The historic importance of this week's trippiest high-art attraction | Bleader

The historic importance of this week's trippiest high-art attraction


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From the communist-nightmare sequence of The Tragedy of Man
  • From the communist-nightmare sequence of The Tragedy of Man
Even out of context, The Tragedy of Man, a Hungarian animated epic opening tonight at Facets Multimedia, is pretty stunning. In my short review, I compare it to such cult classics as Rene Laloux's Fantastic Planet and Ralph Bakshi's Heavy Traffic; and like those films, it marries artisanal, hand-drawn animation with heady, adult ideas. (If it weren't nearly three hours long, it would make a great midnight movie.) Yet it's also a personal adaptation (by veteran animator Marcell Jankovics) of one of the most famous works in Hungarian literature. So it helps to know a bit of history before going in.

The author of Tragedy of Man, Imre Madach, was better known in his lifetime as a lawyer and politician than as a writer. Born in 1823 to a wealthy family, he finished law school in his early 20s and was elected to a minor public office shortly thereafter. In the late 1840s, he supported the liberal movement that had spread throughout the territories of the Austrian Empire and culminated in the numerous failed revolutions of 1848. He provided sanctuary to the secretary of Lajos Kossuth, one of the leaders of Hungary's failed War of Independence; Austrian authorities arrested him for this and imprisoned him for a year. Madach embarked on his most serious writing after his release, though he returned to politics in the early 1860s. He was elected to the Hungarian Parliament in 1861—the same year he wrote Tragedy of Man—and died in office three years later. He didn't live long enough to witness the publication of his most famous work (in fact, he shared it only with colleagues during his lifetime). The first public performance didn't occur for almost two decades after his death.

By the mid-20th century, however, Tragedy occupied a place in the national literature comparable to Paradise Lost or Faust, and Madach became an almost-mythic figure in the national culture. Joseph Remenyi, in his informative but rather purplish tome Hungarian Writers and Literature (1964), summarizes the Madach myth as such: "Burdened with the question of good and evil, conscious of the lamentable conditions of his own existence, of his nation and of humanity as a whole, and endowed with a catholic taste, Madach wrote a play that is the cry of a soul tormented by loss of hope and inspired by a desperate yearning for hope."

The play begins with God and Lucifer struggling for influence over mankind, but the Creator soon disappears from the story. Lucifer becomes one of the central characters—he takes Adam and Eve on a journey into the future, and all three assume different identities in each time and place they visit. (It's a bit like Stanley Donen's Bedazzled, but without the jokes.) Every episode culminates with the same questions. Will civilization pursue the values of peace and liberty? And if so, to what end? Two back-to-back episodes consider the capitalist nightmare of early 19th-century London and a communist nightmare set sometime in the future. It seems that Madach, despite his revolutionary sympathies, was skeptical of all political dogmatism.

Yet The Tragedy of Man is ultimately philosophical rather than political. Its concerns are abstract, which makes animation a better vehicle for its ideas than live action. My favorite passages of the film are those that break from representational art to conjure a meditative experience. They make up for the more prosaic sections, which can be a bit of a slog.