All the Wild Horses – Zoltán Huszárik: Elegy

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„I will not watch a horse-centered film. I want you to know, comrade Huszárik, I only watch person-centered films.”[1] This was the reaction of György Aczél, Hungarian Deputy Minister of Cultural Affairs, when learning about Zoltán Huszárik’s then new film Elegy (1965) made in the Balázs Béla Studio[2]. Aczél, who because of his strict ideological views probably missed several cinematographic milestones starting with Muybridge’s Horse in Motion (1878), failed to acknowledge a long-standing tradition concerning the representation of horses in visual art: that horses not only played an integral part in artistic imagery since the birth of figural art but also that they were frequently used to emphasize human emotions. Like many artist today Huszárik relies on the emotional resonance of the relationship between man and horse but deliberately avoiding the implied heroism.

When Jacques Louis David captured Napoleon on his horse (Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1801) he depicted him full of victory to underline his charismatic power. His triumph is emphasized by the image of the wild-eyed, rearing horse, his tail and mane raked by the wind supporting the conqueror’s posture and direction. The grotesquely twisted horse in Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), painted in an immediate reaction to the violent bombing on the Basque town of Guernica during Spanish Civil War, powerfully intensifies the human suffering.[3] These two paintings show two of the most prevalent archetypes of horse representation in visual art: the horse as a companion in war, a sound mount of a rider and the horse as a symbol of innocence, an evocative of the harmony of nature. Elegy, like most modern works of art, focuses on the latter association but without utilizing the image of a horse as an entirely abstract concept.

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This approach is not at all rare in experimental cinema. By eliminating all traces of human presence Denys Colomb de Daunant made a poetic documentary of wild horses living in the Camargue region of southeastern France. Dream of the Wild Horses (1960) depicts an era of undisturbed nature, with a magnificent wilderness in its purest form. By creating dream-like effects using slow motion against soft-focus backgrounds de Daunant stresses the transience of this environment. This vision is supported by the images of blazing fire and the sinking movement of the wild creatures at the end of the film. Although its primary aim was to explore the film medium in certain aspects and to heighten the viewers’ awareness of both time in film and the perception of color in motion, Malcolm Le Grice’s Berlin Horse (1970) can be easily interpreted as the fulfillment of the future de Daunant’s film foreshadowed. Le Grice shows a horse harnessed to a bridle and led by a man running in circles. Here we see a captured, tamed animal deprived of its freedom in a claustrophobic environment. The repetitive movement and the negative-positive superimpositions strengthen the stifling atmosphere of the film.

Inspired by a poem of László Nagy, Huszárik’s Elegy incorporates both of the aforementioned stages (the horse as a wild animal and as a tamed servant) and goes even further by depicting the passing or rather execution of this symbolic animal and the transformation of its image into inanimate objects. As in Nagy’s poem, in Huszárik’s film the horse’s fear of death covers all of human society, portraying people of modern civilizations existing with a sword over their heads. Although Elegy does raise awareness of an intangible and elusive threat against people, it does not reduce the role of the horse to a purely symbolic one, but tells its upsetting journey by keeping its integrity.

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Huszárik’s film resembles a musical composition[4] and is divided into seven main parts. The first one is similar to de Daunant’s film, as it starts with images of herds of horses running on the fields. But as the inserted images showing cave paintings of horses imply, this idyllic state already has a historical character and it belongs to the past. With the horses slowing down and the silence increasing, an intangible tension rises. Peaceful wide shots are replaced by disturbing close ups of the frightened looks of horses and of cracks in concrete, foreshadowing the end of the era of undisturbed nature. The second part, which depicts the first stage of coexistence between horse and man, is preluded by landscapes with traces of human intervention (roads crossing fields) and basic objects of human living space (a leaning bench, a wooden window frame). By juxtaposing human portraits with horse profiles, showing images of man and horse working together on the fields and their skeletons lying next to each other in the same grave, Huszárik recalls a time when the tamed animals and their owners managed to live together in relative consensus. It is relevant to note that Huszárik completely discards the romantic idyll of the bucolic world and transmits resigned quietude, the silent longing of the captured horses for their lost freedom.

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The approach of the next part is indicated by various symbolic movements and subtle transitions. The recurring image of doors and gates closing signify the narrowing living space of the horses (and men) while the changing of a dirt road into cobbled city road suggests the radical change of their wider habitat. The extreme close ups of the frightened expressions of the horses, the closed spaces emphasizing the claustrophobic nature of the environment, and the image of a carousel and the repeating sequence of a chained white horse going in circles anticipate their existence defined by confinement and endless repetitions. The hopelessness caused by the aggressive exploitation of horses for entertainment becomes indisputable by the image of the white pigeon flying away. In his introduction of the fourth part Huszárik again mutes the film for a few seconds, focusing on a white horse standing in the corner while overlaying drawings of horse races. This segment applies more intense and more complex montage technique, recalling images from all previous parts and going way more back in time to share old black and white photographs of solders sitting on their horses. The rapid shifts of various images depicting events, symbolic objects, spaces and faces foreshadow a more radical change. This eclectic and summarizing sequence imitates the experience of life flashing before one’s eyes right before dying.

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The sixth part shows the execution of horses that became useless to their owners. A sequence repeating the same method (after blinding the horse it is hit it on the forehead with a hammer-like instrument) is intercut by images of endless dark roads and starless skies emphasizing the emptiness, hopelessness and lack of (our) prospects. The ending segment demonstrates an artificial world which lacks any traces of nature as it has been destroyed by men. Horses are represented and remembered by lifeless objects: sculptures and used trappings exhibited in sterile spaces. The images of bare benches lit by flickering city lights imply a general vulnerability and a dark future to come.

These few hints only offer insight into one interpretation of the base structure of the film. The complex imagery of Elegy is impossible to put totally into words as it addresses many different senses at the same time. The suggestive power of the film largely relies on Huszárik’s unique method of mixing expressivity with a delicate personal touch and of creating deeply-layered associative content by applying a serial montage concept based on repetitions, the break of chronology and the combination of definite motifs with fictive elements. Among other filmmakers, such as János Tóth and Mihály Morell, Huszárik is known as one of the creators of a language which defined Hungarian film poetry for decades. This achievement, despite Aczél’s adverse criticism, brought international recognition to the director and his tragically beautiful piece, permanently altering the reputation of the so called “horse-centered” films.

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 Elegy is considered the first Hungarian “film poem.”[6]  This label has had various definitions since the 1930’s when it was primarily an emblem of the difference between avant-garde and commercial narrative film.[7]  Even if the term became more specific over the decades it still includes a fairly broad spectrum of work.[8]  The film poem is subjective, direct, non-narrative, reproduces the operation of consciousness and seizes meaning beyond intellect. The keys to its intensity and density are the pictorial form and ambiguity. As it uses images from reality, a film poem is inevitably objective, but it can be altered by emotional charge or the dominance of musicality. The film poem, like written prose works from a limited but self-created vocabulary. It should be “read” and perceived as a poem, and savored image by image.[9]

Written by: Dorottya Szalay

[1] Klára Muhi (2001) „Ghetto, university, political battlefield. The first two decades of BBS.” (Gettó, egyetem, politikai csatatér. A BBS első két évtizede.) Filmvilág, December/2001, p. 9. (Hungarian)
[2] Balázs Béla Studio (BBS) was an utterly unique formation, not only in Eastern Europe but also beyond. It started as a film club in 1959 and was re-founded in 1961 as a film studio that worked both inside and outside the structure of Socialist state film production.
[3] Gouraud, Jean-Lous, Woronoff, Michel and Francfort, Paul (2010) The Horse: From Cave Paintings to Modern Art. New York: Abbeville Press.
[4] The title, Elegy refers to the third movement in Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, composed in 1943.
[5] This is my own categorization, there is no certain proof that it was intended this way.
[6] Nemes Gyula (2009) „Disappearing Magic. The Film Poems of BBS.” (Veszendő Varász. A BBS Filmversei), Filmvilág, September/2009, p. 44.
[7] Peterson, James (1994) Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order: Understanding the American Avant-garde Cinema. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, p. 29.
[8] Peterson, 1994, p.31.
[9] Nemes, 2009, p. 45.

 

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