Diary for My Children is the first in Márta Mészáros’s autobiographical Napló trilogy, which also includes Diary for My Loves (1987) and Diary for My Mother and Father (1990). Banned for a time in Mészáros’s native Hungary, it was first shown in Britain in 1984. Now it’s released as a single work on DVD, the arrival of its sequels impeded by the current Orban government. Until they relent, Diary for My Children must stand alone: but it does so handsomely.
The film is set in post-war Hungary, and the Stalinisation of Central Europe is in full spate. A new over-class has formed, as newly-installed communists take over the flats of the bourgeoisie, adopting their lifestyle wholesale – Zsolnay porcelain, silver coffee pots and maids, if possible, to serve them, as all the while under the chandeliers the conversations spin round the nuts and bolts of the brave new world they’re creating. Portraits of Stalin and his Hungarian mini-me Mátyás Rákosi are everywhere; speeches are full of paranoid vigilance about the ‘class enemy’; cinemas show films extolling – in sinister high kitsch – the virtues of the collective.
Into this world comes Juli, an orphan returning from Russia whose parents have died – as Mészáros’s own father did – in one of Stalin’s periodic crackdowns. She is taken into the state-appropriated home of her foster-mother Magda, one of the high-ups in the newly powerful Party, a true believer whose principles will raise her to the role of political prison-governor and, we believe, state torturer too. Quickly a face-off develops, as Juli, implacably loyal to her disappeared parents, rejects Magda’s attempts at mothering and vanishes, whenever possible, into the local cinemas for a more liberal – and relevant – education. Juli’s only other passion is for János, Magda’s former comrade and erstwhile lover, onto whom she latches with a puppyish devotion. Like Juli he has lost people – a daughter who has died we know not when, friends killed in an execution in which only he, miraculously, survived. Both are sceptical and both rebel instinctively against Magda – Juli through anger, János through temperament. For János is utterly different from his times: humorous, flawed, honest, outspoken, and mistrusted by Magda and her cohorts, both for his émigré past and simply, as Juli points out, because ‘he is different.’ He alone is clearsighted about the terrible crisis Hungary is undergoing, and later on will pay bitterly for his realism.
The film, luminously made in black and white, is quite without humour, yet never cold or arduous to watch: it’s sad, involving, compassionate, and poignantly shows the wrecked generation that emerged, in fear and hope, from World War II. Here everyone is orphaned, everyone holding in a grief, and palpably thinking things they cannot or dare not say. No film has better captured the charm of Hungary – its misty autumn gardens, stark trees, half-tiled kitchens, stored-up melancholy. The paraphernalia of the Stalinisation time – in which to cling to one’s individuality is to put oneself a collision course with power – is brilliantly depicted too, in a hundred raging speeches, choreographed crowds, newsreels extolling the genius of Stalin and “friendship” with the USSR. Zsuzsa Czinkóczi shines as Juli – sometimes painfully young, sometimes rueful and jaded as an old woman – and the Polish-Hungarian cast give indelible performances. Anna Polony, later a Kieślowski actress, captures in Magda the dehumanisation that takes place when an individual surrenders themselves to ideology, and the inevitable thwarted longing to regain the intimacies they’ve lost. Jan Nowicki – Mészáros’s real life ex-partner – is compelling as the flawed, courageous János, the perhaps-man in a world of black and white. ‘We’ve lived through many things,’ he says to Juli as the shadows close in. ‘We’ll live through this year too… Keep your eyes open. Maybe you’ll understand everything one day. ‘
She does, and what we are seeing here, in this autobiographical film, is not only the birth of a dystopian new world but of an artist too. Mészáros, for so long dismissed by the authorities as a ‘woman’s director’ has made a film that transcends boundaries of gender, even of time. Diary for My Children helps us to make sense of the bitterest and most perverse moments of recent history, and to understand their strange compulsions. Warmer than Wajda, more generous than Szabó, it is one of the gems of Central European cinema and, on its own or with its sequels, a masterpiece.
Diary for My Children is available from Second Run DVD at £12.99.