Why this might not seem so easy  

The personal is never far from the political for Hungarian director Márta Mészáros. In a career spanning more than 50 years and more than two dozen features, she has unflinchingly confronted the collective trauma at the heart of 20th-century Europe. 

Amid its harsh realities, hope burned bright. Mészáros created some of the most fiercely resolute heroines of her era, who bend convention and reject dogma to live authentically. She forged their boldness in her own image. Bucking the rules of an industry that kept women on the margins, she secured a place at famed Moscow film school VGIK, and after working in documentary studios she became, with The Girl (1968), one of the first women in Hungary to direct a fiction feature. 

She embraced filmmaking, in part, to make sense of her own history. She had spent her early childhood years in Soviet Kyrgyzstan, and was orphaned after her father, a sculptor, was arrested and executed, and her mother died in childbirth. Her Diary series, which blends family drama with archival newsreel footage, dramatises her own experiences buffeted by the brutal authoritarian power shifts of the Second World War and its aftermath. 

Young, parentless women recur in her filmic worlds, which are often treacherous places of sparring ideals where allegiances carry high stakes. There is a flinty purpose and gravity to her work that is less playful than contemporaries such as Czech director Věra Chytilová. But it’s no less audacious or rebellious in its refusal to pander to the hypocrisies of an oppressive status quo. 

The best place to start – Diary for My Children

Diary for My Children (1984) is Mészáros’s best-known film and – along with Diary for My Lovers (1987) and Diary for My Mother and Father (1990) – her most autobiographical. The trilogy provides a compelling sense of how the director’s sensibility was shaped. We first meet alter-ego Juli (Zsuzsa Czinkóczi) in Diary for My Children as a headstrong teen. It’s 1947, and she’s returning to Hungary from the Soviet Union into the care of her aunt Magda (Anna Polony), a fiercely committed Communist functionary who has adapted herself (too well, in Juli’s eyes) to Stalinism. 

Diary for My Children (1984)
© Lorand Mertz

For Juli, coming of age in this stifling atmosphere of fear and reprisals entails understanding the ways in which idealism can be corrupted, and loyalties tested. Juli butts heads with Magda, aligning herself instead with ideologically disillusioned János (Polish actor Jan Nowicki, Mészáros’s former husband), who becomes a state target, and who reminds her of her purged father. 

Budapest’s film school admissions board quashes Juli’s ambitions with patronising laughter in Diary for My Lovers, but she makes it to Moscow to study (Mészáros experienced similar derision from industry players in patriarchal 1950s Hungary). Juli’s connections partly protect her, as she rebels against pressure to twist the truth to fit the party line. 

Diary for My Mother and Father sees Juli back in Hungary, as a working director, coming to terms with its failed 1956 revolution. The question of how violence and cynical expediency could have so gripped Hungary hangs sorrowfully over the entire trilogy.

What to watch next  

As death and other absences take away their traditional support systems, women in Mészáros’s films are driven into new allegiances, unbound by blood ties or societal convention. State institutions and compromised families can’t be relied on, so her protagonists experiment with innovative arrangements for solidarity.

Adoption (1975)
© Magda B. Müller

The Girl follows the quest of young textile factory worker Erzsi (Kati Kovács), who grew up in an orphanage, to reconnect with her mother. She takes a bus to her village, and the reception is less than effusive. 

Mészáros became the first woman to win the Berlin International Film Festival’s top Golden Bear award for Adoption (1975), a psychologically complex, frank portrait of maternal love and choice. Kata (Katalin Berek) is a 43-year-old widow in a long-term affair with a married man, who longs for a baby. Then Anna (Gyöngyvér Vigh), a troubled boarding student estranged from her parents and stuck at the threshold of full adult agency, turns up in need of help. “You could be my daughter,” declares Kata. “I’ve had enough of parents,” Anna replies. A complicated intergenerational dance – warily prickly and tender – ensues. 

In The Two of Them (1977) two women find respite from draining marriages in each other. This dynamic is typical of Mészáros, whose relationship dramas tend to position the family home ambiguously as a somewhat arbitrary space – a longed-for site of fulfilment, but by no means the only potential source of belonging and emotional succour in a non-ideal reality.

Where not to start 

In the perilous, volatile worlds of Mészáros, not taking a stance is akin to complicity. Hope for Hungary lies with the outspoken. Since the turn of the millennium, she has made several films leaning toward reverence for public figures deprived of freedom or life for their commitment to political reforms. 

The Unburied Man (2004)

The Unburied Man (2004) is a biopic of Imre Nagy (played by Nowicki), which feeds into the martyrdom of the leader of Hungary’s 1956 uprising against Soviet control, who was executed for treason. The life of Anna Kéthly, a Social Democrat who went into hiding under the Nazi occupation, and endured house arrest when the Communists consolidated power, is recounted in The Last Report on Anna (2009). “I would only have to forget the past,” Kéthly says, when a secret agent attempts to lure her back from exile. For her, the facts of history are non-negotiable. 

Declassified documents that allowed Mészáros to learn more about her father’s fate underpin Little Vilma (2000), a Diary series prequel. It dramatises her early years in Kyrgyzstan before the idealism of her left-wing intelligentsia parents in building a new society was crushed by Stalin’s purges. 

In Aurora Borealis (2017), the 89-year-old’s last film to date, a lawyer is confronted with shocking revelations about her mother’s past under Soviet occupation. It flashes back to 50s Hungary – and the era’s ethical entanglements pass to a new generation to account for. A life lived in accordance with one’s convictions is never for nothing, Mészáros’s legacy insists. 

A season of Márta Mészáros’s work plays at BFI Southbank throughout July 2021.

Adoption will be released on Blu-ray by Second Run on 11 July. Diary for My Children is also available on DVD from Second Run.