Friday, March 14, 2014

People on the Alps (1942)

Director: István Szöts                                     Writers: István Szöts & József Nyirö
Film Score: Ferenc Farkas                              Cinematography: Ferenc Fekete
Starring: Alice Szellay, János Görbe, Péterke Ferency and József Bihari

People on the Alps (Emberek a havason) is a fantastic Hungarian film about a poor couple who live in the Transylvanian Alps. The first part of the film follows them as their son is born and the husband, János Görbe, comes back with the priest’s prayer book because the holy man could not make the trip himself. They are in a panic to have the child baptized so that evil spirits do not enter him. Finally the wife, Alice Szellay, takes everything she can remember and they perform a small ceremony themselves. As spring comes to the mountain, the three go for a walk. In another ceremony the father picks out a tree and carves into the bark designating it as his son’s tree. The two are bound for life, and whatever happens to the one will happen to the other. He wishes the tree long life so his son may prosper as well. Everyone on the mountain congratulates them on their child and gives them gifts, a shepherd gives them a sheep and another gives them a calf.

But all is not well in this peaceful place of serenity, were the people are part of the mountain itself. A representative of the Arbor Timber Exploitation Company comes up to the mountain telling the residents there that the “factory” owns the mountain now and they’ll have to leave. Görbe, Szellay and their son, Péterke Ferency, will be the first to go because they have been living on the property the shortest amount of time. Before they leave, however, the couple is offered a bribe. Görbe can work as a woodcutter for the company and Szellay can work in the canteen and for that they’ll be paid a small amount, the money seeming like a lot because they are a people who don’t depend on money. Szellay has a bad feeling about the offer and doesn’t want to do it, but with the only other option being homelessness Görbe believes it is their only chance for survival and the family moves down from the mountain.

What follows is a skillfully edited montage of the entire process of the factory, from cutting down the trees, and sending the animals living their on the run, to bringing down the logs from the mountain, cutting them in the mill, and finally transporting them to the train station. Of course, later it’s discovered that the only reason that Görbe was hired is because the factory man wanted a chance to have his beautiful wife for himself. He sends Görbe on a phony trip to the mountain on Sunday and that night he attempts to rape Szellay, but she barely gets away with her son by turning over a lamp and setting the house of fire. With nowhere else to go she takes her son up the mountain to their old home. This, however, is only the start of an incredible journey for this family. It’s a simple story of a simple people, and yet this film seems a masterpiece of emotional realism giving audiences a last look at a vanishing way of life. The actors are terrific and the direction is sublime.

Ever since Universal’s Dracula, audiences have had a distorted view of Hungarian and Romanian peasants as the superstitious villagers from horror films. But this story is one that seems to transcend time and place. The images in the beginning of the film of the idyllic existence of the people as part of the land are some of the most beautiful in film, even in black and white. István Szöts is a director of great gifts. His timing and shot selection are perfect, as is his knack for storytelling in his script. The surviving print is beat up, but the artistry has no trouble coming through. And while his budget was nowhere near what a U.S. film would have been, he makes the most of it and there is no diminishment because of it. The scene on the train is a moving as cinema gets, and I’m not sure there was anything made in Hollywood that can match it. It’s hard to believe that this film was made right in the middle of World War II in Europe, until one realizes that the Hungarians were on the side of the Axis powers and thus spared immediate destruction. People on the Alps is a miraculous film, a classic of European cinema, and one that deserves to be rediscovered by a much wider audience.

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