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|Béla Balázs (1884-1949)|
Hungarian poet, screenwriter, playwright, film critic, director, the author of the libretto for Béla Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle (1912) and the story for the The Wooden Prince (1917). Balázs's Der sichtbare Mensch (1924) is considered the first major work in silent film aesthetics. Balázs also wrote the scripts for more than two dozen films, including Die Abenteuer eines Zehmarkscheines (1926), a pioneering work of the Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity), and Das blaue Licht (1932), directed by Leni Riefenstahl.
"Every art deals with human beings, it is a human manifestation and presents human beings. To phrase Marx: "The root of all art is man." When the film close-up strips the veil of our imperceptiveness and insensitivity from the hidden little things and shows us the face of objects, it still shows us man, for what makes objects expressive are the human expressions projected on to them." (from Theory of the Film)
Béla Balázs was born Herbert Bauer in Szeged, the son of Simon Bauer, a teacher and translator, and Jenny (Levy) Bauer, also a teacher. Due to his liberal opinions, Simon Bauer was moved to Lõcse, a small town in the northern part of the country, where he died in 1897. Balázs's mother returned with her three children to Szeged. While still at school, Balázs published his first writings in the local paper, using the pseudonym Béla Balázs, but he encouraged his closer acquaintances to call him by his original name. After graduating from the gymnasium, he moved in 1902 to Budapest.
Balázs studied at the famous Eötvös Collegium, where his roommate was the future composer Zoltán Kodály. Among his friends was also Béla Bartók, with whom he traveled in the countryside collecting folk music. Though Balázs admired Bartók's musical gifts, they never became truly close friends. "Apart from his music," Balázs once confessed in his diary, "I am able to enjoy little about him."
Bálazs continued his studies in Berlin and in Paris, and then published in 1908-09 his doctoral thesis on the tragedies of Friedrich Hebbel. While a doctoral student, Balázs started to contribute essays to the magazine Nyugat. His first play Doctor Szélpal Margit (1909) was performed at the National Theatre, without much success. In 1910 Balázs finished his third play, A kékszakàllú herceg vára (Duke Bluebeard's Castle), which was influenced by symbolist technique and the dramas of Maurice Maeterlinck, such as Ariane and Barbe Bleue (1901). Balázs's libretto of Béla Bartók's famous opera was first performed in 1913. The composer himself had a high regard for his opera, but he never talked much of his cooperation with Balázs.
Fairy tales inspired several of Balázs's works, but not because of their depiction of the eternal battle between good and evil. Balázs's interest was in the thin line between reality and fantasy, and the search for meaning behind phenomena. In Duke Bluebeard's Castle the duke's new wife wants to open the dark doors of the castle, and bring light into their life. She reveals the horrible secrets of her husband, and eventually the Duke is left alone in the darkness. Another central theme in Balázs's works was the sense of loneliness, which he dealt with, among others, in the short story 'Die Geschichte von der Logodygasse von Frühling, vom Tod und der Ferne' (1912).
When World War I broke out, Balázs volunteered for the Hungarian arm. Before becoming seriously ill, he served at the front. From his diaries Bálazs collected the anti-war book Lélek a háborúban (1916). In December 1915 Balázs joined The Budapest Sunday Circle, led by the philosopher and literary theoretician György Lukács (1885-1971), whom Balázs had known since 1904. The group included Karl Mannheim, the art historian Arnold Hauser, the writer Anna Leznai, and the musicians Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály. Also Balázs's first wife, Edith Hajós, and Anna Schlamadinger, his second wife, attended the meetings. Usually the group met at Balázs's elegant apartment or the Lukács's country estate and discussed about the end of the liberal society.
In 1919 Hungary was for 133 days a communist republic under Béla Kun, whose government was brought to end by the intervention from Romania and Czechoslovakia. Balázs was forced into exile with his wife, Anna Schlamadinger, as a fellow traveler of the Communists. He settled in Vienna, like a number of other exiles, including Sándor Korda (Sir Alexander Korda), Mihály Kertész (Michael Curtiz), László Vajda, Paul Czinner, and Bela Lugosi. Balázs cooperated with the director Hans Otto Löwenstein (1881-1931) in several film projects. From 1922 Bálazs contributed film reviews to the newspaper Der Tag, founded by Sigmund Bosel. In 1924 he published his first book of film theory, Der Sichtbare Mensch. This collection of articles roused much attention and was translated into 11 languages.
Balázs emphasized that the moving pictures brought back the language the body and the expressions of the human face, which had been buried by the culture of books and words. "Facial expression is the most subjective manifestation of man, more subjective than speech," Balázs wrote in Theory of the Film. "The language of the face cannot be suppressed or controlled." The close-up was for Balázs the most essential feature of the film art, which separated it from all other arts, especially from the theatre. "Not even the greatest writer, the most consummate artist of the pen, could tell in words what Asta Nielsen tells with her face in close-up as she sits down to her mirror and tries to make up for the last time her aged, wrinkled face, riddled with poverty, misery, disease and prostitution, when she is expecting her lover, released after ten years in jail; a lover who has retained his youth in captivity because life could not touch him there." Much later, in 1939 Balázs wrote in the essay 'Das Filmszenarium, eine neue literarische Gattung' that the screenplay is an independent and a new form of literature, and emphasized the role of the writer as the auteur of the film. In Theory of the Film (1952), which was first published in Moscow in 1945 as The Art of Cinema, Balázs developed his earlier ideas and used writings produced at the State Film Institute.
Balazs was regarded as one of the leading critics of his day, but his sharp opinions clashed with the interest of the film producers and directors, and he was forced to resign from Der Tag. The mid-1920s also saw the decline of the Austrian film industry. In 1926 Balázs went to Berlin, where he was involved in a number of activities. He directed the Workers' Theatre Group, the Arbeitertheaterbund, wrote plays and film scripts, lectured, and cooperated in left-wing film projects with the director G.W. Pabst, the producer Erwin Piscator, and the writer Bertolt Brecht. He declared that the "crowd is the soul and the significance of stage plays," a view that influenced Piscator's Total Theatre productions.
Most of Balázs's essays were published during this period in Die Rote Fahne, Film und Volk, and Linkskurv, and Die Weltbühne. Die Abenteur Eines Zehnmarkscheines (1928), Balázs's first screenplay in Germany focused on a ten-mark note, which passes from hand to hand amidst diverse characters in Berlin. The cool analysis of money was softened by the production company with a love story between two young workers. Dreigroschenoper (1930), based on Brecht's famous play, caused Balázs troubles. The original screenplay for the film was written by Leo Lania and László Vajda. When Brecht did not like the adaptation, Balázs tried to improve the script. Eventually Brecht sued the production company, but he lost the case, and accepted a sizable settlement. The film was a popular success.
Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light), co-written by Leni Riefenstahl, Carl Mayer (not credited), and Hans Schneeberger, was set on the Alps. According to Riefenstahl, Balázs was so excited about her treatment that he was willing to co-author the script without a fee. Mayer, F.W. Murnau's writer, finished the script. Balázs possibly directed the scenes involving Riefenstahl. After the war, Riefenstahl claimed responsibility for "script, direction, and art direction." The story was about the struggle between beauty and materialism, illusion and realism. Riefenstahl played a beautiful woman, Junta, who knows the secret of the mysterious light high on the mountains, which tempts young people into death. The film was admired by both Hitler and Chaplin, but criticized in the west-wing newspapers. Later Riefenstahl gained fame for her visually brilliant films, such as Triumph of the Will (1935), produced by order of the Führer, and Olympia (1938), about the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.
When the Nazis came into power, Balázs left Vienna for the Soviet Union, where he taught film aesthetics at Moscow's State Film Institute from 1933 to 1945. In the late 1930s he wrote the screenplay for Die Löwin, based on a novel by Ferdinand Ossendowski. Die Löwin was shot in Algiers. When the director went to France with the film, its material was confiscated and destroyed by the customs officials. The years in the Soviet Union were bitter for Balázs. He was attacked by orthodox, Stalinist ideologists, and also Lukács turned his back to him. In 1939 Balázs wrote a poem for Stalin, 'Auf ein Stalinbildnis,' but it did not help his situation. During World War II Balázs was in Alma Ata, where he collected folk poetry, later published in Das Goldene Zelt (1956).
After the war the communists gained control of government in Hungary, and Balázs returned to his native country, helping to rebuild its film industry. Balázs taught at the Academy of Theatre and Film Arts, and continued writing scripts, although his projects were turned down - by the communists he was considered a "bourgeois" theorist and author. He also lectured on films in Poland and at Prague University. Valahol Európában (1947, Somewhere in Europe), directed by Geza von Radvànyi, was Balázs's most succesful achievement. The story dealt with orphaned children in post-war Europe. Ének a búzamezõkrõl (1947), in which he worked with the director István Szõts and the screenwriter Lázsló Ranódy, was forbidden. Balázs died in Budapest on May 17, 1949, in the same year when the opposition political parties were outlawed. After his death, the Béla Balázs studio for young experimental film-makers was opened in 1959 in Budapest.
For further reading: Balàzs és akinek nem kell by György Lukács (1918); 'Béla Balázs' by Guido Aristarco, in Bianco e Nero, June (1949); Balázs Béla világa by M.K. Nagy (1973); The Major Film Theories: An Introduction by Andrew Dudley (1976); A History of Hungarian Literature, by István Nemeskürty et al. (1983); The Oxford History of Hungarian Literature by Lóránt Czigány (1984); 'Béla Balázs in German Exile' by John Ralmon, in Film Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 3 (1987); 'Béla Balázs and the Cinematographer's Art' by Joseph Zsuffa, in American Cinematographer, vol. 68, no. 10 (1987); Béla Balàzs, the Man and the Artist by Joseph Zsuffa (1987); Sininen valo: Belá Balázs ja hänen elokuvateoriansa by Matti Lukkarila (1991); International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers 4: Writers and Production Artists, ed. by Samantha Cook (1993); World Cinema, 5: Hungary by Bryan Burns (1996); The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz (1994); Film Theory and Film Criticism, ed. by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (1998); Zur Dialektik zwischen Zuschauer und Schauspieler in Béla Balázs' Filmphysiognomik (1924/1930) by Canan Turan (2009)
Selected works / fiction and non-fiction:
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Films based on Balázs's texts: