Opening Speech 2017

The Familiar and the Foreign


Welcome to the Film Festival 2017, a festival with 66 years of history under its belt. You are guest at a festival which was once called “Mannheimer Kultur- und Dokumentarfilmwoche” (Mannheim Documentary Film Week), back in the 1950s, when the organizers kept this festival close to home and the target audience was mainly Germans. Especially since, after the end of Nazi Germany, they desperately had to broaden their cultural horizon. With the beginning of the 1960s, the big, wide world found its way into the small festival. Flags of different countries were hoisted – among them countries that were mortal enemies a mere 20 years ago. This newfound openness brought about a change in name and the festival was proudly presented as the “Internationale Filmwoche Mannheim” (International Film Week Mannheim). Thankfully, this internationality remained. However, the word “Filmwoche” (Film Week) made way for the more modern term “Film Festival” and 23 years ago, the event was expanded to the neighboring city of Heidelberg – hence “International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg”.

The familiar and the foreign. That’s not really an issue any more for the younger ones among us. The world is open and we are international. But at some point, something went awry. Out of the somewhat sleepy contentment of this country that lives very well from the fact that products “Made in Germany” sell well everywhere – in a country where, at least the elite can’t be bothered with a phrase like “xenophobia” – in this country, seemingly overnight and out of the dozy contentment of the people, a serious matter arose, an unsettling movement. During the olden days, when the Film Festival was still called the Film Week, we proudly and solemnly hoisted foreign flags for an audience had never really been abroad – and political conservatives talked of Fatherland and believed that young men simply had to serve in the military and that women were women. But in the course of the past few decades, those days made way for the prevailing mood of “Anything Goes”, a kind of liberal meekness. Until the refugees came, and with them the possibility that those people down there, where things are not so nice and cozy, dozy and meek – might show up here in droves and take advantage of us. Some people might have contemplated, for the very first time, if they really were as liberal as they always thought they were. Some sounded a defiant “Yes, I am!” and rushed to help the foreigners, true to Chancellor Merkel’s slogan “We can do it”. Others ran scared and made sure their representatives are now in the parliament here. But what about the majority of people? How do they feel about all this? They remain silent. And this is suspicious. Or productive.

After all, the silence of the majority indicates that people are thinking, that a reflection has begun. Yet people still lack the words to discuss their thoughts. Reflecting what happened to our world in these past few years of ever growing internationality in the form of economic globalization. Reflecting whether this is a development we actually wanted, or shall we say, a development that we could want and that we could survive. So, inversely, how important is home then? Buzz phrase “Catalan Independence”. How much foreignness can we stand without being afraid? Buzz phrase “Le Pen’s near victory in France”. Month after month, new conservative parties are winning national or regional elections all across Europe.

It is against this backdrop and meshed in these questions that I see international film festivals like ours. For, of course, it would be absurd, and we would be a complete laughingstock, if we still proudly hoisted the flags of all the countries of our festival’s films. In fact, we hardly notice anymore just how many countries are represented at the Festival, we don’t count them, we don’t really care about that. It doesn’t increase the value of the event that we show films from over 30 different countries. That’s not what we look for. We look for films with an interesting subject or style. So, if a program describes a film as, say, slowly-told, typical for the fairy-tale style of Indian cinema, which, to us, seems naïve and often boringly long-winded and because it lacks the dramatic culmination that we’re used to – well, then we just won’t watch this film. But not because we don’t like India. Absolutely not. We just don’t see any real viewing pleasure coming our way. And do I really want to pay € 9.50 to watch a film about Filipino indigenous people hunting wild boar in the jungle, where nothing else really happens? … Instead, let’s watch a film about a guy on a boat who’s on a dramatic journey to himself. I’m much more interested in that. I’m interested because the guy on the boat could be me. I’m interested because it’s not so foreign to me. And that’s also the reason why so many people get annoyed when they don’t understand a film’s dialogue. Because they don’t speak German in those foreign films, and because we are so used to dubbing in this country, have been for decades. And yet, this is a terrible habit. It takes out half the essence of every non-German film. Literally every single one. But we like it. Let me put it this way. Figuratively speaking, when those foreign films are dubbed, turned into perfect German-speaking versions of themselves, isn’t it like they graduated from a two-year language course for refugee naturalization – and you can hardly tell where they came from? And it’s not just that. Don’t we choose films that are close to home, which seem familiar? Because they have a Eurocentric narrative structure and cinematic aesthetic which, the US film industry has spread across the world, wiping out almost all other narrative styles of cinema. Which is why, to most people, these films are the “real movies”, with an introduction, a main part, and an end, a hero and an antagonist, a definition of the conflict by minute 10 and final resolution by minute 85... All other narrative styles are in dire straits in Germany and the other industrial countries. They seem a bit too “special”. Yet in fact, they are what they are, a product of the culture of their country of origin. However, compared to mainstream movies, “regular” films – I’m just going to say it here: They are “foreigners”! – strangers, peculiar fellows. And so, as an educated elite, we feel like we stand head and shoulders above those who have something against foreigners – but we really don’t like them either, we just don’t realize it. Now, this isn’t a moral plea for you to systematically watch those films you deem strange, films you don’t really want to watch. That would be a horrible plea! No, my intentions are different. I would love for you to use the wide spectrum of the international films of this festival as experience stations. You should stroll along the possibilities and variations, approach cinematic art, which might seem inaccessible at first, with a curiosity and engage with it. You should experience how wonderful it is to discover things you didn’t know, value or appreciate before. The experience station “International Film Festival” could also work as a station of self-awareness as you become aware of how important it is to you to be truly culturally well-versed. How dependent we are on those building blocks of communication, so much more than we anticipated, and how important this thing is that we used to call “homeland”. And in return, how impressive it can be to find yourself in a strange place, to really touch down somewhere different – aesthetically speaking. It’s much more intriguing than any “all-inclusive tour” abroad – when you really are out of the comfort zone of the well-known.


We offer you a journey to a foreign culture for a mere € 9.50 Euro per country. And after those journeys you will realize what is rarely considered in political debates about the intrusion of foreigners: That it is wrong to ward off the “foreign”, just as it is wrong as it is to accept it unconditionally. You know from personal experience – and if you’re honest with yourself – that you can only ever handle the foreign if you get to keep the familiar.

Now if you have found my welcoming speech to be a bit strenuous ­– well that has a bit of a tradition here as well – although my predecessor did keep it short and sweet, a quarter of a century ago, by opening the festival with her favorite bon mot: “After all, we’re not just here just for the fun of it.”

And so, ladies and gentlemen, with this in mind, I would like to welcome you to the 66th edition of this festival, and wish you lots of fun and a few new truths as well.

Master of Cinema Award

Let’s head back to the 1950s. We meet a young man, who is working as a radio reporter, but wants to become a theatre or film director and starts to go to University to study it. In 1961, he presents his exam film, entitled “Concert” and, it is said, that even this first film attracted some attention. The young man proceeds to complete further short films, which won prizes. His feature debut, called “Age of Illusions” premiered at the Locarno Film Festival and the “Internationale Filmwoche Mannheim“, precursor of this current Film Festival. He directed and scripted the film, as he would often do for later productions, and had found his first aesthetic subject, the inter-woven strands of dream and reality. A bull’s eye, I’d like to call it, because if there is one thing that comes close to encapsulating the essence of film, it is dreaming, something we all know, dreaming, with perhaps the odd waking moment, just to give reality a chance now and again. Not too often, however, because that would spoil the art of film.

The age of illusions that István Szabó is referring to, is that of his and his friends’ youth. It is a time of rebellion and departure for the young – albeit different from that in the West, more secretive, internalized and covert, but for all that, no less rebellious. I forgot to mention our location: We are in Hungary. A Hungary that only a few years earlier, in October 1956, had an uprising, which euphorically opposed the Russian occupation for several months, until, in 1957, the Russians executed or incarcerated anyone they could, to end this bloody “counter-revolution” and guarantee the subsequent 30-year silence from the Eastern bloc.

What do young film artists do in such a situation? They carry on, in this case with a new wave of Hungarian films, comparable to the French Nouvelle Vague and the New German Film of the 1960s and 70s. István Szabó becomes one of Hungary’s most celebrated filmmakers. The son of a well-to-do Jewish family of doctors already worked in broadcasting while at school, and at 18 expressed a desire to go to the newly founded film academy in Budapest. Ten applicants were chosen, out of 1,000 who had applied. As already mentioned, prizes for his short films were soon to follow, even from abroad. A person of such ambition and good fortune becomes noticeable to those in positions of power, those who, following the failed uprising, are now keen to control these young academics. A few years ago, it became public knowledge that the then 20-year-old István Szabó had passed information to the secret service. He attempted to justify his actions by stating that it had enabled him to help fellow students, but then admitted to simply having no choice in the matter. His friend and colleague Zsolt Kézdi-Kovács reports how he and Szabó had been arrested, interrogated, threatened and beaten, and how, finally, he too had signed.

This takes us straight to the center of our prizewinner’s lifelong theme. Because, this is when it started, the transition from the “Age of Illusions”, the playful treatment of ideas of youth, to a profound consideration of the confines and possibilities of artists in times of dictatorship, to the fundamental relationship between politics and art. Considering the freedom of art and the impotence of artists, born of cowardice, a sense of self-preservation, or an understanding of reality. István Szabó knows exactly and intimately what he has been talking about all his life – in later films that have become part of the canon of world cinema. So he tells the journalist, who wants to know all about his entanglement with the powers that “were”: “I have said all I want to say about that in my films.”

Not only in the films that have made him world-famous. In 1966, when Szabó is still a young man, he considers the deformation of the soul of a young man in a dictatorship in his film “Father”. The story fluctuates between dream and reality and, in 1967, wins the main prize at the Moscow Film Festival, somewhat ironically since this is the capital of the oppressive power. Then again, perhaps not at all ironically, since the jury and colleagues would have instantly understood that someone is not mincing their words here, but speaking for those who, like themselves, have been silenced.


Following his film “25 Fireman’s Street“ and others, István Szabó presents his oeuvre “Budapest Tales” in the heart of the West, in the center of film freedom, at the Cannes Film Festival. It is 1977 and he has made it. Szabó uses his protagonist and the film as vehicles to tell us indirectly about himself, about his countrymen, who, in 1945, turn an abandoned tram carriage into more than just a home, into a symbol of hope for a new and better life. The film was described as “full of pathos, heart wrenching, moving and creepy”. It was also almost the last film that István Szabó made in and for his own country. In 1980, he became firmly part of the international film scene; so much so, that we occasionally need reminding that he is from and lives in Hungary. “Der grüne Vogel“ (“The Green Bird”) is considered THE German feature film of 1980, directed by István Szabó. It is about a German cancer researcher, played by Hannelore Elsner, who becomes acquainted with a Polish colleague, played by Hungarian actor Péter Andorai, at a conference in Vienna. A love story ensues, that has no room to develop, since the Iron Curtain is firmly in place. It is a melodrama about the Cold War, shot in Germany, France and Poland.


While this film is screening in German cinemas, Szabó is sitting at his desk, composing something new. He is scripting a film that will become a German-Austrian-Hungarian co-production, based on Klaus Mann’s novel and, simultaneously, Gustav Gründgens’ actual biography. He is writing about the fate of people in dictatorships, this time cleverly trying to unravel the conundrum that baffled people then, as it still does now: the conundrum of how the German people could have become such stern admirers of Adolf Hitler. The second component that will make this film such a huge success for Szabó, is the main actor, found at the Vienna Burgtheater, but hitherto completely unknown in the world of film. This film will turn him and the director into international stars. A year ago, this actor won a prize of honor in Frankfurt. The director spoke the laudation and the actor confessed: “It was you, István, who handed me my ticket to success.” I am of course talking about the masterpiece of cinema history entitled “Mephisto”.

In May 1981, it runs at the Cannes Film Festival, wins the prize for best script and the Fipresci critics’ prize. Six months later, it wins a Hollywood ‘Oscar’. Overnight, István Szabó has become a world star director – and Klaus Maria Brandauer an international sensation. In the wake of his role in “Mephisto”, he will be admired on screens all over the world, as the James Bond villain in “Never Say Never Again”, will star with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in “Out of Africa”, and so on and so forth.


“Mephisto” was broadcast on East German television on January first 1983. Thirty days later, it was shown on the West German ARD, according to a note I found in the archives. This film is also that very rare thing, a German-German coproduction. It tells the story of an exalted, yet secretly very insecure person, who is both and gifted. If you know star Brandauer, you can imagine how well he was able to personify Hendrik Höfgen, an actor who does not like the Nazis, and marries the daughter of a good family, who, after Hitler comes to power, remains tolerated at the theatre, where he is playing Mephisto in a production of Faust. He is a man, who accepts that his wife flees Germany without him, because he has been given the opportunity to become director of a theatre in Germany, and who in the ends asks himself, how all this could possibly have happened the way it did.

We find ourselves at the center of the dilemma of an artist in a dictatorship, which is that of the Nazis, and yet, we are also secretly in Hungary, under the dictatorship of the Soviets in the 1960s, because this is a Szabó film, written straight from the soul. This is why, ‘Oscar’ or no ‘Oscar’, “Mephisto” is an author-film, concerned with the truth and the “own” and actual experience of the matter. The film proved the outstanding ability of the then 42-year-old director. How he dealt with people, the human and the humane, the unfathomable depths of characters, particularly of those, who are also artists, and hopelessly entangled in webs made of their insatiable need for appreciation, their self-adoration, arrogance and sensitivity, their brashness and almost child-like dreaminess, their great deeds done for poor reasons. This oeuvre brings together everything István Szabó has taught himself – and he ingeniously discovers an actor who can miraculously play a character caught in the web of this entanglement like no other. This may explain why Szabó und Brandauer seem almost addicted to continuing their collaboration for as long as possible.


1985 and 1988 bring us “Colonel Redl” and “Hanussen“, respectively. And the world is waiting with baited breath to see what this little series of incredibly intense collaborations will bring, something that no doubt put enormous pressure on the two collaborators. “Colonel Redl” premiers at Cannes, this time it is awarded the jury prize. It is also nominated for an ‘Oscar’ and a ‘Golden Globe’. The story plays during the First World War, portraying the rise of a military man, eaten up by his ambition. Again the themes are: morals and power, treason and driving ambition – all the things that an authoritarian system can do to a man.


My former boss and film critic Wolfram Schütte calls Szabó a “brilliant traditionalist of classic European narrative cinema” one, who “knows just how to handle the charm of old cinema, the magic of its historic retelling, with elegance and a dedicated foible for atmospheric effect.” I could not have put it any better. István Szabó had proven that he was a master at telling stories of the human and humane. Three years later Klaus Maria Brandauer plays Szabó’s protagonist for the third time in “Hanussen”. Clairvoyant Erik Hanussen, in spite of his Jewish roots, becomes Hitler’s personal soothsayer, only to be killed by the SA when he accurately predicts the arson attack on the Reichstag. The film also premiered at Cannes, was nominated for both an ‘Oscar’ and a ‘Golden Globe’, but won neither.

While István Szabó stays true to his themes, he now leaves behind the times of dictatorship and impotence. “Meeting Venus”, in 1991, is the story of a star conductor, played by Niels Arestrup, who dreams of performing Wagner’s “Tannhäuser“ in 27 European countries simultaneously, not wishing to do things by half, and believing Europe quite able to afford the extravagance. On a personal level, he finds it impossible to come to terms with a rather more simple love story, involving an opera singer, played by Glenn Close. The film was nominated for the ‘Golden Lion’ at Venice, and ironizes the European art arena, art and politics, the magic of “Venus” for this one man, but also the questions of why and to what purpose the artist goes to such lengths in his or her efforts to achieve – what exactly? István Szabó has turned 50.


His next protagonist will be Dutch actor Johanna ter Steege, in a Hungarian film “Édes Emma, drága Böbe – vàzlatok, aktok”. We are in Budapest at the end of the Cold War. A Russian teacher and her friend find themselves in a city that wants to distance itself from its past and have nothing to do with people who speak Russian in particular. People become victims of politics and eras again, try to find their happiness regardless, but their problems are no longer rooted in ideologies, but in the new world, which is rapidly adapting to the temptations of carefree consumerism and its liberties, a world that attempts to brush the past under the carpet. The film won the ‘Silver Bear’ at the Berlinale in 1992.


Seven years later István Szabó is back on the international scene and presenting “Sunshine” his German-Austrian-Hungarian-Canadian coproduction, shot in English and starring British actor Ralph Fiennes, at the Toronto Film Festival. Subsequently, the film will go on to win European prizes for best actor, best cinematography and best script. It will be compared to Bertolucci’s “Novecento” and Visconti’s “The Leopard”, as it narrates a family history spanning more than a century, from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth. It is told as a sequence of ideologies and seductions, high hopes and catastrophes, and resists the temptation to rely on one person’s perspective too much, choosing instead to open up the view to an almost bird’s eye scope.


In 2001, István Szabó returns his focus to a central figure in his narration. In “Taking Sides”, a coproduction involving four countries, Harvey Keitel stars as Major Arnold, magnificent Stellan Skarsgård is Wilhelm Furtwängler, Moritz Bleibtreu, Ulrich Tukur and Armin Rode add to the remarkable cast. We are at hour zero, 1945, in Germany. American Major Arnold is an ignoramus, obsessed with denazification, unable to imagine that conductor Furtwängler was not a Nazi, since he worked in Nazi Germany. Stellan Skarsgård as Wilhelm Furtwängler is a stoic, a cultishly admired artist in this other world, the world of music. It is the first time that Szabó has not scripted his own film. Ronald Harwood, British author of the Broadway play “Taking Sides” takes credit for that. But it is Szabó who makes sure that the two main characters, however many roles they end up playing, stay true to who they are, that is to say, both clandestine in their aims. The riddle of what one might call “the personality” is another of Szabó’s recurring themes. While everyone loves a winner, in American culture above all, Szabó remains a central European, and Europe, so he says, “is still a sort of living museum, filled with losers, who are our heroes”.


Then it is back to a coproduction of four countries for his 2004 film “Being Julia”, adapted from Somerset Maugham’s novel “Theatre” and starring American actor Annette Bening and British Jeremy Irons. A relationship drama, set in the 1930s – but actually, it is a grand appreciation of the art of acting, a bow to the balancing act of those, who have to slip into different skins, while remaining who they really are. István Szabó displays his great passion for this profession, and, at the same time, manages to free himself from the burden of history and the stories of doomed heroes, that have dominated so many of his films. For once, he is playful.


He goes on to make “The Door” in 2012, another Hungarian film – with some German financial backing. Martina Gedeck takes the lead, along with Helen Mirren, two actors from Germany and Britain, both masters of their craft, perhaps geniuses. We return to Hungary in the 1960s. Writer Magda Szabó, whose surname is only coincidentally the same as the director’s and whose autobiography this film depicts, meets elder Emerenc, who is hiding a mysterious secret in the flat next door. The sort of mysterious secret we all keep hidden. This “self”, it is never really a private affair, not then, not now. It is part of the larger picture, of the history of the world, here Hungary’s history, as part of the Soviet empire, that dictates what one can or cannot do. Back in the years following the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Author Magda Szabó has permission to publish again. Her aging home help, so they say, has a dark past, has done terrible things. What is the truth about a person? No one will ever know what is behind this door, the one we never open, the door to our true selves.

Once more, István Szabó displays all his art in circling the individual, homing in on the facets and nebulous details of what we call personality. It is this, I propose, that fascinates him most, more than that which made him famous: the quest for self-definition in times of dictatorship. That, too, is important to him and valid, but still more pertinent is that riddle of our existence, the unfathomable “self”. However much we try, we are hard-pushed to identify it. István Szabó is a master of questioning it, and does not appreciate ready answers.

Being human can only ever mean not being sure of who we are, according to István Szabó. That is why he loves people all the more when they strive and fail to love themselves. It is then István Szabó paints them, using the entire palette of colors and nuances – he paints them using everything that makes the cinema what it is. It has made him a master of his craft, and that is why he is our “Master of Cinema 2017”.

Laudatio by Dr. Michael Kötz © November 12th 2017