Istvan Szabo

Director, Screenwriter


Birth Place
Budapest, HU
February 18, 1938


Istvan Szabo has emerged as one of the most important Hungarian filmmakers of the 20th Century. The Central European experience, from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Warsaw Pact, is the key to the content of his films as well as their symbolic structure. There may even be an implied metaphor in a film like "Colonel Redl" (1985) between the complex social atmosphere and political issue...


Istvan Szabo has emerged as one of the most important Hungarian filmmakers of the 20th Century. The Central European experience, from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Warsaw Pact, is the key to the content of his films as well as their symbolic structure. There may even be an implied metaphor in a film like "Colonel Redl" (1985) between the complex social atmosphere and political issues in the old imperial dynasty and the modern people's republic. His output perhaps reached a culmination in 1999 with the epic "Sunshine," which followed the rise and fall of a Jewish Hungarian family from the late 19th Century to the mid-1960s.

In Szabo's films, the illusory hopes and dreadful realities of the past are always presented in the most immediate human terms, whether the fanciful imaginings of a son for a dead parent in "Apa/Father" (1966), the memory of Nazi deportations in "25 Fireman's Street" (1974), the failed 1956 rebellion of "Szerelmesfilm/Love Film" (1970) or the memory of betrayal by a lover to one's enemies in "Bizalom/Confidence" (1979).

Szabo's use of symbols and devices can be bewilderingly complex, as in "25 Fireman's Street," or exceedingly droll, as in "Budapest Tales" (1976), where a tram is set working again by a group of displaced people at the war's close. In this allegory of socialist reconstruction, tyranny and deceit rival heroism and honesty in an effort to reach Budapest.

Szabo was catapulted to international success and fame in 1979 when "Confidence" won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Festival and a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar nomination. His work in the 1970s moved away from the youthful influences of the French New Wave--his first features owed much to Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard--toward the more darker approach of an Alain Resnais. Szabo solidified his worldwide reputation with the Oscar-winning "Mephisto" (1981's Best Foreign-Language Film) which starred Austrian Klaus Maria Brandauer and featured Hungarian and Polish performers. "Mephisto" chronicled the moral quandary and professional success of an actor befriended by a high-ranking Nazi, modeled after Hermann Goering, whose wide powers extend to the Prussian State Theater. A disturbingly likable careerist, the actor ends his marriage to a leftist, yet can give work to a Jewish employee and insult a Nazi colleague. Still, he stages an Aryan "Hamlet" and ends an affair with a dancer because of her one African parent. At the film's close, it is clear that despite his success and celebrity, he is no match for his ruthless patron.

For his next film, Szabo delved deeper into the past and the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The figure in a celebrated pre-WWI espionage case and the subject of a novel and play, "Colonel Redl" may also be Szabo's metaphor for contemporary Communist relations. Again, Brandauer starred as the professional army officer who is caught up in the swirl of ethnic hatreds, class prejudices and dynastic intrigue. Internally driven by homosexual impulses and fears of his provincial origins, Redl is lured into the kind of counter-espionage trap he has used on others. Once more, Szabo's film was among the five competing for the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film (although it did not earn the final statue).

Szabo's "Hanussen" (1988), completed a trilogy on similar themes that encompassed "Mephisto" and "Colonel Redl," and it too received a Best Foreign-Language Film Academy Award nomination. Based on the experiences of a clairvoyant famous in pre-Nazi Berlin, the film attempted to portray its main character as a mixture of conscious showman and tormented mystic (Brandauer) who ends up a political victim. Due to either inadequate scripting or acting, "Hanussen" did not enjoy the success of the director's earlier work.

Szabo made his English-language debut with a romantic drama about the politics of art that was meant as commentary on the late century push for reunification in Europe. Eschewing his usual flashbacks and dream sequences, the director opted for a straightforward approach in detailing the relationship between a Hungarian conductor (played by the French-born Niels Arestrup) and a Swedish diva (the American Glenn Close, whose singing was dubbed by New Zealander Kiri Te Kanawa).

His follow-up "Sweet Emma, Dear Bobe --Sketches, Nude," competed at the 1992 Berlin Film Festival. receiving high marks as a stylistic return to his earlier work. Despite its bleak settings in post-Communist Hungary, the film treated the central love story with sensuality. The culmination of his career to date, though, is undoubtedly "Sunshine/A Taste of Sunshine," a three-hour generational drama about a middle-class Jewish family whose fortunes are tied to an herbal remedy. Encapsulating experience from the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through two world wars, the film restated a favorite Szabo theme of assimilation versus persecution. While somewhat old-fashioned in its sweeping grandeur, some critics carped over plot points and the casting of Ralph Fiennes in three central roles (a man, his son and grandson). Szabo, who lost his own father when he was a child, was perhaps overcompensating by focusing on these patriarchs. In attempting to perhaps personalize man's inhumanity to man, one's search for identity and the symbolic use of names (the family, originally Sonnenschein is Magyarized to Sors), and the universal call for tolerance in a civilized society, Szabo faltered slightly. More than one review criticized the screenplay for focusing on too much minutia at the expense of more important historical details. Still, despite its flaws, "Sunshine" provided much to admire, from Lajos Koltai's cinematography to the performances of a stellar cast (including Fiennes, Rosemary Harris, Rachel Weisz, James Frain, William Hurt).

Life Events


First short film as director, the thesis film "Konzert/Concert"


First feature-length film, "Almodozasok Kora/The Age of Daydreaming"; film starred Andras Balint


Directed second feature, "Apa/Father"


Helmed first color film "Szerelmesfilm/Love Film", an unofficial sequel to "Apa"


Moved into darker, more experimental works by crafting a film with a building as its central character, "Tuzolto utea 25/25 Fireman's Street"


First TV film, "Premiere"


Helmed the modern allegory "Budapest Tales/Budapesti mesek"


Breakthrough feature "Bizalom/Confidence"; garnered international attention and festival awards; first of six films with director of photography Lajos Koltai; earned a 1980 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film


Directed "The Green Bird" for German television


Adapted (with screenwriter Peter Dobai) the roman-a-clef "Mephisto" for German television; focused on an actor who finds a mentor in a top Nazi general; first film with Klaus Maria Brandauer; earned the Best Foreign-Language Film Academy Award


Directed "Colonel Redl", based on espionage scandal in Austrian army just prior to WWI and on John Osbourne's play "A Patriot for Me"; received Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar nomination


Third collaboration with Brandauer, "Hanussen" also received Best Foreign-Language Film Academy Award nomination


English-language debut, "Meeting Venus", starring Glenn Close


Received widespread acclaim for the English-language "Sunshine/A Taste of Sunshine"; screened at Toronto Film Festival


Directed Stellan Skarsgård in "Taking Sides," a tale based on the life of Wilhelm Furtwangler, the controversial conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic


Directed Annette Bening in "Being Julia" based on the W. Somerset Maugham novel