Merry-Go-Round (Körhinta), is a film directed by Zoltán Fábri and released in 1956. Set in rural Hungary in the early 1950’s, the film tells the story of two young lovers, Mari, played by Mari Törőcsik in her first film acting attempt, and Máté, played by Imre Soós. True love, as is almost always the case, does not run smooth. Mari’s father, István, is a farmer favouring private holdings, while Máté is a proud and articulate member of the local collective. Mari’s father attempts to marry her with the son of a wealthy landowner, Sándor Farkas, played by Ádám Szirtes. However, Mari rebels against this forced marriage. The film climaxes with a confrontation at the wedding party where Mari is seen dancing with Máté in front of betrothed Sándor. Mari’s father finally relents and allows her to be with Máté and start a new life. In many ways, this is a simple love story about how love conquers all, despite of obstacles.
Land and peasantry’s response to collectivisation are two of the film’s underlying themes. It is too simple to say that Máté represents the Socialist, collectivist Hungary of the time, and István the old, land-owning peasantry. At one point István quotes an old Hungarian peasant proverb, “Land marries land” (”A főd, a fődhó házasodik), meaning that one should marry for land, not for love. However, Mari and Máté see things differently and this creates the tension that lies at the heart of the movie. In a sense, the optimism so implicit in their relationship reflects Hungary’s positivism in the years leading up to the revolution in 1956.
The performance given by Mari Törőcsik is actually what makes the love story work. Radiant to the maximum, she manages to convey both the innocence and determination of an 18 year-old whose full in love and who has the strength to pursue it. As Byron once said, “Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart; ’tis woman’s whole existence”;
Törőcsik makes this part her own and you can see why: in just her first film, she exhibited qualities that would allow her to become the leading Hungarian film actress of the last 50 years.
The film features perhaps the most iconic scene in all Hungarian cinema. Mari and Máté are riding on the merry-go-round at a local fair. The young couple is seen swirling around, happy, carefree and in love from the position of the merry-round . The swirling, carnival atmosphere has never been so dramatically captured. The cinematographer responsible for this shot, Barnabás Hegyi, took three days to get the scene right using a handheld camera while sitting on a platform attached to the merry-go-round. Many technical difficulties had to be overcome, such as where to set the lighting. In any case, tthe result is visually stunning and ranks among best in the world.
The theme of swirling and its association with carefree innocence, passion for life and love, is reprised in the climactic scene of the wedding. The camera follows Mari and Máté as they dance, swirling in ever faster circles. The music plays louder and faster as the two lovers dance in front of an increasingly disconcerted wedding crowd. Oblivious of their surroundings, they have eyes only for one another,. Fábri makes this merry-go-round theme explicit by cutting back to the original merry-go-round scene at the beginning of the film.
The film was initially released in time for the Cannes film festival and was Hungary’s principle entry. It created a sensation and was hailed as a breakthrough film showing that countries, behind the Iron Curtain, could in fact produce original and compelling cinema, rather than the dirge of socialist realism all too common at that time. In
many ways Hungarian cinema was “discovered” in 1956 with Merry-Go-Round. Despite its critical acclaim at Cannes, the film did not win the prestigious Palme d’or prize. The prize went instead to a French film, The Silent World, directed by Louis Malle and Jacques Cousteau. Fabri maintained the life-long view that this was a decision based on politics and not on artistic merit. Francis Truffatt, by then a young film critic, agreed on this, as did the audience who whistled derisively when The Silent World was announced as the winning film. Fifty-odd years later, a Hungarian film has yet to win this coveted pinnacle of cinema excellence.
Zoltán Fábri continued to direct films into the 1960s. He made classics such as Dear Anna (Édes Anna), The Boys of Paul Street (A Pál utcai fiuk) and Professor Hannibal (Hannibál tanár úr). He was much in favour with the regime at the time, perhaps because he was more conventional in his approach than other new wave Hungarian directors like Miklós Janscó. Later in life, he struggled to achieve the success of his earlier years. Many of his screenplays never made it to the screen.
As mentioned before, Törőcsik went on to have a brilliant film career. Sadly, and it wouldn’t be a Hungarian story if there wasn’t some tragedy involved, Soós’s next film, The Empire Gone With a Sneeze, (Az eltüsszentett birodalom) was banned before screening. Soós became depressed, a situation made worse by his drinking and the poor acting parts he was offered. He committed suicide in June 1957, just days before his 27th birthday.
Life may indeed be a merry-go-round, but clearly,not always.