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The Agnès Varda of Hungary: Márta Mészáros

At almost 90, she's got a brain still buzzing with daring film projects and strong opinions. We spoke with the cult Hungarian director Márta Mészáros on being the first woman to win the Golden Bear, the war between the sexes, and more...

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At almost 90, she’s got a brain still buzzing with daring film projects and strong opinions on the state of her country. We spoke with the cult Hungarian director Márta Mészáros on being the first woman to win the Golden Bear, the war between the sexes, and more…

She was the first woman to win a Golden Bear. It was 1975, and Márta Mészáros was entering the close-knit (boys) club of world’s best directors as the only female to get a top accolade on the A-festival circuit, at a time when Agnès Varda, her French counterpart three years her senior, was still being snubbed by most juries (until winning the Golden Leopard in 1985). Times have changed: since last year Agnès Varda’s got an Academy Award under her belt and is back in the Berlinale competition with a new film. Meanwhile, the cult Hungarian director is also back (for the second time since her 2007 Golden Camera), with a special screening of a digitally restored version of her Golden Bear Adoption, while Mitte’s Collegium Hungaricum Berlin also dedicated a small retrospective of her work, including Diary for My Children, winner of Cannes’ 1984 Grand Prix, this week.

At a time when studios and festivals are looking for any pretext to right wrong and bring women to the fore – be it as protagonist, jury leaders, or directors – you’d think it might be appropriate to remember and celebrate the great Márta Mészáros, a woman whose cult status hasn’t quite reached the wider public outside her country’s borders and cinephile circles, despite an exemplary and prolific 50-year-career. That’s what Berlinale is doing this year, and for the second time since her Golden Camera in 2007, with a discreet and quite self-referential homage to the directors’ second feature film, Adoption, which won the Golden Bear here in Berlin in 1975 – in fact the first Golden Bear given to a woman in Berlinale history.

Before that Mészáros (a graduate of Moscow’s Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography [VGIK] during the legendary film school’s golden years – think Tarkovsky, Gleb Panfilov, Andrei Konchalovsky, Nikita Mikhalkov) was the first woman to direct a feature film in Hungary (The Girl, 1968) and she would go on to direct and write over 50 documentary and feature films, earning her countless awards and distinctions over a prolific 50-year career. This year she’s back in Berlin with a new digitalised version of Adoption, the moving portrait of a lonely 40-something torn between a long-time relationship with a married family man and her wish to raise her own child, in the backdrop of the dreary reality of 1975 communist Hungary. Another place, different times (and patchwork families have replaced bell-bottoms), but the film has retained all its poignancy.

You made Adoption, in the early 1970s. How does it feel to watch it in 2019? 

It’s a timeless film. It doesn’t matter when you watch it – it’s the same story. 

If you had to shoot the same story today, would you change anything?

No. Nothing. 

Back then, what triggered that film? Because the main character was more or less the age you were when you shot the film. Was there anything autobiographical?

Before Adoption was made, I had made several documentaries and news reels about families – broken families, lonely women, lonely children. It was obvious to me that this was the topic I should make a quasi-autobiographical linking the two: my background and my films. All over the world nowadays we can find similar stories of abandoned children, lonely women. Nowadays there’s even a new wave of divorce, territorial changes, border changes, immigrants, expats, lost families, broken families. So the actuality of this film wasn’t lost. In many countries, either the religion or the legal system or the regime won’t offer women the ability to act freely when it comes to families and children. The set of issues might have changed, but it’s still a set new wave of problems just like in the 1970s. There are a lot more divorces for example. People have to raise their children alone. But then social welfare is very little, and a woman left alone to raise one or more child is often struggling.

Do you think the experience of being a woman, a single woman, a mother is universal?

No, it’s different. For example it is a lot worse in Hungary. Hungary has always been a very isolated country, both because of the language and its size. It’s extremely conservative. My life with my husband, the great film director Miklós Jancsó was fantastic, we had children and I now have those great-grandchildren. I loved this time in my life. But the Hungarian government – I hate it. And now it’s getting worse. A big lie.

Your films depict strong women. Even subjected to strict social structures, these women still manage to have their own minds and their own freedom. Does that mirror your own life?

In my films, the women are strong but lonely. That is the bridge to their wider environment. 

Is that a female predicament: if you’re strong, you’re lonely?

In Eastern Europe, yes. If you are strong, you must be lonely. It’s a very feudal society. There’s a male-dominated way of thinking that permeates everyday life and rules over it. There are too many divorces partially because of that. If you are strong as a woman, male society cannot tolerate you.

In Adoption that strong woman is Kata, a widow involved in a longterm relationship with a married man, but she doesn’t want him to divorce. Why not?

Hungary has always been a poor society. If divorce comes, and the man has an absolutely dominated, quiet wife, like in the case in Adoption, then he must finance two families: the new and the old. It’s impossible. But despite the economy and despite this financial hardship, more and more divorces occur in Hungary.

But it’s very modern that she ends up raising a baby by herself. What did people think back then? Because you can see that even now it’s not that easy to adopt and raise a child as a single woman…

It’s not so difficult. It’s not so rare and random. I have three children and 10 grandchildren. It’s fantastic. It’s not easy, this life, but it’s possible. 

There’s that funny part in the film when Kata has a chat with her lover’s wife in their small family home while the husband is being fed his dinner. The wife says she envies the protagonist’s independent lifestyle and that she’d wished she’d worked as well instead of catering to husband and kids. But Kata tells her that it isn’t necessarily better.

Yes, I know… I made many films as co-productions, and many foreign film-related people would come to me. After I finished making the film, I had a huge dinner at my home. And families from Germany, for instance, couldn’t believe that I was doing all this cooking by myself. They said, “You’re a film director, and you’re going to cook for people?” I cooked dinner for my husbands, and I’m a good cook. I love to cook, to get all the children together to eat together!

You’re saying that as a woman, being emancipated doesn’t preclude being a good wife – cooking for your family?

Working for the relationship and for the family is very time-consuming, it’s very hard especially if you have a career to run alongside it, as I did. Nowadays, many women give up on their relationships too easily. They don’t work at their relationships. They don’t invest energy to maintain and keep and improve the relationship. Many women can work and finance themselves and one child or two children. Therefore, they don’t care. Relationships have a secondary importance for them – to maintain a relationship, to fight for the relationship and develop it. But after the divorce, many women do regret it.

Was it difficult for you? Is that why you changed husbands?

Yes. It was difficult. But it was also fantastic and interesting. All my relationships – when they ended, it was always on good terms. I never fought with my husbands. I tried to collaborate in building a relationship and it was very enriching.

If so great why does it end? You married three times… 

It’s never ended. With Miklós Jancsó, it was a fundamental alliance, even after our relationship was finished. We kept having this marvelous alliance and friendship. He was of course interested in other relationships, and so was I. That’s natural, people change during their lives. Really the best example is Simone Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. These are intellectual examples. But the laws should be far more democratic, and far more encouraging for ordinary people, than they are. [People in] many Western European countries manage to keep families together despite divorce. In Hungary, you don’t see any positive examples of that. Just the opposite. For example, just two days ago the Hungarian prime minister gave a speech and announced a new series of laws encouraging women to stay home and give birth to at least three or four children. Nothing else. That’s awful. He said that if women give birth to at least four children, society would be much better, and everything will flourish. This is like going back in time. 

Back to a conservative, patriarchal society…

Although I can view the situation here in Germany from an outsider’s perspective, whenever I meet various people here and talk to them about their situations, of course they have problems, too. But the extent of the problems, the persistence of the problems, is on a completely different scale. Tolstoy used to say that the most terrible and difficult war is not war among countries but between a man and a woman. At least in war you can win, you’re not always going to lose. 

But what about women and women? Because that’s another aspect of your films. Is friendship and solidarity between women important to you?

Yes, it’s really important. Solidarity between women. I’ve thought many times about how it might have been far better to live with women. But fortunately or unfortunately, I prefer men. But I have many close friendships with women. It’s not easy because I am an old woman now and people die. Many of my friends have died. Life is not easy. 

When asked if you’re a feminist, you often answered rather cautiously. Why?

Feminism is not a simple, banal thing. Feminism is a concept and a serious philosophy. In this sense, I am not a feminist.

But your film work expresses ideas and situations supporting a very female-centric idea of the world. Women, strong women, have already been your main angle…

But that’s because I know far more about women than I do about men. Men worry me, and I keep my distance from them because it seems their main drive, the most important motivation for them, is to get power over women. I hate power, any kind of power. But the man is driven by hunger for power.

This sounds like a feminist depiction of patriarchal society, right? 

I agree. But the woman, for example, who is talented and allowed to get into the talented circle, she has to become a man, too. 

Have you become a man?

No, because I’ve never been inside the circle of power. I’m referring to politics. 

Filmmaking’s always been a boy’s club. And you were one of the first ones – the first woman to direct a feature film in 1960s Hungary… How did you make it without being a man?

I was lucky. When Theresa May came to power as the leader of the Tories, she was a very elegant, very good-looking, well-dressed, distinguished woman. After three years, now she looks different. She has become a male, unfortunately. Angela Merkel stayed exactly how she was when she was a young age. She never changed and I mean that in a positive sense. She wears similarly-designed dresses, she has the same face.

Are you a fan of Angela Merkel?

She’s great. She’s very impressive. But now, after 18 years, she’s done her time. She’s tired… But power doesn’t interest me; it worries me. It crushes everything. I always wanted to stay away from it,

Is that why your films instead deal more with individuals and individuality within political systems?

In my films, I try to portray interesting women – not geniuses, but interesting women. There was a time when I was going to make a film on Marie Curie, but I’ve never been able to do this because Marie Curie was a genius. I couldn’t portray a woman with Marie Curie’s brain because it would be impossible to understand her from within. Many films have been made portraying Marie Curie, and none of them have been good. Many of them portray her as if she stands there and brilliant ideas simply come to her. But how it happened, why it happened, and what happened, nobody can portray correctly. 

You’ve been invited this year to celebrate a top achievement, your 1975 Golden Bear for Adoption. Do you remember how it felt back then? Were you surprised?

It felt good. But I didn’t feel ‘surprise’ or anything, it was more like a fairytale. It was somehow a little bit unrealistic, but extremely good for my career because I was able to make my next films. With the Golden Bear, I was able to enter into real filmmaking. I’d become a film director, not a woman who makes films. Fassbinder accepted me, and many others accepted me – Godard and the others. I entered the club not as a woman, but as a filmmaker. 

And how many women were a part of the club then? Varda has a film in Competition this year, how do you relate to her?

In the beginning, it was only the two of us. When I got the Golden Bear, Agnès Varda told me, “You’ve won now, the next time I will.” She’s a good friend, I love her. She has a good life because she lives in a good country. See, France loves women. Hungary hates them!