Sacred cinema in Millennium Hungary

Written by Agnes Rajacic, IRERIE.




“Legend is like faith, it strengthens us.” (Sacra Corona)



In the period between the changing of the regime and the European integration of Hungary, the discussion about Hungarian identity rises in relation to the Hungarian minorities, to globalisation, and to privatisation  issues. Nation and democracy is in discussion, because the  valorisation of democratical stability, the respect of human rights, the equality of chances and the solidarity are not only matters of a civic responsability but issues linked to the discourse about the nation. In this sense, there is a return of the national quest but structured along democratical principles.


Scepticism towards the European identity on the part of the nationalist political discourse stems from the idea that the EU will not dissolve the nation in a federal Europe. Such  questions as “What is the Hungarian identity? How to maintain Hungarian culture? What is the place of Hungarians in the new Europe?” are formulated in a locally specific way, mainly along the reinterpretation of historical events. The reinterpretation gives birth to dichotomical formulations, as for example the liberty\oppression (plakat) and the liberalism\nationalism axes.


Focusing in the later dichotomy, the discourse on Hungarian identity and on the redefinition of the nation seems to be contrasted to an idea of “liberalist Europe”, the essences of which are in some levels perceived as incompatible. This incompatibility leaves an open space to the recall of  specificities which strengthens the mutilated Hungarian identity. The space has became the playground of the political discourse, and the direction of the quest is mainly the quest of the past. I will consider discourse about the nation as a self-legitimizing act of the political power, whether in government or in opposition. Specially interesting from this point of view is the period 1998-2002 with the nationalist FIDESZ (Party of Young Democrats) government, which is in the opposition since 2002. (Present Parliament composition is: Socialist Party with 46% of the vote, forming government in coalition with the Social Democrats with 5% vote, and in opposition the Young Democrats with 42% and the Christian Democrats with 5%).


In this last six years we observe a polarisation of the political discourse about the Hungarian state in national terms (instead of civic). On the one hand the Socialist Party is perceived by nationalist voices as anti-nationalist, mainly interested in economis gains (the suspected participaion of the former Communist élite in the transition of the system, and in privatization), on the other hand, the left wing accuses the right of the rise of the nation’s division and the dangers of promoting fear.


The division is perpetuated, and the fight against the other side becomes an argument per se in the political discourse. Political arguments are very much influential in the public and private spheres, and provoke some extreme reactions. For instance, the ban of a radical right wing TV programme (Sajtoklub) mobilized several thousand people. In the course of the protest campaign the director of the programme declared that the “Klub is not functioning any more, but our troops are prepared to fight ”.


This polarisation allows to explain the behaviour of the other in a very stereoypical way, by their economical/relational interest: the attitude of the nationalist is said to be linked with the Church and Catholic religion, and liberal behaviour is said to be linked with Communist and Jewis roots. For instance, on December 2003, in a program of Tilos Radio it could be heard that “all Catholics should be burned”, something which raised extreme reactions: there were protests of extreme right forces before the Radio building, and the burning of an Israeli flag (!). The police did not interviene.


However, the external factors play a very influential role in internal politics: the EU requirements, the high expectations about the resolution of the minority problems, and the anxiety of the neighbouring countries about the Hungarian measures towards the Hungarian minorities (like the proposed status law). The external political influence is exploited in the internal political rivalries: the political parties are prone to export and import messages. For instance, the scandal around the falsified letter of the physicist Ede (Edward) Teller, who died in 2003 in the USA, which supposedly he directed to the Hungarian people as a warning against the foreign friendly Socialist politics. The speech of V. Orban in Bruxelles on the Benes decretes raised a very animated discussion as well, and caused the Visegrad crisis (the cancellation in protest of the annual meeting of the Visegrad group).


Nationalism as ideology became a counter balance of European integration, exploiting a very emotional nivel of attachment in which myth-making plays a crucial role. Nationalist arguments are represented in the rhetorical arsenal of the Party of Young Democrats and naturally of the extreme right. The myth-making activity clearly dominates the politically emotional discourse of the reorganised party, who after loosing the 2002 elections, formed a “Movement of Citizen”. In this sphere, there is a processus of reappropriation/mystification of nationalist symbols and myths, with a very clear message directed to present-day politics.



Millennium on screen



As mentioned above, the redefinition of the nation is first of all linked with history. Narratives on the greater Hungarian Empire and the presently mutilated state are told specially in demographical terms. Victimization is very much present in a country which is 1/3rd of what it was in the Middle Ages and under the Habsburg Empire: Hungary was never smaller than now (if you don’t consider the time of Turkish occupation). Therefore a contradiction lies between the great past where the nation could sustain itself in spite of the lack of any external support, and the present. “They could be great people, but not any more”. This historical decline results in bitterness, and in an embedded psychological self-esteem shortage. The redefinition is specially difficult because the present bitterness lies in a past injustice, the Trianon treaty after the First World War, which cannot be removed. In general terms, there is a historical continuity  until Trianon, after which Hungarian identity is injured, and the Hungarian nation is problematized from this point. From 1920 on the condition of Hungary is that of an incomplete nation. In national narratives, the present form of state is based on a past injustice.



Therefore the historical reinterpretation of the past is crucial, and will find his form in myth-making around the great events of Hungarian history. The myth-making activity was concentrated around the turning date of 2000,  millennium year of the foundation of the Hungarian state. On this occasion, a “millennium budget” was created, and historical films were sponsored by the Culture Ministry. That is how Sacra Corona (Gábor Koltay 2001), a film reanimating Saint László and his time, came to be; also the filmed opera Bánk Bán (Káel Csaba, 2002) about the honorable opposition of Hungarians to the Habsburg opressors; and the film about the “Man of the Bridge”(Hídember, Bereményi Géza, 2002), Istvan Széchenyi, a great figure of the 19th century’s developping Hungary, called “the greatest Hungarian”.



There was much debate around the legitimacy of the sponsoring and the final quality of the films (mainly on the Internet). In the present paper I’m firstly interested in looking at:

1. the contextualisation of the recreated/created myths in the films

2. detecting the convergence/divergence of the present political atmosphere and the “screen discourse”.


According to my hypothesis, there is a continuity in the argumentation of the nationalist political rhetorics and these historical films, which can be detected in the use of the myths in film language. Myths are an unquestionable base of the Hungarian identity and are embedded in a moral discourse.



Created and recreated myths




The making of these films itself points out to the fact that they go beyond the question of artistical quality. The fact that just the Sacra Corona film got 200 million Ft (nearly 1m euros) of support, and the fact that a government representative was present in the writing of script, and high state officials at the premiere, projects its political importance, and shows that we cannot judge it as independent.


The following issues will be analysed in the context of the symbolical Millennium celebrations, and the current political discourse.


the importance of the “dream” as advice in the national imaginery (millennium discourse of V.Orban on 20st August 2000 before the Parliament and the narratives on legends around the figure of Saint Laszlo in Sacra Corona; the destroying dream as state of the nation in Hídember.

sacralisation of the religious relics: the Millennium procession of the Saint Right Hand of King Istvan and his representation in Sacra Corona.

political leadership and the myth of the national unity represented in the mystification of the crown and the figure of Saint Laszlo.

moral superiority in contrast with the opressors.  The myth of the rebel in Bánk Bán.

a new relevance of the figure of Széchenyi as the national behavioural model in Hídember.  



In the mentioned  films the already existing national myths are reinterpreted, and I think, carry a more or less explicit political message, and behavioural advices. The argumentations are based on an emotional (see the motto) overtone which is also caracteristics of right wing political discourses.

Mainstream emotional arguments are very easy to find in myths. The essence of the mystification is that the national unity is incorporated in such symbols, figures and facts, which, by their sacrality, are beyond contestation. The implicit message of this kind of myth is that the guarantee of the national unity was always the indisputability of the authority of power. In conclusion, to critizise it is an act of treason, betrayal, blasphemy, foreigness, etc. Experience shows that the uncontextualized and universally intended  message of these films is drown out directly by the receptive public, who often refuse the criticism to the film on the same bases. By universalising  the content of the film, any kind of criticism, even about the formal and technical solutions, will be refused. Through these messages  the spectators are given the clue for the right  behaviour, and a standard of judging the critics of the films: there are Hungarians who are able to empatize with the films, and foreign-hearted ones who are not able to do it. Hence the danger of the uses of historical myths in present-day politics.