in his eyes and says “I do not shoot now but surely I will find ways to work in the future. For even if I am not working on a film at the moment, images, pictures and setting are always floating through my mind. This is the real motion picture.” The wise, laughing eyes of Károly Makk have perhaps created the greatest film on their own: a look through the depths of human emotion into the lens of the camera.

In June 2006, Károly Makk's film Love will be released on DVD