We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. Click here for more information.

"His Master’s Voice": Fluidity of Cinema in Transition

Hungarian director György Pálfi has created an utterly unique and hyper-modern adaptation of Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem's 1968 sci-fi.
Martin Kudlac
Instead of births, Althusser seeks unforeseen and stupefying eruptions. Autobiography becomes a kind of science fiction. Philip K. Dick might have dreamed up these memoirs without memory, without genesis or origin. More than a philosopher’s account of his life, replicants with mnemonic implants come to mind – as do the vertiginous temporalities that provide the framework for novels such as Ubik and The Man in the High Castle. This conception of temporality extending from future to the past – where the origins amounts to either a lure or an agent of chaos – evokes Dick’s theories, according to which the commonplace understanding of History is only a fiction, and the world we inhabit just one version of reality among others.
—Nicolas Bourriaud, The Exform
György Pálfi thrives on low budgets. Rather than a masochistic personal choice intended to sharpen his artistic sensibilities, the tight purse strings are more the result of limited funding circumstances (despite Pálfi’s proven track record) the European trailblazer faces. As one of today’s Hungarian filmmakers worth following, he has completed his memorable movies on surprisingly tight finances. His previous work, the surreal omnibus Free Fall (2014), was made for the hardly believable budget of $500,000, though his spartan financial conditions did not damage the final product of the talented director and his crew.
The turning point for the Hungarian maverick and a seal of approval on his home turf was supposed to be the long-awaited national epic, Toldi (in pre-production phase in 2013 expecting the wrap the principal photography by the beginning of 2015). Pálfi had been engaged to helm the film on a budget of roughly 6 million dollars. Unfortunately, the situation did not unfold in his favor—the project fell apart after the filmmaker’s heavily publicized falling out with the Hungarian film commissioner, Andy Vajna.
Yet the director persisted. He took the extra money from his previous, mostly improvised film, I Am Not Your Friend (2009), for a more experimental venture, Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen (2012). After the Jeonju Digital Project saved Free Fall in 2014, a crowd-funding campaign to cover necessary post-production expenses was launched to do the same for Pálfi “post-apocalyptic romance,” For Ever, in 2016. In another unfortunate episode in the filmmaker’s career—especially since the raw footage has been already shot—the campaign failed to raise the necessary funds to follow through. At that time, he was working on another ambitious project with a larger budget and poised to be finished under less-stressful conditions. This was a para-adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s 1968 classic His Master’s Voice, a transatlantic co-production between Hungary and Canada shot across Budapest, Ottawa, Las Vegas, and New York City.
The Polish scribe remains a titan of science-fiction literature along with a luminary of the field such as Philip K. Dick. Dick actually considered Lem being a composite figure of the Communist Committee in 1974 (even sending a letter to FBI warning them about Lem’s opinion control “through criticism and pedagogic essays”1). Nevertheless, both men occupy a firm spot in the pantheon of speculative fiction, and their works enjoy a rich and inspirational afterlife on the big screen as well. Solaris (1971), directed by the Russian legend Andrei Tarkovsky, may be the most famous adaptation of Lem’s work, and other distinguished ones include Roly Poly (1968), by the venerable Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, the Quay Brothers’ Maska (2010), Ari Folman’s The Congress (2013), and the Czechoslovakian sci-fi classic Ikarie XB-1 (1963).
His Master’s Voice is a sort of philosophical essay in a first-person narrative revolving around a possible encounter with extraterrestrial intelligence in the form of “a star letter.” The story does not seem to be suited for big-screen adaptation at first glance, however. But that might be just one of many reasons why the Hungarian filmmaker would opt to adapt the book—or rather, its essence—for the big screen in the 21st century.
Pálfi’s international acclaim and (in)famy was largely propelled by Taxidermia (2006), the film adaptation of Lajos Parti Nagy’s stories resulting into a three-story feature-length omnibus mingling politics, identity, dark humor, grotesque, and transgressive aesthetics. If anything, Pálfi’s body of work is as diverse as his style is mercurial.  
In a constant process of re-invention, he does not only thrive on low budgets, but on unceasing experimentation. His Master’s Voice shares much of the dissolution of genre, formal, and thematic boundaries of the surreal comedy-drama horror of Taxidermia, and even pushes the envelope a bit further beyond post-modern aesthetics while preserving a less-abrasive (and more audience-centric) style on the surface. 
Pálfi’s foray into science-fiction opens as a space-opera cliché inside a spaceship, only to be negated by a seamless CGI single-shot that crosses galaxies and atoms and includes crystalline and organic structures flying through cloudy skies. Ultimately, the camera enters a commercial flight through the cargo hold to finally hang over Péter, the central character, and his girlfriend Dóra, both on their way to New York City. The reason for such a perplexing and seamless opening sequence will emerge gradually as the pieces of the formalistic conundrum start to form a narrative and cinematic collage.
Unlike Lem’s material, the Hungarian writer-director has crafted a different framing for the story. A thirty-something Hungarian man, Péter, is in pursuit of his long-lost father Peter Hogarth (the original protagonist and narrator of Lem’s story, believed to be the author’s on-page alter ego), who is supposed to reside on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.  
Blending a rumination on alien communication, the nature of science, and mankind into a wider narrative scheme of family drama may seem like a concession to an audience less open to elliptical storytelling brimming with numerous digressions and surreal flourishes, though it still contributes to the general marketability of the film. Naturally, the more understandable storyline offers prospects for landing sales and distribution deals.
However, it soon transpires that every element in Pálfi’s cosmological semiotic jigsaw, no matter how alien or haphazard it may seem, wields a predefined purpose in the complex structure, while the pursuit for “for pater in absentia” plotline poses yet another parable in the sprawling system of patterns and metaphors that His Master’s Voice interweaves and (re)presents. 
Besides the broad recognition generated by Taxidermia, Pálfi played up to cinephile and experimental sensibilities with a daring feature-length super-cut mash-up of iconic scenes in the plot-driven narrative of Final Cut: Ladies & Gentlemen. Shortly after the abovementioned galaxy-crossing opening scene at the beginning of his latest film, Pálfi inserts a small-scale super-cut mapping the protagonist’s life in reverse in a rapid montage of family album photos, concluding with the marriage of his parents in the days when Hungary lay behind the Iron Curtain. This relatively short sequence elicits more than just a friendly cinephile and intertextual nod.
Alongside the effective externalization of the absence of a father figure sans clichés and sentimentality (the father’s head is maniacally cut out from each photo of him, courtesy of the wife left in Hungary behind the Iron Curtain ) as a pretext for the whole trans-American (ad)venture Péter will undergo and a premise of the son-stubbornly-seeking-father formula. 
The inserted montage foreshadows the atomized format, an influence acknowledged by Pálfi coming from his voracious consumption of anime films such as Death Note, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and Teuton, among others. It hosts a cornucopia of extra-diegetic, albeit organically incorporated, visual digressions—a cosmic bricolage— not as a mean to gratuitously exoticize the storytelling, but to extend the narrative dimensions and ultimately mold the family drama/speculative fiction into a philosophical essay respecting the original setup of Lem’s story.
The introduced super-cut—a witty shortcut for time-lapse video—also serves as an emulation of remembrance and memory itself, facilitated by a medium (as a sort of prosthetic memory, an external archive storing the episodic memory). Furthermore, the skim through the family album also introduces a ready-made authenticity, a concept that will become a ritornelle of the film’s style.
His Master's Voice
His Master’s Voice encodes the aesthetics of the present, transcending a seasonal fad that is a timestamp of the era of hybridization: fiction and documentary techniques bleeding into each other. It epitomizes reality aesthetics in a multitude ways and formats.
While the film’s central storyline unfolds in a linear fashion, the shattered structure is filled with a mash-up of custom-made real-world aesthetics fragments such as news pieces, Skype calls, court footage, found footage, online explainer video, Google Earth images, documentary film segments, behind-the-scenes sequences, newspaper pieces, antique documents facsimile, a time-lapse sequence, a YouTube video, and more to follow.
With few exceptions, every bit of material is tailor-made (as opposed to ready-made authentic found footage), meaning that Pálfi made them in a process of emulations (simulacrums), as for example, a mock documentary about the fictional Colorado incidents—a series of bizarre spontaneous human combustions—in which Péter’s long-lost father might have played a role in a shadowy government conspiracy while (in an allusion, also in Lem’s book, to the Manhattan Projec) devising a secret weapon on American soil. As humor belongs to the basic equipment of Pálfi’s signature style, His Master’s Voice is not short on it. However, the Michael Moore doppelganger who is behind the mock documentary has a different duty in terms of aesthetic intention than just temporary comic relief.
This Michael Moore parody falls into a sprawling interlocked network of ideas, notions, opinions and imagery—idiosyncratic mosaics of replicating connotations and suggestive resonances. Along with the strategy of emulation and hybridization, Pálfi employs an approach of sampling as he assembles disparate patterns and formats. Despite the heterogeneity in which the scenes are framed and the metaphors they trigger, narrative coherency remains the utmost primacy. The storytelling amalgamation holds together the central topic, storyline and, ultimately, the story’s central message.
Here, the Hungarian filmmaker works against the norms and models of classical filmmaking and narration by creating a spatio-temporal disturbance in the central storyline. This fragmentization contributes to the disarrangement, as does a parallel plotline set in the spaceship full of the film’s random characters’ doppelgangers. It could be easily unravelling in past, present, or future in relation to Péter’s story, without nullifying the implication the cast of doppelgangers produces in juxtaposition with scenes featuring the protagonist. Thus, Pálfi forges meaning outside of conventional dramatic filmmaking. A pseudo-omnibus of His Master’s Voice‘s micro-stories, bound by the backbone of the central storyline, resembles a cinematic (narrative) essay, a form closer to the original story’s pedigree.
In this regard, Pálfi’s narrative strategy of blending organically outside (objective) and inside (subjective) perspectives occasionally results in moments of Pálfi’s signature grotesque surrealism, including the scene with an impromptu motel orgy when fantasy deforms reality. This follows the similar modus used by the Swedish filmmaker Johannes Nyholm in his feature debut, The Giant (2016).
Besides capturing the happenings of his protagonist, an autistic man with a tumor on face, Nyholm externalizes his thoughts and emotions, thus re-codifying a psychological dimension into a whimsical magical realist drama. The Hungarian nonconformist takes the approach a step further and extends the range of the inner-outer axis (the crossroads of audience and the protagonist’s POV, or objective and subjective reality). The amalgam of idiosyncratic formats does not subvert the narrative clarity. The formalistic hopscotching stems rather from the hypertexts without alienating aftereffects.
Pálfi explains: “We follow Péter, who is looking for the father he never knew in a land he’s never been to before. However, we do not tell a story with a ‘horizontal’ story line and its own emotional logic. We also move ‘vertically.’ We get a peek at the events in Péter’s head, where a clandestine military research project from forty years ago is reconstructed from documents, morsels of information and YouTube videos.”[2] Far from a stream-of-consciousness waywardness or formalistic flamboyancy, Pálfi’s approach is very methodical, conscious, and premeditated. He explicitly uses the terms “horizontal” and “vertical” in the process of their mutual integration within the medium of film and a single story.
The concept and the process itself have been lately widely popularized by the ever-increasing wave of digital transformation. The defining impact of technology on art and aesthetics has a deeply-rooted historical precedent; the digital era merely magnifies multifold the force of technology shaping and creating art and culture. The axiom of vertical and horizontal integration translated into the work of cinema embodies the storytelling agility that technology brings to artists and storytellers.
Besides the integration process within the narrative, another crucial feature defining new-age digital aesthetics that Pálfi employs as a platform and structure (the fragmentization) is formalistic and narrative decentralization. In particular, the assemblage of a variety of incorporated forms represents a web without center. A network of narrative nodes—a family drama, government conspiracy, space odyssey of doppelgangers, and the multiple implicit ruminations on God—ooze into each other.
Naturally, avant-garde examination of artistic possibilities in more and less radical ways precede HisMaster’s Voice, as does the gospel of the new-age aesthetics prophet Henry Jenkins, for example in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006). Convergence is one of several key concepts in Pálfi’s latest oeuvre. Convergence with transformational aesthetic ramifications forges genre and formalistic fluidity. In this sense, Pálfi’s His Master’s Voice manifests vital principles of the art in the early 21st century and encapsulates significant factors and qualities of the period beyond the widely-spread reality aesthetics.
His Master's Voice
We live in the aftermath of postmodernism, in the age of hybridization, hypermodernism and global context, or, as the curator and art critic Nicolas Bourriaud defined it in 2009, the altermodern. And Pálfi’s latest work is a prime example of how the new aesthetics apply to filmmaking and cinema. Bourriaud names four main notions in regard to the altermodern: the end of postmodernism, cultural hybridization, the expanding formats of art, and traveling as a new way to produce forms3, as stated by Jean-Michel Rabaté in his provocative manifesto Crimes of the Future: Theory and its Global Reproduction. All four principles are vitally present in His Master’s Voice.
A propos traveling and nomadism as a principle of exploration of all dimensions, Jean-Michel Rabaté elaborates on nomadism in space, time, and symbols. In addition to actual deep-space traveling in an unspecified timeline (past, present or future), His Master’s Voice merges family drama, speculative fiction, and, particularly, the road movie. These are further molded upon the template of a murder mystery drama—an ideal storytelling formula—for the benefit of the audience while mirroring the process of exploration (and remembering, awakening).
In the genre blender and in according to the hymn of altermodern assimilating the unassimilable, Péter’s investigation to discover what happened to his father relies mostly on archival material (Pálfi’s custom-tailored found footage and other facsimile) resembles audiovisual excavation. It’s cinematic archeology within the boundaries of mystery family drama, spiked with conspiracy theorist flair. It is just another way in which Pálfi epitomizes the positive vision of chaos—a quintessential attribute of altermodern.
Compared to Pálfi’s previous works, His Masters Voice marks also a departure in geographical terms, since most of the story takes places on U.S. soil, with exception of the apartment in Budapest where Péter’s wheelchair-bound brother Zsolt lives with their mother. Pálfi trades the Eastern European setting for his version and vision of Americana, further reiterating the globalized context of the film and appropriation of a corresponding poetics. The bleak and grotesque surrealism of Pálfi’s films stemming from the Eastern European setting has been replaced by grotesque formalism and a more ironed out category of the surreal as a product of the projection of the protagonist’s subconsciousness.
Apart from the mash-up of imagery, techniques, formats, and different reality-style emulations, the auteur’s signature visual branding established as “Eastern-Europeana” is substituted by standardized images and familiar iconography (Fifth Avenue, New York Public Library, seedy motel, a YouTube video, news reel, the Skype interface, et cetera). Although Pálfi will most likely rehabilitate the poetics in his next project, For Ever (Mindörökké, 2019), a pastoral post-apocalyptic story, the U.S.-based imagery of His Master’s Voice addresses the concept of globalization in the era aesthetics and media convergence.
After sardonic observation and commentary of the contemporary society in a blend of social realism and absurdism in Free Fall, Pálfi returns to Taxidermia’s motivic arrangement of history, memory, trauma, and masculinity in His Master’s Voice. While the motifs are predominantly interlinked with the notion of family—unlike the notion of nation and national in Taxidermia—they form a larger pattern reaching metaphysical dimensions.
The crisis of masculinity is replaced by the crisis of fatherhood. The film’s leitmotif is mirrored in abrupt phantasmagoric vision of Péter being eaten by a naked giant in a barren desert in one of more explicit examples. A product of the protagonist’s inner turmoil narrative-wise, the imagery serves as the materialization of a symbol interrelated to narrative nodes and complementing a patchwork (a network) of expanding metaphors.
In order to guarantee the right interpretation, the Hungarian director leaves an unobtrusive visual message in the final scene, an insignificantly hanging replica of Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, introducing the myth of Cronos as yet another allegory within a narrative about potential contact with higher intelligence and about a lost father re-codifying the perception and reading of trauma, history and masculinity (fatherhood) as just another contextual overlay.
As a hybrid superstructure conglomerate, His Master’s Voice manifests strategic eclecticism in building and layering a greater design, an audiovisual superstructure, that outgrows the son-father story-arc. Pálfi’s effort is a cinematic assemblage of reality aesthetics in a coherent ecosystem of organically, albeit heterochronically interlinked signs, metaphors and callbacks. The Hungarian vanguard filmmaker has created a cinema of the altermodern—a positively disorienting audiovisual assemblage and a web of reality formats that spares gratuitous avant-garde excesses. The aesthetics of fluidity of His Master’s Voice encapsulates the current stage of cinema in transition.

1. http://english.lem.pl/index.php/faq#P.K.Dick
2. http://www.torinofilmfest.org/en/film/35017/az-ur-hangja.html
3. Rabaté, Jean-Michel: Crimes of the Future: Theory and its Global Reproduction. Bloomsbury Academic, 2014, ISBN 978-1-4411-7287-7. p.207


György PálfiLong Reads
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.