Interview to Istvan Szabo

How to interview an Oscar winner without being Captain Obvious.


There are filmmakers, and there are film legends. The first, you can find. But meeting one of those human beings who belong to the second category is something else.

During the 2012 edition of International Trieste Film Festival I had the arduous task of interviewing a film legend, Istvan Szabo. Hungarian director, is probably one the main european filmmakers of its generation, the only one who won an Oscar in his country.

I took this interview as a spiritual session, and an interview with a Dalai Lama. A Hungarian Dalai Lama. And so it began:

Szabo presentes himself as a “filmmaker”. Plain and simple.
He’s always thinking of a project:
-The world is full of filmmakers who are thinking about a project. The real filmmakers are those who make them.
-But you ARE a real filmmaker.
-Sometimes I am, and sometimes I’m not.

-How do you choose between all these projects?
-All that can influence a story comes in this package, and suddenly something you will say that this is the project, and that grows and grows. The story makes that decision.

-It’s the story that chooses you.
-I would not say so because it is too poetic, but yes.

-You made a documentary series on the history of cinema: after that experience, what’s a good film for you?

-It’s hard to say, a good film is a special view on a particular story, which can reach a subject that is important to many people. It is important that your story find the history of other people too.

-You have made many films in which the characters had very difficult and controversial decisions ahead. Why do you think people cannot empathise?

-Who is the character in your film that can represent the suffering of the audience? You need the audience to identify that person, and say, if you’re like me or not do not want to be like him. It is there that people can feel empathy.

-Listen. We are all ambiguous. There are people who like something in a character and other people who hate the same thing in a character. A character should be ambivalent, sometimes great, and sometimes we hate it. Sometimes we hate ourselves.

-Think of Hamlet. He could be a great prince, but he was afraid, doubtful, and this doubt was what created the tragedy.

We stopped for a coffee. Szabo takes the trouble to ask the director if he was working in continuity, and which is what he liked about the scene of his own interview, and stuff like that. Great guy.
Szabo entertained himself watching the dogs inside the bar barking, and imagining stories including territorial conflict between them.
Then he regrets the gradual miniaturization of the screen and how we stop watching movies in company, and we begin to watch them in small screens and alone.
We also discuss piracy and its ambiguity, but without getting anywhere.

Szabo breaks the ice telling stories of John Ford and his assistant. He’s some kind of professional joke teller, but with film trivia. As an encyclopedia. He films the same way as he tell stories: slowly and full of details.
Before resuming, he tells another anecdote. Extensive, but epitomized by this dialogue:

-Son: I write films.
-Father, Son, do not lie, I know that films aren’t written. They are motion pictures.

-The film is based on human faces, moving images. And we have to ask ourselves what is unique in film, which can not be expressed even in the theater. And most importantly, it is a LIVE face we see on the screen, not as as Titian painted. It is a living face, like yours, mine, and what it expresses. What information out of that face. That story is true, and that represents face. Humans bring the stories and faces show it. This is important.

-In your films (human) history plays a decisive role. What is the role of history?

-Revolutions, wars, the First World War, the Second World War changed everything. I can not find a single family in Europe whose life has not been crossed by history, by war and by the imposition of ideologies by force. That’s why I think all my films are influenced by history and ideology.
The second reason is to make a character who is fighting his own sense of security or safety of other lives and confront these situations.

What few know is that Szabo’s Oscar for the film Mephisto (in which the protagonist, a talented “indie” actor becomes theater director at the Berlin Theatre during the Nazi regime) is practically a disguised autobiography. Szabo worked as an informant for the communist regime in Hungary, and while he get to help some colleagues, their actions were judged by society with great severity.

For Szabo, the truth of a story is in the details.

My country is experiencing a situation where intolerance, lack of empathy but mostly lack of interest in listening to others. The subject that interests me the most. And looking at this man I thought, maybe it’s a good time to see Szabo’s films, which shows that no one is free from sin, nor safe to throw the first stone.

We asked what profession would have he done if he had not been a director (a question a little plagiarized from Actor’s Studio). A Doctor like his father. And then he tells how Fellini, Antonioni, and Ford’s films and those faces were the medicine of his soul.

-I try to tell stories that serve people to clean their souls.

It seems that Istvan Szabo finally became a doctor after all. For nowadays’ soul cramps, perhaps their films can be a small remedy.

Have you watched any Szabo film before? What is your favourite?


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