284: Georg Höllering’s Hortobágy (1937)

Archival Spaces 284

George Höllering’s Hortobágy (1937)

Uploaded 10 December 2021

Hortobagy (1937, George Hoellering()

George Höllering’s Hortobágy (1937) is one of those films I have been chasing after for decades and was finally able to see the film at the German Kinemathek’s recent “Film Restored: The Film Heritage Festival,” in a wet-gate transferred digital copy, restored this year by the National Film Institute Hungary, using an internegative for the picture, and a safety print for sound. I was not disappointed in Hortobágy which turns out to be an anomaly in Hungarian cinema in the 1930s when domestic comedies like István Székely’s Lila Akacs/Purple Lilacs(1934) and Béla Gaál’s Meseautó/Car of Dreams (1934) dominated screens in Budapest and Debrecen. An almost neo-realist look a peasant life in the Hortobágy region of Hungary, the film’s long, languid takes and lyrical documentary style is reminiscent of Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1934).

Located in the flatlands East of Budapest and West of Debrecen in central Hungary, the Horotbágy was an arid and sparsely populated steppe or puszta where distinctly Hungarian breeds of cattle, sheep, and horses were raised, the peasants maintaining their traditional and archaic way of life. Originally a center of commerce, the “Great Inn of the Hortobágy” (built-in 1781) was located on the road between Debrecen and Budapest where a stone bridge crossed the Hortobágy River, but the region dried out and the land was depopulated after the Tisza River was redirected in the 1840s. Höllering’s film documented the conflicts between tradition and modernity in a narrative that featured amateur actors exclusively, Hortobágy’s peasants and herdsmen playing themselves with surprising naturalness.

Austrian film director Georg Höllering spent more than two years under difficult working conditions producing independently what was initially only to be a documentary, the director traveling to the region in 1934 to shoot footage with his cameraman László Schäffer. In a second phase, Höllering asked the writer Zsigmond Móricz to develop a film narrative while shooting continuing through 1935. In 1936, the director produced a prologue and the film was released in March 1937. Hortobágy was a huge success throughout Europe but was heavily criticized by right-wing politicians and Hungary’s Fascist government for showing a pre-industrial view of the country. It was also a failure in the country’s cinemas because popular taste favored the kind of commercial comedies mentioned above. On the other hand, the film was imported to the United States by Sam Cummings’ Jewel Prods., where – after a battle with the New York Board of Censors and a Supreme Court injunction –  it premiered in January 1940 and did relatively well given its brief shots of nudity and the amazing depiction of the birth of a foal.

Opening with extensive shots of livestock, herding, and moving on a seemingly endless plain, the film then slowly introduces its human subjects, the Cinege family, consisting of a pater familias, his wife, Jansci, their 10-year-old son, Juliska, their daughter, and their csikós (horseman), Mihály. Everyone is preparing to go to town for the yearly market festival, where horses are studded. The slight story focuses on the boy who wants to become an engineer and keeps sneaking off to the oil well being dug at the edge of their property, much to the chagrin of the senior Cinege, and the daughter who wants to marry Mihály and not the wealthy farmer her father has chosen for her. To show his displeasure, the father destroys the bicycle Jansci has fixed up in order to cycle to the oil derrick, both symbols of modernity.  Meanwhile, Mihály and Juliska secretly meet before the village fair and have sex in the barn.

Höllering lovingly utilizes long takes to capture the daily lives of these sheepherders and horse breeders in the vast expanse of the puszta, but also the conflicts between the generations. Again, the scenes in the village and the market as peasants gather from the surrounding area have a documentary-like precision, contrasting with a fluid camera the movement of animals and their masters, as well as the myriad faces of country peasants. A particularly poignant moment involves an 80-year-old widow who travels to market to see – before she dies – the man she was not allowed to marry in her youth, the couple deciding to live out their final days together after they reunite at the festival. Jacques Lourcelles, the French film critic for Présence du cinema once wrote: “There is a cosmic dimension to Höllering’s characters, who have a forehead in the clouds and a soul among the stars.” And indeed, nature (and the weather) are constantly foregrounded, as in the violent storm that damages the oil well and kills Jansci’s horse.

Born in Vienna in 1897, George Hoellering started his film career as an exhibitor in Vienna in 1919, then moved to Berlin in the mid-1920s to produce and edit shorts. He was the production manager on Slatan Dudow’s left-wing Kuhle Wampe (1932) and on Heinz Paul’s right-wing, Tannenberg (1932), fleeing Germany shortly thereafter, because of his Jewish wife. They returned to Vienna but emigrated to London in 1937, where he managed the Academy Cinema in the West End. He also produced propaganda shorts for the British government during World War II and produced, directed, and co-wrote with T.S. Elliot, Murder in the Cathedral (1952), his last foray into film production.

He continued to manage the Academy Cinema until his death in 1980. Ironically my first knowledge of Hoellering came two years later when I found out that Helmar Lerski’s film, Avodah (1935), had been screened there in 1938 but was nowhere to be found. Miraculously, the 35mm nitrate print shown back in 1938 was found in a storeroom of the Academy, when the cinema was demolished in 1989 and is now preserved at the British Film Institute.   

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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