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Controlled arts

March 10, 2011

Hungarian artists and intellectuals may be forgiven for thinking twice before expressing their thoughts these days. Critics say the center-right government and its allies have effectively launched a "culture war."

Hungarian Parliament
Hungary has the largest parliament building in EuropeImage: J. Sorges

Hungarian film director Bela Tarr is one of the cultural figures most recently affected by government pressure on the cultural scene.

Last month, he picked up the Silver Bear award for his movie "The Turin Horse" at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival. Thereafter, German daily Der Tagesspiegel noticed that Tarr wasn't heartily celebrating his accolade and quoted the famed filmmaker as saying he and other intellectuals were suffering from a government crackdown at home.

"The government hates intellectuals because they are liberal and oppositional," he reportedly told Berlin's Der Tagesspiegel. "It has insulted us as traitors."

Tarr reportedly suggested that nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban's administration was reducing support for the arts and driving film production companies to bankruptcy, with subsidies now worth nothing more than toilet paper.

Filmmaker withdraws criticism

Bela Tarr
Tarr says "The Turin Horse" was his last filmImage: dapd

Then, with Budapest looking over his shoulders, Tarr took a U-turn. Within 48 hours after the story ran, he said he had "no other choice" but to dissociate himself from the German paper's interview.

"That writing is not in my style. I do not fight, debate or argue that way. I consider it very humiliating that all this has soiled the success and reception of our film, sinking it to the level of quotidian politics," he told Hungarian news agency MTI.

However, in a separate interview with Hungary's ATV television he appeared to confirm the quotes attributed to him in the German paper. "If someone criticizes something that person is immediately called a traitor of the nation," he said. "We don't deserve this kind of treatment."

There were indications that Tarr had been pressured to revise his statements. The government's culture-crusader-in-chief, State Secretary Geza Szocs, acknowledged he had phoned the filmmaker on the eve of his announcement to "congratulate" him - and, of course, to ask about the German interview.

Tarr apparently "assured" the official he had not made the comments and maintained that the German reporter of the internationally acclaimed Der Tagesspiegel had fabricated the story.

Hungarian film distributor MOKEP-Pannonia canceled plans to premiere the movie - which Tarr says will be his last - in Budapest and theaters across Hungary.

Yet, Szocs maintains that critical artists are not threatened.

"This interview has shocked Tarr and there is a rather hysterical atmosphere in Berlin," he told Hungarian news channel Hir TV. "It is not true that Hungarian liberal intellectuals feel that their livelihoods are in danger."

Screenshot from "The Turin Horse," a film by Bela Tarr
Tarr's bleak and monotonous "The Turin Horse" won The Jury Grand Prix at the Berlin International Film FestivalImage: Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin

Other artists under fire

However, concert pianist Andras Schiff feels differently. He recently said he no longer dares to return home to his native Hungary after having publicly criticized the government.

"I am absolutely persona non grata in Hungary now. I don't believe I'll ever perform in Hungary again, or even visit," Schiff said.

In an appeal to the world's musicians, Schiff, Hungarian conductor Adam Fischer and six others attacked a Hungarian law imposed on January 1 which extended the state's power to control the media, another cultural vehicle closely monitored by the government.

Fischer, one of the world's leading conductors, stood down as music director at the Hungarian State Opera late last year in protest at what he views as increasingly autocratic policies.

"A lot of the attention has focused on the new media law but the problems run far deeper," Fischer told reporters recently. "Even more worrying are changes to the national constitution that are being drafted and the rise of anti-Semitism, homophobia and xenophobia in Hungarian society."

Fischer recalled a recent "attack" in which Hungarian pianist Schiff suffered anti-Semitic remarks in a national newspaper after he wrote a column criticizing new government measures.

Thinkers under investigation

Andras Schiff at the piano
Schiff was born in Budapest in 1953 and now resides in England and ItalyImage: beethovenfest-bonn

At least half a dozen renowned Hungarian intellectuals are currently under police investigation in Budapest, officially for the alleged misuse of research grants.

Among them is Agnes Heller, a well-known author who is regarded as a founder of the Budapest school of philosophy. Government supporters say she and others misused public grants for humanistic research.

Prime Minister Orban, she explained to Deutsche Welle, "wants to become the chief of the tribe" by trying to control public discourse and silence dissent.

Hungarians may, indeed, soon experience precisely what Tarr portrayed in "The Turin Horse." The two-and-a half hour film, which contains virtually no dialogue, portrays the life of a rural farmer and his daughter that the filmmaker has called "infinitely monotonous."

Their practiced movements, changes in seasons and times of day "dictate the rhythm and routine which is cruelly inflicted on them," Tarr noted.

Author: Stefan J. Bos, Budapest

Editor: Kate Bowen