This past March I did a first for the blog by reviewing a non-Japanese product. To be specific, I wrote about Fehérlófia/Son of the White Mare, the 1981 animated movie from Hungarian auteur Marcell Jankovics, who some have called "The Walt Disney of Hungary". I wrote about that film on that month because that was the month that had the National Day celebrating the 1848 Revolution the Hungarians had against the Habsburg monarchy. In turn, today, October 23, is the second National Day for Hungary, this one commemorating the start of the 1956 Revolution against the Soviet Union, one which prompted Time magazine to name the 1956 Man of the Year the "Hungarian Freedom Fighter". Much like Fehérlófia, the subject of this B-Side review is another Marcell Jankovics animated film that was started during Soviet occupation, but unlike that film, which only took two years to make, this film took much longer to finish & is now looked at as the magnum opus of Jankovics' catalog. Too bad Hungarian film is next to unheard of in America, because this could very well be a true cult classic over here.
Imre Madách's The Tragedy of Man, or Az ember tragédiája (Uhz Em-behr Tra-gay-dee-ai-uh) in Hungarian, was first published in 1861, and is generally considered one of the most epic & lengthy plays ever written. It's commonly compared to John Milton's 1667 epic poem Paradise Lost, as both focus on the biblical Adam, Eve, & the Fall of Man, and in its home country Madách's play is apparently as much required reading in school as something like Shakespeare is over here; at least, my mother recalls reading it back when she was in school in Budapest during the 60s. The play has been staged in countries like Germany, the Czech Republic, & Poland, it's been adapted into two different operas by György Ránki & Clive Strutt. The only known live-action cinematic adaptation came from 1984's The Annunciation, a Hungarian film that was cast with nothing but child actors & done in the style of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Marcell Jankovics decided to make an animated adaptation in 1983 & started animating in 1988, with an expected six year production timeline, but a year later Hungary became a free country, and with that came a completely different production model for how movies were funded; under Soviet rule, movie production was fully funded by the government. Because of that, Jankovics looked to any bit of independent funding, making a new portion of the film whenever he had the money; since the play was slit up across 15 segments, this worked out well enough. In the meantime, Jankovics would showcase completed portions of the film throughout the years at film festivals, and in 2008 received a notable amount of funding by allowing his 1974 short film Sisyphus to be used for a GMC car commercial during the Super Bowl. Finally, in 2011 the production received enough funding from the Ministry of Natural Resources to allow final completion, putting the end to a 23-year development cycle & resulting in a total budget of 600 million forint, or ~$2.5 million. In fact, fitting for such an epic play, the final runtime is 159 minutes, or 2.65 hours, which may make it the third-longest animated film in history, behind 1983's Final Yamato (163 minutes via 70mm) & 2010's The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya (164 minutes); oddly enough, no one's apparently ever made a proper list of longest animated films. In fact. the theatrical release in Hungary needed an intermission, which bumped screenings to a solid three hours... And we complain that movies over here are getting too long.
So, was the wait worth it? I've imported the Hungarian DVD (there is also a Blu-Ray, but I can't play Region B BDs), which does include English subtitles (done in archaic English at points, at that!), so I'm going to take the plunge into what may be one of the most ambitious animated films in history. I might need to take an intermission myself, if not two...
In the beginning, God created everything... But one of his creations argued against him. Lucifer, the fallen one, wonders what exactly God has planned for his next creation, Man. God & Lucifer argue before the Lord decides that Lucifer can have control over one area of His Garden of Eden: The twin trees that bear the apples of knowledge. Lucifer encourages Adam & Eve to take a bite of an apple, but Adam refuses, simply because God told them not to eat from it. Eve, who Lucifer deems the "first philosopher", decides to indulge her curiosity & gets Adam to also eat from the apple. Now with concepts like guilt & ego known to them, & banished from Eden by God, Adam wishes to anyone, even Satan, that he & his significant other can live to see what will become of humanity due to their Original Sin. Lucifer takes up the offer, and joins Adam during his many reincarnations throughout history as a confidant to see how humanity advances, and if there is truly anything good that has come from disobeying God.
Without a doubt, The Tragedy of Man is one of the heaviest films I have ever seen, animated or not. Aside from being so enormously long, it's just absolutely packed with so much content, and I mean both visually & thematically. In terms of story, it's all about Adam experiencing life in various reincarnations, like Militades in ancient Greece, a Christian knight during the Crusades, Johannes Kepler during the 17th century, or Georges Danton during the French Revolution; Adam is a relatively normal person in the remaining time periods. During each time period Adam is fully embraced in his new life, with Lucifer being someone close to him each time, but as time moves on he recalls who he is & wishes to move on to a later time; Eve is also reincarnated, but always stuck in her "role" in each time period. The reason for Adam's constant advancement into the future is because he repeatedly finds disgrace & despair in each time period he is in, for varying reasons. Whether it's due to the unrepealable slavery of ancient Egypt, the decadence & debauchery of ancient Rome (where the people feel that the gods have all died long ago & have no influence over them), the use of religious self-sanctification during the Crusades' East-West Schism, or the over-commodification of seemingly everything following the industrial revolution, Adam continually finds repulsion with the evolution of humanity, hoping the future will bring about what he thinks is ideal... And even that won't be what he was hoping for.
It really is a constant assault on your psyche, no matter how hopeful or cynical you are. Conversation is equally heavy & fast, sometimes to the point where it can be tricky to keep up with the subtitles; Hungarian can be a rather fast language, conversationally. Still, the messages told in each section are easy to keep track of, and though the heavy use of archaic English for the subs in the earlier periods of history may be a bit much at times, everything is still followable. Still, there's no doubt that Madách was trying to convey how humanity has always been able to degrade itself, no matter the advancements; there is plenty of good to be found in each period, but it's impossible to remove to bad, the "tragedy". Even with all of the horribleness of humanity shown throughout each section, you still get the feeling that there are good intentions to be found within the tragic behavior. The play was obviously not meant to simply be a denigration of humanity as a whole, but rather to showcase how we as a whole have made mistakes, and how we can learn from it all. It's by no means a positively charged way of teaching us, and even the end gives off a strong feeling of simply accepting the struggle instead of feeling empowered, but it's still powerfully delivered.
The other way the movie is so heavy upon watching is because of how exactly Jankovics animated everything; you won't even care that it's all in 4:3. Whereas Fehérlófia utilized constantly-animating visual splendor, The Tragedy of Man feels like like a multi-director anthology like Robot Carnival, Memories, or Short Peace. That is because nearly every single section of the film utilizes a completely different animation style & look; the only repeats are when a specific time period is used a second time, which happens twice. For example, the first two sections, detailing God's argument with Lucifer & the temptation of Adam & Eve, showcase the characters as nigh-blank slates, with only their silhouettes & eyes (& mouths, when opened) showing the most in terms of detail; the first section is even more simple than the second. Other sections utilize a wide variety of styles, sometimes matching the art of the era (like ancient Rome looking like moving vase paintings), or using the very style for establishing the mood (like the scratchy, minimalist look of the end of the world). It really feels like there were many people in charge of all of these different sections, but Marcell Jankovics is truly the sole director, and this movie is truly the way to see just how talented he can be at leading animators. Due to the long time it was in production, the movie utilized many animators, some of which were older & actually passed away before the film finished, and that makes the final product feel all the more heavy & magnificent.
If there is one "flaw", and even then I'm going to imagine that it was done on purpose, it's the inconsistency in terms of lip flaps. Simply put, the film seems to randomly decide when the characters actually have their mouths move when talking. I could understand if an entire section operated this way, but that really isn't the case here. In nearly every section, there are moments where there are lip flaps, and there are moments where there aren't; the heads will move to indicate action, but no lip flaps. Also, there are numerous moments where, in place of fluid animation, there is heavy use of fading from one frame to another. Again, if this was done all the way through a section here & there on purpose I'd understand, but this is something that is done across the entire film. At the same time, though, I feel as if this was done on purpose to instill a dream-like feeling to the film; I do wonder if some of this was done as a concession just to get the film finished, though. Regardless, I can't really fault the movie too much on these moments, simply because this movie is absolutely beautiful. The phrase "every frame a painting" has been used for the idea of film making, but this is probably one of the most literal examples of just that, because you can pause the movie at any point & wind up with an image that you want framed. This is simply a triumph of animation, showcasing just how varied the medium can be.
Another high point is the music by László Sáry. While it's not original work for the most part, Sáry's arrangements of too many pieces of classical music to count, including the likes of Mozart's "Requiem", Scriabin's "Universe", Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture", Wagner's "Die Walküre", Rimsky Korsakov's "Scheherazade", Liszt's "Csárdás macabre", etc., are simply too beautiful to ignore; thankfully, the credits list every song used. In fact, the DVD even offers an music-only audio track, putting the classical orchestra at the forefront & letting the visuals tell the story; while I haven't tried watching the film that way, I'm positive it works just as well. The main cast is small, but there's one performance that absolutely steals the show. Seriously, you don't even have to know Hungarian to be able to tell that Mátyás Usztics completely relished every single line he had as Lucifer. Sometimes a true confidant, other times an instigator to Adam like the devil he is, & other times even interacting with the rest of the characters as his own person, Usztics's performance simply oozes personality from the very first line. Even if the film wasn't already a visual masterpiece & told an intensely heavy story, I'd recommend the film solely for Usztics as Lucifer.
There's no easier way to put it, but Marcell Jankovics' Az ember tragédiája/The Tragedy of Man is the true definition of a magnum opus. It may have taken 23 years to get completed, but you tell that every single second that was put towards working directly on this film, every single frame that was drawn, was given the utmost love & dedication. It's also no family film by any means, what with the fact that there are bare breasts (& even some female bush once or twice!), blood, decapitations, and would easily have received an R rating if it had been screened over here. While the sheer weight of the story, both in thematics & sheer length, may make it hard to watch in a single go, I personally watched it over three nights, it's well worth the watch. In fact, the way it utilizes so many different animation styles & visuals kind of helps alleviate any worries of splitting up a viewing, since you know that you'll always be coming back to something new. There are plenty of words one can use to describe this film, but I think the best one personally is "triumph". Not simply because of the obvious dissonance with the "tragedy" of the title & concept, and not only because of the fact that Jankovics was able to finish making it, but rather it's because of how absolutely great it is. It makes you think about what we've done as a people, it astonishes you with the beautiful animation, & it never loses your attention. This is an amazing film in general, let alone in animation.
The fact that this remains exclusive to Hungary when it comes to home video is a crime. The fact that no film distributor, even the ones who specialize in international animation, have not yet picked this up for release outside of its home country makes me sad. This is a film to be celebrated by all, not relegated to its home country & the few film festivals that it managed to be shown at back in 2011 & 2012. This is a tragedy that has to be fixed one day.