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Notebook Primer: Hungarian Animation, 1915–1989

From its birth through influential émigrés, the great Pannónia studio, and feature-length hits, an overview of a thrilling animated world.
Jennifer Lynde Barker
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history. The Animated World is a regular feature spotlighting animation from around the globe. The series "Fables, Folklore, Futurism: Visionary Hungarian Animations" is showing on MUBI starting September 20, 2021.
Johnny Corncob
For the past several years, the Hungarian National Film Institute has been celebrating 120 years of Hungarian cinema with film restorations, including a generous selection of animation. These films run the gamut from experimental to commercial and reflect well the rich variety of animation that has been produced in Hungary since 1915, with a special focus on the golden years of animation at Pannónia filmstúdio. Hungarian animation from this period steadily built up an international reputation for excellence, imagination and an intriguing mixture of traditional and modern storytelling, with Pannónia becoming a central and influential studio. Hungarian animators also wielded a great deal of influence as immigrants, a testimony to the irrepressibly international nature of animation.
Beetle Orpheum
The earliest known Hungarian animator is István Kató-Kiszly, a graphic artist whose first film, Ödön Zsirb (1915), was made from paper cut-outs featuring a stock comedic character: a greasy bucket. Like most Hungarian animators from this period, he was trained as an artist (others were painters or graphic designers) and his work reflects his visual talents. Like many early animators, Kató-Kiszly made advertisements, newsreels and educational movies in addition to narrative and comedic shorts. He animated a range of stories, from folktales and political satire to literature, including a 1916 adaptation of Sándor Petöfi’s epic Hungarian poem “János vitéz” (1844). He also made a beetle version of Romeo and Juliet (1921) crafted in the style of silhouette animation, and the beautifully and delicately detailed Beetle Orpheum (1932). While Kató-Kiszly made hundreds of animated films, most were lost during the Siege of Budapest in 1945.
Dustbin Parade
After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and throughout the turbulent interwar and war years, many Hungarian animators emigrated elsewhere. This diaspora became highly influential for the development of animation in a number of countries. One such was Britain, where John Halas (János Halász) was invited to set up a studio after founding Coloriton in Budapest with Gyula Macskássy. By 1936 he was permanently settled in London and founded the Halas and Batchelor studio in 1940 with his wife and animator Joy Batchelor. During the war they created numerous shorts for the War Office and Ministry of Information and Defence, including the inventive and humorous Dustbin Parade (1941) and Blitz on Bugs (1944). Their studio became the most significant in Britain with a variety of productions extending from experimental to commercial and educational to entertaining, a truly remarkable range of work. Perhaps their most famous achievement was a masterful adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1954), but they directed and produced many memorable gems, including Magic Canvas (1948), History of Film (1957), the Snip and Snap series (1960), Automania 2000 (1963), The Five (1970), and Autobahn (1979). 
Peter Foldes (Péter Mihály Földes) was another Hungarian émigré who worked with Halas in 1946. On his own he made the experimental A Short Vision (1956), funded by the BFI. The film achieved some notoriety when it was widely viewed on The Ed Sullivan Show but proved to be popular with audiences. The film blooms from limited animation into action with the explosion of a nuclear bomb, deforming faces into flesh and bone and molecular chaos. Foldes eventually moved to Paris where he made a number of films, including Hunger (1973)—notable as an early computer animation—which details a man’s excessive greed with black and white drawings that ingeniously morph against brightly colored backgrounds. Its surreal gluttony is strikingly similar, yet visually distinctive from István Bányai’s Gobble-Gobble (1977), produced in Budapest. Both films document the progressive destruction of bodily appetites without limits and its effects on the world. Gobble-Gobble is a much more densely, even gorgeously drawn rendition of the beautiful universe people have created but insist on destroying. It joins art nouveau with Alice in Wonderland in a visual feast one can perhaps be forgiven for devouring.
Jean Image (Imre Hajdú) also chose Paris, whose strikingly international animation scene influenced a great many artists. He directed and produced both shorts and feature films there from 1932 into the 1980s, including Johnny the Giant Killer (1950) and Little Orbit the Astrodog and the Screechers from Outer Space (1979). Teréz (Tissa) Dávid worked with him on Bonjour Paris! (1953) before emigrating to the U.S. in 1955. She had worked on films during the Siege of Budapest before leaving Hungary in 1950. Working first for the UPA studio and then the Hubleys as an animator for films like Dig (1972), she was the lead animator for Raggedy Ann and Andy (1977). Jules Engel (Gyula Engel) was another artist who ended up at UPA, but first moved to Chicago as a teenager and went on to work at Disney on Fantasia (1940). At UPA, he created modernist backgrounds for Gerald McBoing Boing (1952) and Madeline (1950) before founding the animation program at CalArts. Ferdinánd Huszti Horváth also worked as an illustrator for Disney in the 1930s.
Ship of Ether
Perhaps the best-known animator to settle in the U.S. was George Pal (György Pál Marczincsák). He emigrated first to Berlin in 1931, where he founded the Trickfilm Studio Pal and Wittke and began producing films using “Pal-dolls”—later called Puppetoons, which consisted of making thousands of wooden puppets for each stop motion film. After it became difficult to stay in Germany in 1933, he moved first to Prague then Paris before finding work with the Phillips company in the Netherlands. There he made, among others, Ship of Ether (1934) and Philips Cavalcade (1939), featuring creative scenarios and popular songs. After emigrating to the U.S. in 1939, he created Puppetoon films throughout the 1940s, including the antifascist fantasy Tulips Shall Grow (1942) and a version of American folklore, John Henry and the Inky-Poo (1946). Pal went on to greater fame with live action films like the sci-fi classic The Time Machine (1960).
The Pencil and the Eraser
Back in Budapest at the animation studio Coloriton, Macskássy was joined by Félix Kassowitz and György Szénásy, producing whimsical ads like Incandescent Love (1939), which animates lamps and electric meters alike and features moths playing in the Lumen band. The work from Macskássy’s studio often combined advertising with an entertaining or educational story, a practice he continued after the war. The Mouse and the Lion (1957), for example, is an educational short that features a silhouette style scene reminiscent of Kató-Kiszly, and tells the story of a mouse who is able to free a lion from captivity because she brushes her teeth regularly—she even teaches the lion cubs this habit. In the 1950s, Macskássy produced a number of Disney-style fairy tale adaptations, chiefly Little Rooster and His Diamond Halfpenny (1951). Macskássy also moved into more minimalist and abstract animation in the 1960s, establishing a long-time collaboration with artist György Várnai. Their work won international attention with The Pencil and the Eraser (1960) and Duel (1960), both of which feature characters in conflict with each other. The Pencil and the Eraser has a disarmingly simple style that only augments a complex self-awareness: once the two enemies realize they complement each other, they climb backwards through the film to fix their mistakes. In Duel, a scientist uses the tools of his trade, including mathematical symbols and chemistry, to defeat a soldier bent on hacking him up. 
These two films were produced at Pannónia filmstúdio: established in Budapest in 1951 after filmmaking was nationalized, but made independent in 1957, it dominated animation production through the end of the 1980s. Macskássy became one of the key early directors. Pannónia produced a fascinating array of animation in this period, from commercial work for other countries, like the Australian children’s film series Arthur (1966-) or René Laloux’s Time Masters (1982), to original and experimental shorts like József Nepp’s Five Minutes Thrill (1966), a continuous unfolding of violent encounters and payback that is darkly comic and cleverly moralistic. Nepp also developed an animated series for television beginning in the 1960s—Gusztáv (1965–1979)—a popular comic exploration of an everyman based on the character from his short film Passion (1961), which follows the misadventures of an ordinary fellow desperate for a smoke. Nepp also worked as a writer on numerous films directed by other animators. 
The Red Polka Dot Ball
Pannónia continued to expand in style throughout the 1960s with a growing cadre of talented artists and directors who created original work that expanded the possibilities of animation. Films like Tibor Csermák’s The Red Polka Dot Ball (1961) moved away from realism with its patterned sketchy backgrounds providing a textured feel in contrast to the brightly colored solid characters in the foreground. It tells the story of a feisty and imaginative girl with a red ball who finds a button on the ground that allows her to visually transform her surroundings and enjoy a game with the statues and objects around her. The film features arresting perspective shots from the ball’s point of view and a gradual transformation into the watercolor backgrounds. Csermák’s work (unhappily, his career was brief) is a perfect example of how animation can delight both child and adult when its scope is inspired, and The Red Polka Dot Ball won a prize at the Venice Film Festival.
Foam Bath
After the economic reforms of 1968, with the increased autonomy and expansion of the studio, a growing body of work won attention and awards abroad. József Gémes’s short film Koncertissimo (1968) makes that transition clear, with its flat yet colorful skewering of bourgeois complacency and militaristic nihilism. The films of György Kovásznai also provide a dramatic intervention into ideas about animation, featuring a deep fluidity of form and style. Kovásznai’s film Metamorphoses (1964) is an original painted work that declares its intention, in a handwritten prologue, to search for the visual expression of thoughts through a conversation between two people and the world. It does so, with images that metamorphose in a style both sophisticated and crude. His later Nights in the Boulevard (1972) pulses with life, as a poet drifts through the streets of Budapest listening to snippets of conversation and music. This documentation of everyday moments joins with the musical genre in his feature film Foam Bath (1979), a pulsating joyride firmly rooted in everyday Hungarian life. 
Kidnapping of the Sun and the Moon
Sándor Reisenbüchler was another vital animator who joined a strong worldview with an eclectic style encompassing folk and pop art. His patchwork canvases, featuring boldly colorful and clearly delineated shapes, still look strikingly original. His film Kidnapping of the Sun and the Moon (1968) was an explosive entry for a career that lasted through the 1990s. His work is allegorical and riveting and merges traditional with futurist designs. Peacemaking Expedition (1983) engages with Jules Verne’s vision of Mars while also seeming to incorporate the finely hatched lines featured in Karel Zeman’s Invention for Destruction (1958). Like his earlier Panic (1978), the visual design incorporates a richly textured feel with whimsical alien life, urban landscapes, technology and traditional folk design and archaic figures. Peacemaking Expedition memorably contrasts regimented Brits (including a patriotic cat) with alien creatures who happily roam while indulging in slapstick high-jinks set to ragtime. Panic clearly outlines Reisenbüchler’s antipathy towards capitalism while vividly detailing its tapestry of excess. The film employs some collage of material in its depiction of modern life yet its aesthetic feels fully integrated: the various pieces of reality never transcend Reisenbüchler’s artistry. His movies are also notable for their fantastic sound design, mixing well-known classical pieces with original music and noise in a collage effect that mirrors his visual design. 
 Johnny Corncob
Another major figure at Pannónia from its inception is Marcell Jankovics, whose work gained international attention in 1973 with the release of Hungary’s first animated feature film, Johnny Corncob. Another adaptation of Sándor Petöfi’s 19th century poem “János vitéz,” it is a psychedelic splendor firmly rooted in the 1970s. Commissioned for the 150th anniversary of Petőfi’s birth, its animated pop art nouveau landscape works well with the story of small-town orphan Jansci who embarks on a journey to earn money to marry his beloved, another orphan. The film channels Yellow Submarine (1968) but has a more engaging plot, and its folksy music, sung by pop star Delhusa Gjon, emphasizes the traditional Hungarian roots of the tale. The film is often a dreamy evocation of love and desire, with images metamorphosing into each other, as when sheep become clouds dripping from the sky. The animated style is by turns expressionist and impressionist, celebrating love as a cosmic event, a pure iteration of life. The film is crafted with care and talent, making it clear why it paved the way for more feature films. 
Johnny Corncob also reached into the Hungarian diaspora. One of the painters working on the film, Gyorgyi Peluce (Kovács Györgyike), later designed the early Simpsons characters with fellow émigré Gábor Csupó in the late 1980s. They chose the show’s characteristic yellow skin and Marge’s blue hair, which happily projects some of the psychedelic spirit of Johnny Corncob into the future. Csupó later started his own studio, Klasky Csupo, which has produced shows like Rugrats. After Johnny Corncob, Jankovics made two short films: Sisyphus (1974), nominated for an Oscar, and Struggle (1977), which won a Palme d’Or at Cannes. Each encapsulates struggle as the alpha and omega of human existence. Sisyphus begins with a single simple line and depicts the diminishing figure of a man pushing a rock up a hill, becoming smaller and smaller beneath it, despite all his effort. In Struggle, an artist carves a block of stone which retaliates, hollowing out the man with his own tools. In the end the statue attains a god-like status while the man finally crumples to the ground, immobile as stone. These striking yet simple allegories were not the only ones made at the time, and Péter Szoboszlay’s Hey, You! (1976) also deftly sums up a sense of the futility of existence in a claustrophobic world where the deck is stacked against you.
Son of the White Mare
The second feature by Jankovics, Son of the White Mare (1981), is a groovy, buoyant celebration of cinematic grandeur and luxurious visual design. A mythical tale of three brothers who save the world, it is an epic that features a hero’s trip to the underworld and feats of endurance with a significant symbolic heft. The style is a fusion of psychedelia, art nouveau, deco, and pop art, with nods to Busby Berkeley and Lotte Reiniger. It even seems to anticipate images from 1980s sci-fi and features elements of medieval illuminations. It’s dedicated to nomads and embodies a restlessness with the modern world: when the hero travels to hell, one of the enemies is military aggression and another is the unfettered expansion of technology. The animation features surreal transformations like a moustache trailing off into sudden flame, and its lack of dark contours and pure color lends the film a sense of freedom. While visually psychedelic, Son of the White Mare is also a movie about labor—not only the meticulous work of those who constructed it, but the idea that animation comes into being through labor, frame by frame. 
Mattie, the Goose-boy
Other popular feature films from the time included two by Pannónia veteran Attila Dargay: Mattie, the Goose-boy (1977) and The Little Fox (1981). Their style was less complex and artful than those directed by Jankovics, but they were popular character-driven stories that appealed to a broad audience. Mattie, the Goose-boy is based on a 19th century poem by Mihály Fazekas and The Little Fox was adapted from a contemporary children’s book. Both are reminiscent of Disney animation at its best. Another enduring favorite, even a cult classic, is Cat City (1986), directed by Béla Ternovszky and written by Nepp, whose script is quite linguistically complex. It’s a parody of popular genres, including science fiction and musicals and features a violent war between cats and mice. 
The Fly
The success of these films helped garner international attention and Pannónia produced numerous treasures throughout the 70s and 80s. Ferenc Rofusz won an Oscar for The Fly (1980), an allegory about a trapped and desperate fly that creates a sense of claustrophobia with unique angles and distorted perspectives. Gravity (1984) is an equally simple yet devastating allegory, with its depiction of an apple—with the face of a man—fighting desperately to free itself from a tree branch, only to be crushed on the ground. Béla Vajda won a Palme d’Or at Cannes for Moto Perpetuo (1981), which features a frustrated everyman trying to pursue his desires; it also serves as a nostalgic ode to the lost joys of paternoster elevators. Györgyi Csonka’s Horse in the House (1975) mixes investigative logic with the irrational in an ironic take on detective work. The delightful opening scene parodies witness accounts by trying to accurately chart the actions of a horse on roller skates. From there, the investigation dismisses reality, embracing a world awash in color, where Mickey Mouse flies through doors in a small plane and bureaucracy is defeated by whimsy. 
Scenes with Beans
Ottó Foky was known for his popular children’s series for television, like The Adventures of Mirr-Murr (1972–1975). But he also experimented with short films like The Apple Thief (1966) and Scenes with Beans (1976). The former film is a thriller with jazzy music featuring gloves, an apple, and various objects of detection on a simple white background. Scenes with Beans (written by Nepp) is far more sophisticated and its spaceship is an exquisite metal bird—a more elegant version of the metal chicken in Jerzy Kotowski’s The Danger (1963). The space bird watches keenly as the beans scoot around in a city constructed out of product boxes like Cinzano and Merci. The movie repurposes objects in a fantastical and enjoyable way, including an orange shag carpet shaved to harvest a crop and a mirror lake. The full spectrum of living is magically explored in the film, from games to highway nighttime trysts, even to ways in which aggression is focused against an enemy.
Kati Macskássy, daughter of animation pioneer Gyula Macskássy, similarly joins the world of children and adults in her work. Her film I Like Life a Lot (1977), drawn and narrated by Romani children about their lives in the Komló settlement, reflects on their often violent and impoverished life as well as the pleasures that can be found. Their drawings are brightly colored, intricately detailed and poetically translate an illogical adult world into imaginative art and meaningful narrative. The film ends by documenting them at work creating the film, and planning their future. Macskássy’s film Our Holidays (1981) similarly features children’s drawings and a candid appraisal of the violent and often inexplicable world of adults. Mária Horváth worked on numerous episodes of the long-running television series Hungarian Folktales (1977–2012), conceived by Jankovics as a way to preserve folk talks and offering an assortment of stories and styles. Horváth’s episodes are beautifully and delicately written and animated, and her short film Miracles of the Night (1982), based on a poem by Sándor Weöres, is an especially fluid, graceful rendering of the landscapes of love and imagination. 
Moon Film
Finally, two animators who produced films alone but also worked wonders together, Dóra Keresztes and István Orosz, created the distinctive films Moon Film (1977) and Wizards (1985). Moon Film features a series of surreal and mythical images in constant mutation. The entrapment of one figure in another is a constant theme, as when a bird-woman paces within the hoop-shirts of another woman or a man’s skeleton is revealed inside a horse. The floating figures recall Chagall and the trope of containment suggests that art is a moment of mystical reality trapped momentarily in space. The film encompasses folkloric storytelling by a figure like a magician who moves through the scenarios to the tune of folk songs and mouth harp. He transforms images as he tells the tale, whose rustic images resolve in the end to a tree blooming in a lake with a merman and mermaid joining hands. Wizards (1985) employs a similar surreal style of transformation sourced in shamanistic language with the power to shape the world. Its images evoke folk art but also transcend a particular time or place. While both films evidence an almost naïve artistic style, their spectrum of transformative is highly sophisticated.
Mind the Steps!
As the era of the Cold War drew to a close, Pannónia’s future became uncertain. This period of uneasy, if wished-for, transition is perhaps embodied best in István Orosz’s Mind the Steps! (1989). It is clearly a critique of Soviet rule, with figures running and falling or struggling with Sisyphean tasks. Danger lurks amidst mundane tasks and blood spills across bricks while military songs sound in the background and a harmonica echoes into the stairwell’s abyss. But the film’s final note of Escher-like circularity—a ball forever bouncing—suggests that hard times won’t just disappear. Sándor Békési’s student film Lights Before Dawn (1984) is a reminder of possible beginnings, however, and showcases the talent of animation’s future in Hungary. It is an homage to Émile Reynaud as he sits in a dark and empty theater, frustrated in his attempts to birth a new art form that does not merely mimic reality. 
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