Gyula Nemes is arguably one of the most unique Hungarian directors. As his shorts, experimental docs and first feature show filmmaking is a limitless playground for him, where he can invite us into his special universe. His new film Zero is in the East of the West section of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
“Freedom!”, yells Gyula Nemes and he jumps from the top of an old houseboat into the Danube in his short ﬁlm Parrot (Papagáj, 2000). He yells and then takes a good sip from a bottle containing the liquor favoured by the homeless. He proceeds to attack television sets with a huge axe. He also ﬁlms a shot of burning paper ﬂoating down the river, or creates a dream-like sequence starring a dirty riverside.
Filming is playtime – he gathers passers-by spotted around the ﬁlming location. Freedom, poetry and playing – Gyula Nemes is obviously obsessed by these three elements of life, which we can discover in all of his earlier works too. Just see his The Parrot, a short ﬁlm based on the short stories by Bohumil Hrabal. Czech culture has always been central in Nemes’s work, having attended the internationally renowned ﬁlm school FAMU, in a class led by Věra Chytilová and Karel Vachek.
Uncle and Nephew live their nonconformist life on a Danube peninsula in the middle of Budapest called Kopaszi-gát – a place Nemes has always been strangely drawn to. A place where one can be in the center of the city and on the periphery at the same time. Where you can eat what you ﬁsh from the river. A peninsula of freedom in life and in art, where storytelling is simply secondary – only unlimited creativity matters. The beauty of nature is mixed with the beauty of intellectual freedom. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice all the great revolutionary ideas swarming in the background.
However, like all islands of freedom, Kopaszi-gát gets spotted and desired by the hungry capital too… Nemes already visited this theme in the poetic documentary, Lost World (Letűnt világ), which won the Karlovy Vary Crystal Globe for Best Short Documentary in 2008.
The good ol’ days of the Kopaszi area were ﬁlmed on expired material, with a soundtrack consisting of a rehearsal by an old brass band trying to play Beethoven’s Egmont Overture – visuals and acoustics forming a perfect harmony. And harmony has never been more ironic. Nemes’s is a soft, absurd mockery aimed at the vulnerability of freedom, the aggressive capitalism of property development and the idea of seeing an EU ﬂag as it waves over the brand new buildings after the demolition of an old world.You can then listen to a perfect Egmont Overture, played by professionals, while a sequence of construction develops in perfect colours – a harmony so perfect, it is becoming sterile…
Passing might be the fourth key word of Nemes’s art. The passing of ancient worlds and the loss of youth. His ﬁrst feature-length ﬁlm, My One and Onlies (Egyetleneim, 2005), was at ﬁrst sight a coming-of-age story too – premiered at Venice Critics’ Week in 2006. But if you looked closer, it was in fact a farewell to youth, to the age of thrill and romanticism.
This hormone-fuelled ﬁrst feature guided us through the seminal party scenes of early 2000s Budapest, all the intricacies of dating before the Internet Age, all the local faces of the small, cosy, familiar village of Budapest indie night-life. Nemes chose a deeply poetic, hypersensitive central character and followed him with a zealous camera which keeps jumping around him, even bungee jumping (a scene created by Balázs Dobóczi, Nemes’s regular DOP). But, just as the world of youth, this story has to fall apart too, as uncontrollable movements, colours, beats, moods, and emotions take over. By the time we reach the ﬁlm’s ﬁnale, Nemes has pumped the volume even higher, creating a downright editing orgy, reaching for the peek. But the atmosphere of loss cannot be subdued by volume.
What can be stronger than death? That which hasn’t even been born yet. Nemes’s last project before Zero was Negative History of Hungarian Films (2010), a perceptive response to the great paradox. Whatever could be more painful and jaded for a director than having to tell the story of his unmade ﬁlms? The most notable of Hungarian directors – Miklós Jancsó, Károly Makk, András Kovács etc. – come together to share memories and emotions on the very locations of ﬁlms never realized, never completed. Retelling the stories of ﬁlms never made is an idea at the same time playful, ironic and melancholic – a perfect ﬁt for the artistic universe of Gyula Nemes.
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With Zero he takes the next step. Having its premiere at Karlovy Vary means an important homecoming for Nemes, a closing of a circle which began at the FAMU. And it is also a huge leap forward: no more Kopaszi- gát, no more familiar Budapest coziness: his eyes are on Africa and the exotic. Yet this story of a honey- maker and the extinction of bees is still an intimate part of the Nemes universe: exploring the question of freedom, nature, revolution and their antagonists, that is consumption and human greed. Seriously playful and conﬁnedly free – how else to describe a ﬁlm where Udo Kier plays The Lord of the World?
by Dávid Dercsényi