Characterizing Landscapes - CineClassics: A Special Taste of Miskolc

in 10th Jameson Cinefest Miskolc International Film Festival

by Janka Barkoczi

‘To direct a director — that is a designer artist’s real job’ as John Box, one of the leading British production designers, once said. The jubilee edition of CineFest Miskolc dedicated its CineClassics retrospective to this idea, and an Oscar-winning European professional in this field: Alexandre Trauner. Born in Budapest, Trauner (known to friends simply as ‘Trau’, which sounds a bit like the French word ‘trop’, meaning ‘too much, too good’) worked on hundreds of movies, from the heydays of French ‘réalisme poétique’ to the creation of the unruly and surreal world of Luc Besson (Subway) and Alejandro Jodorowsky (The Rainbow Thief) in the second half of the 1980s. The festival’s current project commemorated the 20th anniversary of the influential artist’s death with a conference, an amusing interactive exhibition of his movie sets, a special screening of The Apartment by Billy Wilder and a rare Hungarian documentary about Trauner.

On one of the chilly, mid-autumn CineFest mornings, an interesting panel talk in the House of Arts addressed his achievements, with the participation of the British film historian Ian Christie and Hungarian professors Ferenc Takács, György Molnár, András Kepes, and under the moderation of György Báron. Among others issues, the group raised questions of the complexity that can be found in the management of an arts department, the hardly definable limits of the designer’s various tasks and the differences in points of view of a production designer with an architectural background and one coming from the world of fine arts.

The presenters described Trauner as one of the most influential Hungarian collaborators in the international film industry. Ferenc Takács introduced him as the son of an ordinary tailor who attended an average public elementary school, then studied painting under the master István Csók at the Budapest College of Fine Arts, where he joined the Hungarian avant-garde group called ‘Artists’ New Society’. During the discussion, András Kepes stressed that the impact of the avant-garde movements was very intense and connected to substantial social phenomena in Eastern Europe. Trauner moved to Paris in 1929 and became an assistant to the renowned production designer Lazare Meerson. They worked together on 15 films between 1929 and 1936, including works by Marc Allegret, Autant-Lara, and René Clair. From 1937 onwards he worked as a production designer on a number of significant French films, such as Port of Shadows (Le quai des brumes), Hôtel du Nord, Children of Paradise (Les enfants du paradis), Gates of Night (Les portes de la nuit). He preferred to use painted backdrops and optical tricks instead of miniature models during the shooting. György Molnár broadened the discussion with a visual analysis of the famous office scene of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment that seemed to be an extraordinary example of the play with perspective. He also added that the sets and landscapes composed by Trauner helped to mark the characters as effectively as did their costumes and their gestures. Trauner’s post-war assignments led him to Hollywood where he built a successful partnership not only with Billy Wilder, but also with John Huston. András Kepes mentioned that Trauner’s forgotten and still mostly hidden collection of inspirational photographs captured the atmosphere of a whole period and would be worth placing in an archive or a permanent exhibition. At the closing of the conference, the documentary Trau — Portrait of Alexandre Trauner, Paris (Trau — Trauner Sándor portréja, Párizs) was screened for the audience. This special movie led us to the home of the designer and artist, and let him speak about his magic visual tricks and artistic mission. As he said in the movie, his greatest secrets were that he never looked back on the past and never took himself too seriously.

The idea of Jameson CineFest’s popular CineClassics program came from the less-known fact that the neighborhood of Miskolc has played a great part in the emergence of Hungarian film since its beginning. In 1938, for instance, the popular tourist resort Lillafüred (today part of the city of Miskolc) held the event called ‘National Film Days’, which was the first film festival ever held in the country. This was followed by an annual documentary and television festival through several decades from the 1960s onwards. In addition, many of the surrounding villages are noted not only as birthplaces of great artists of Hungarian cinema, but they also send important figures to the worldwide industry. The village of Tolcsva, for example, was the place of origin of William Fox, the founding father of the 20th Century Fox; Adolph Zukor, founder of Paramount Studios, was an American immigrant arriving from the nearby Ricse; and the British director-scriptwriter Emeric Pressburger, whose name is beheld in the main prize of the CineFest, was born in Miskolc as well. There is no doubt that this year’s retrospective connected to the emblematic figure of Trauner helped a lot to strengthen further this special and traditional cinematic taste of the region.

Edited by Birgit Beumers