The persisting romantic idea of the “genius” makes us think that the „thing” that leads someone to great achievements and especially memorable works of art cannot be learnt.

There has to be something, which we usually tend to call talent, that lies beneath all the studies and experiences, and which differentiates the hardworking mediocrity from the genius. And if this were true, we should be able to find the traces of this genius even in someone’s earliest works. This is why we have decided to research the early shorts of two great masters of the same generation from the Visegrád countries to find out if they are just well trained craftsmen or natural born talents. As a defining principle for “genius” we’ve chosen two directors who got an Academy Award later in their career.

Watching István Szabó’s early shorts, what we notice at first glance is  a very fresh, playful approach to filmmaking and a self-reflexive use of the filmic form. “Please, make a drawing of me” – says the beautiful young girl to the unseen male protagonist (clearly the director’s alter ego), but he refuses the request, saying that he can only see images that move, and that movement is also the essence of the girl. This typically youngish ars poetica, this artistic statement at the beginning of You (Te, 1963) in one of his earliest works shows a very enthusiastic young filmmaker, who strongly believes in the expressive power of cinema and in his capability to make good use of it. This 10 minute film also showcases a clear influence of the French New Wave: the jump cuts of the girl wandering around in the city, the presentation of her moods by very short takes organized in flat spaces often remind us of Godard’s Vivre sa vie, which was presented just one year before Szabó’s film.

Thematically, Szabó’s early works – not so much the above mentioned You – already show one of the main subjects of his later films: the mechanisms of power and its effect on society. Several of his shorts deal in a very subtle way with the experience of the war, and especially the memory and the representation of this experience. The contrasting combination of playful music (viennese waltz, soul, and cabaret music of the ’30s) and tragic images of war or postwar times make his Piety (Kegyelet, 1967 – shot one year after his first feature) a disturbing film, where we never know what we should take seriously. Besides the music, this confusing feeling is created by the fact that several times he makes clear that we are only watching the re-enactment of some historical events; the march of the laughing Jews among the guns of Hungarian and German policemen towards the Danube is bizarre, especially because we can see the camera and behind it the young director several times.

István Szabó: You

The strong political content can also be spotted in his very early Variations on a Theme (Variácók egy témára, 1961), where the chapters entitled “Objectively”, “Shocked” and “Screaming” offer a sarcastic and almost absurd view on the memory of the war. Whilst the chapter titles suggest a growing emotional involvement from the beginning to the end of the film, the images present a completely different attitude: at the beginning we see the war on archive footage, but in the last chapter (“Screaming”) we just see middle-class people drinking coffee and tea and enjoying the sun on a downtown terrace. The use of contrast between the different layers of the cinematic form (sound, image, text, etc.) can be considered Szabó’s trademark in these great early works.

In conclusion it appears that Szabó has been a self-conscious artist from the very beginning; one who knows very well that what he does is an aesthetic as well as a political act at the same time. Though sometimes we can see some playful moments in his short films, he is mostly very mature regarding both form and content.

The young Polanski had a completely different approach to filmmaking. His early short films represent a field of experimentation, where he tries out many stylistic and thematic issues that reappear in his later work. These movies are much less polished than those of Szabó, there are many bugs which show that we are not dealing with an experienced filmmaker.

Lust, aggression and the unstable, unreliable character of the human psyche are the main subjects which are dealt with in these shorts (as, of course, in his feature films produced later). His second film of not entirely 2 minutes long is a true Polanskian moment: a middle aged man is leaving his house on the stairs when by accident he notices a naked woman washing her hair (so she is not able to see that she is observed) through a small window. A Toothful Smile presents a typical voyeuristic situation, where the pleasure of the lustful voyeur lasts until he can stay unnoticed. Besides hidden desires and the powerful attraction of the forbidden – which are important elements of Polanki’s oeuvre – in his early shorts, we can also often see the study of aggression. In both Break Up the Dance (Rozbijemy zabawe, 1957) and in Two Men and a Wardrobe (Dwaj ludzie z szafa, 1958) we can see a gang of young people who attack other people seemingly for no reason; it seems that it is very important for Polanski to understand the aggressive side of human behaviour. Aggression is often exaggerated to the point of horror, another important element of his later films, as in the latter film where the young gang kills a cat with stones and then one of them throws it in the face of the protagonists. Another kind of horror is revealed in the short called The Lamp (Lampa, 1959) where we can see a man fabricating dolls manually, but never really succeeding. A series of ugly, damaged, distorted dolls are shown in detail, before everything burns down.

Roman Polanski: Two Men and a Wardrobe

Another interesting characteristic of Polanski’s early films is a strong presence of the grotesque, which might originate from the avant-garde tendencies of the Polish theatre in the ’50s and ’60s. Funny, aimless characters perform strange actions which have no sense, and their only role is to generate reactions from the “normal” people surrounding them. Often these grotesque moments are presented with the tools of burlesque – this is very clear, especially in his visually very special Mammals (Ssaki, 1962).

Our conclusion here is that Polanski seems less mature in his first filmmaking attempts than Szabó. He appears to be experimenting all the time: he does things that are unusual, he searches subjects that are important for him, and he tries to find different ways to express them, without paying too much attention to elaboration. And if he tackles some political issues (like the relation of the poor and the rich), he deals with them on a much more individual level than his Hungarian contemporary. It is clear that while Szabó tries to learn serious filmmaking, Polanski has much less respect towards cinema itself and somehow looks to break the boundaries.

Text: Zsolt Gyenge
Illustration: Cristina Grosan