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“There are more movies on earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” — Movie Habit

... And just when you think you’ve got a handle on all the important movies from all the important movements, something like Men on the Mountains turns up.

In the Way of Progress

Gergo's family live in harmony with nature
Gergo’s family live in harmony with nature

Directed by Istvan Szots, Men on the Mountains is hyped by the good people at Facets as “a lost classic.” It may be, depending on your definition of a classic. Before I agreed completely I would need to know a little more about the film and its birth (it was released in Hungary in 1942, when Hungary was allied with Germany, Italy, and Japan). But it has the feel of an important film.

A precursor to Italian neorealism, Men on the Mountains is a movie shot, in part, on location. Granted, there are sets, and there are even painted backdrops, but maybe half of the movie was filmed in the mountains. (I would also say that Szots used untrained local actors, but I would be guessing.)

The story follows a simple peasant family. There doesn’t seem to be much agriculture, but they raise goats and sheep, and presumably they trade with city folk down below. Their story begins with the birth of a son, whom the parents introduce to the streams, the deer, and the owls. They dedicate a tree to their son, forever tying its fate to his.

Before long, the rich landowner arrives, riding comfortably and surrounded by his entourage. He plans to harvest timber from the mountains. As far as he’s concerned, the people living there are trespassing, but he’ll be happy to hire them to fell his trees for him. It’s the age-old story where industry forces peasants from the land and into exploitive industrial jobs.

The movie is more of a cautionary tale than a feel-good David-and-Goliath story. As expected, things end badly for the little guy. Szots makes the tale of Gergo’s family a grand tragedy, a portrait of injustice, and a call to arms.

God’s Words

Underneath the simple story of the peasants is a powerful social message reminiscent of early Russian cinema. The characters are strong archetypes: noble peasant laborers running up against greedy, exploitive landholders. The imagery is bold: jagged horizons dwarf human figures, soft-lit fawns greet the new day, inky interiors trap characters in the frame.

More interestingly, the opening and closing shots of the film are deliberate political statements. The film ends with a man quoting God Himself. (“No matter how poor we are we must not leave our land. These are God’s words, not mine.”) My first thought was that Szots was calling on his countrymen to resist the Nazi juggernaut, but Hungary willingly — popularly — voted to join with the fascists, so it’s not clear whether Hungarians saw themselves as the noble downtrodden. Had things changed by 1942? Was there a resistance in Hungary? Was Szots sympathetic? I wish I had a Hungarian history buff whom I could ask.

Ironically, Hungary had acquired (with the help of the Nazis) a lot of new land before World War II, including parts of Slovakia and Transylvania. For a Hungarian in 1942 to shout about defending one’s own land is almost hypocritical. If I had the chance, I’d ask Szots what was on his mind. I just know there’s an interesting story there.

God’s Creation

While the closing shot feels like an exhortation, the movie opens with disclaimers and warnings that seem... forced. I might even guess that government censors demanded the introduction, but once again I’d need a Hungarian historian’s help to know for sure. I could simply be misreading the introduction.

Before the movie even starts, a narrator explain that these people are near-godless nature-worshipers. It’s not clear whether the words are a warning not to sympathize with the characters, or a statement of their humility. The warning is repeated in about three different ways, so someone clearly thought it was important to distance the characters from the narrator’s concept of true religion (whatever that might be).

But when we meet the people of the mountains, it’s hard not to believe that they are models of religious perfection. They are very devout Christians. True, they respect nature and imbue their surroundings with God. It’s possible that “true Christians” would denounce their nature-worship as animism. But the characters are faithful, sincere, and worshipful. Religion aside, they are also decent folk. They live in harmony, they abhor injustice, and they help their neighbors.

So why the distance at the beginning of the film? Again, we need a Hungarian historian to chime in. Was it dangerous, in a Axis country, to speak openly about religion? Or was religion an acceptable topic, with the danger lying in the film’s equation of religion with something as potentially subversive as land rights?

Whatever the deeper meaning, Men on the Mountains is a bold and powerful piece of work. The more you know about Hungary during the war, the more you’re likely to get from it. It’s times like this that I wish I were back in film school, with a professor in film history to fill in the back story.

Picture and Sound

The DVD copy I reviewed was for screening purposes only, so it wouldn’t be fair for me to rate the picture our sound quality. Hopefully the translation of the subtitles won’t change too much (except for fixing the occasional typo), as the translation was more natural and understandable than some foreign DVDs I’ve seen.

How to Use This DVD

Glance at the Hungarian history page on Wikipedia, focusing on the WWII years. Then watch the movie.

  • John Cunningham: I read the aritlce by Marty Maples on Men on the Mountains (actually I think a better translation is People of the Mountains)with interest. If I might make a suggestion about some background reading to this fascinating and beautiful film:

    The Cinema of Central Europe edited by Peter Hames (Wallflower Press) has a chapter on this film, which I have to confess is written by me. Also, continuing the self-publicity (I'm really sorry) anyone interested might want to consult my book Hungarian Cinema: From Coffeehouse to Multiplex (also pub. by Wallflower Press). A couple of points - most of the actors were locals but the two main players were professionals. Szots was not a Nazi sympathiser as far as I am aware. The political background is complex and space is probably too short here to go into it. I try to discuss this in some depth in the Hames book. Szots was a brilliant but tragic director who only made a few films and he left Hungary in 1956. His only other feature film, Song of the Cornfield is well worth seeing if you get the chance. I don't think Szots was being hypocritical in this film, the issue of Transylvania was of huge importance for the Hungarians and their sense of national identity (it is seen by many as their 'heartland'). I don't know of any outright intervention by the HUngarian government with regard to the film,unfortunately it is not something I had time to investigate. John Cunningham
    September 15, 2011 reply
    • Marty Mapes: Thanks for pointing us to your book, John. If you were local I'd invite you over to watch the movie and then go out for coffee. I'll try to find your book. September 22, 2011 reply