When you think of prolific moviemaking countries,Hungaryisn’t usually the first to pop in our minds. Cinematic powerhouses like theUnited States, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, Japan, Italy, and Germany, sure, but Hungary? It’s a shame that Hungaryisn’t better recognized as a founding country of film art. Hungarian artists pioneered movies from their earliest days and recognized the artistic and intellectual possibilities of the medium well before the French or Americans (or at least concurrently). They may have been the first to translate their nations’ classic novels and plays into films.
It is from this tradition that István Szöts’ magnificent People of the Mountains came into being. Despite the Hungarian government’s alliance with Nazi Germany and strictures against anything but light, escapist fare, Szöts managed to get this anti-capitalist morality play produced and screened, even going on to win a prize at the Venice Film Festival.
Szöts introduces us to a quiet mountain community stuck in many ways in the nineteenth century, carrying all the burdens of life without modern conveniences but supported by a strong community. Life can be hard, but satisfying all the same until the destructive forces of unchecked capitalism encroach on their community, culture, and families. At first the promises of good jobs and high wages at a new lumber mill seems the answer to all their problems. Good wages will mean they won’t have to struggle so hard to survive, or so they think. Their once idyllic mountain community turns into an industrial nightmare. No one knows who among their once trusted neighbors they can turn to as everyone scrambles to get what they can, while they can. Eventually, the fractured community becomes vulnerable and its people are driven from their ancestral lands by the very forces they once looked on with such hope.
An Italian film journal later cited People of the Alps as an early model for post-war Italian Neorealism. Szöts shot the film in the mountains of Transylvania, using mostly non-professional actors and his narrative follows a non-traditional structure. The result is a grittily realistic foray into the lives of people filmmakers generally ignore: the rural poor. Szöts depicts these people with dignity and respect, something filmmakers, when they have turned their lenses on the rural poor, have had a bad track record with (just think of the recent independent darling Winter’s Bone, which is mind-bogglingly admired despite its clear disdain for most of its characters and their community).
This is a tough film to find. As far as I know there hasn’t been any U.S.video or DVD releases. It was once uploaded onto You Tube, but it has since been removed. If anyone has any hints on where I and others who haven’t had the chance to see People of the Mountains yet, please enlighten us. It is well worth seeking out, not just to rediscover this film, but as a step to begin exploring Hungary’s rich film history.