How do you admit that a trip to Europe is your first--at your, ahem, age? Might as well face it head-on and have a few answers prepared for the inevitable: “Your first !?” “I can’t believe it--I always thought you were so . . . civilized.”

I know. I’ve been a hick all this time. But now, with a chance to see the newest crop of films from Hungary and the invitation to be a juror at the Berlin Film Festival, three weeks in all, my experience will, for once, be firsthand.

In mid-February, Budapest and Berlin are suffering “the worst winter since 1941.” Fortunately, if you don’t know what to expect, it seems frigid but possible. But for a stranger from the West, far more chilling than the winds are the unsmiling police with their muzzled German shepherds on the Budapest airport runway. And Hungary is thought of as the Paris of the East; all weeklong, our hotel is crammed with instantly identifiable Soviet tour groups, here to enjoy Budapest’s comparative lightness, its freedom from long lines at stores, and its undeniable charm.

For Hungarofilm week, foreign journalists/festival heads/critics/exhibitors are invited to see the new crop of films. There were 85 representatives from 32 countries, virtually all the European and Scandinavian countries and from as far afield as Australia, Canada, Egypt and India. On display were 17 new films, down from last year’s 21, crammed into five non-stop days of screenings.

It was also possible to ask to see the past films of a particular director or performer; I saw four films that way in an effort to get the sense of some of the early works of the already celebrated Istvan Szabo (director of “Mephisto” as well as this year’s Hungarian success, “Colonel Redl”) and Gyula Gazdag, an impassioned, ironic, daring member of the new film-making generation.


Some details about foreign screenings you can read about forever without truly understanding their impact, and simultaneous translation is one of them. Understandably, almost none of these new films comes with subtitles; for the most part, they are simultaneously translated for visitors into English, German, French or Italian. Although the aim of multiple simultaneous translation is noble, at least here in Hungary, without separate, soundproof booths, it is the Tower of Babel incarnate.

The languages are divided: English and German translations share the largest screening room at Hungarofilm, a cubbyholed, characterless office building. With the original sound track turned way down, English-speakers hear a translator, frequently with a crisp British accent, reading all the parts from the script at breakneck speed over a microphone. They read flawlessly but with a minimum of expression and, of course, with no character names, so when more than two people speak you have to make a stab at which character this emotion might be coming from.

At the same time, the Germans sit glued to their headphones while their translator drones away from a dimly lit table in one corner of the same room. They all do their work impeccably, but it is an eerie and exhausting experience that gives only a hint of the subtlety a film may contain. (You also wonder how the translators can handle more than one film a day, much less three or four.)

The sunless days take on a certain structure, up before 7 in order to breakfast in the vast dining room and walk or be bused to the punctual 9 a.m. screenings. Friendships between visitors begin to blossom, over inexplicably cold half-cups of strong coffee served during screening breaks. There are the old hands mixed in with newcomers, and the old guard is uncommonly generous. The London Times’ David Robinson, who has covered many Hungarofilm weeks and has taken the trouble to learn the language, lets me in on the secret of ninch, a word I seem to hear frequently. It means “there is none,” “we have none,” “can’t get/find it” or other similarly negative declensions. Armed with this knowledge, I try. In my wobbly Hungarian, I ask for tea. “OK.” I ask for milk. Ninch. Works perfectly.

Our hotel, the Royal, was in the very olden days the Algonquin of Budapest and is now Stalinist-depressive architecture supreme, highlighted by dolorous rubberplants yearning to breathe free. It has large overhead light fixtures every few feet, but in each six-bulb fixture only one light is used. However, no one here has ever heard of a polyester-batten pillow--they use real down--and they have a brilliant gadget on the tub faucets that, once set, gives you hot water of exactly the same temperature every morning. And with all this interior gloom, matched most days by the sleety, wintry, steel gray of the outdoors, the Hungarians we meet--our translators, the deft and breathtakingly lovely Filmweek secretaries, women on trolley cars, cabdrivers--are memorably, genuinely warm, with a sort of lightness about them in the face of everything.

(There was our young cabdriver who, late one evening when his wrist alarm went off, pulled the cab to one side of a narrow, snowbanked street, asked our permission, and took us into a theater to watch his young actress-wife rehearse for the political cabaret-satire. There is also the story of my three friends at Budapest’s oldest synagogue, and the minyan, but no room for that here.)

In Berlin, which must be the most brilliantly glowing city short of Tokyo, there is politeness and correctness everywhere, but outside of some memorably seditious members on our jury, no discernible lightness anywhere except from our charming festival secretary. She, it turns out, is Swiss.

Not a word about the films? Many words about the films, many of them said at a--to us quite extraordinary--meeting with all the foreign press, the heads of the five film studios that operate under MAFILM (the Hungarian film distributing company) and many of the leading directors. By now, more than half the films have been seen, and the impression is not cheerful. There are exceptions: Laszlo Lugossy’s burning “Flowers of Reverie,” a historically set film drama whose message could not be more contemporary, as a sane dissident is locked away in an asylum. (It was to be Hungary’s entry at Berlin, where it won the jury, or second, prize); Szabo’s “Colonel Redl,” an obvious foreign and Hungarian favorite; Gazdag’s “The Package Tour,” a wrenching documentary that follows a busload of Hungarian Auschwitz survivors on their first visit back to the camp, 40 years later, and the piquant and arresting first feature, “The Philadelphia Attraction” by Peter Gardoas, about a celebrated and retired circus performer and a tenacious young one. (Both “Flowers” and “Package Tour” will be part of a Hungarian film series at UCLA’s Melnitz Hall April 2 at 7:30 p.m.) But by and large, the reaction is that this year’s crop is “poor.” One visitor goes so far as to declare “a crisis in Hungarian film.”

One target is co-productions: There are six this year, and if the West German-Hungarian-Canadian “Yerma,” or the lead-footed Soviet-Hungarian biography of Imre Kalman, “Music of a Lifetime,” are any yardstick, the results are howlingly, almost collectibly bad. (At Christmastime in the United States, we have already seen what happened to Pal Gabor, director of the subtle and complex “Angi Vera,” with an American co-production, “The Long Ride.” This disastrous World War II action-suspense picture starred John Savage, aging 30 years, and featured Kelly Reno as a young Magyar horseman.) Since Hungarian critics had already rejected “Yerma,” a pointed question is raised: How did it come to represent Hungary this year at the Academy Awards? “The prestige of the property, worldwide; the reputation of the directors, who had had success at the academy before with their nomination for ‘The Revolt of Job,’ and the insistence of the German co-producer,” is the answer, hardly a flattering one in terms of the Hungarian film industry image worldwide.

But while the outspokenly negative comments seemed to take MAFILM heads aback, the surprise was the feeling that many of the country’s film directors present shared the gloomy view of the visitors.

There were few explanations; the most pressing one given is a lack of funds, since there is no private financing to augment government funding, not reduced this year but straitened because of inflation. There is also the problem of dwindling audiences. Of its 10 million population, 7 million Hungarians go to films, but 6 million of those go regularly to foreign films. (Imported films number 180-200 each year, two-thirds from socialist countries, one third from “developing or capitalist countries.”) Currently, Hungarian films hold very little attraction for Hungarian audiences. As a director explained to me, Hungary’s moviegoers are now primarily the very young (under teen-age) or those over 65. The rest are working, and too tired at the end of their day to go out, even though movies are still very cheap. And now television is beginning to make its inroads on that segment.

I saw, firsthand, just why American movies are the lure that they are, late Saturday night. We took the sleek, quick, clean subway almost to the door of Budapest’s biggest cinema, the 1,200-seat Corvin, where every seat was taken. There, from a box on the balcony we watched the 11 p.m. screening of the opening day of “Tootsie,” in Hungarian. The art of feature-film dubbing is obviously in an advanced state in Hungary. The dubbing actors’ names are given, right below the American actors: Dustin Hoffman: Sandor Szakacsi; Jessica Lange: Erzsebet Kutvolgyi. Hoffman’s voice was deeper and less nasal, but Teri Garr’s voice was almost identical and somehow even Bill Murray’s drolleries were caught right on the nose. The performances and direction were phenomenal. The film played with every laugh intact--even down to the wordless moment when a morose Hoffman knocks a mime off balance in the park. Apparently, they’re a little bored with mimes in Hungary too.

Hungarian directors such as Szabo (a fellow Berlin juror this year), Marta Meszaros (who unfortunately had no new film this year) or Pal Gabor are becoming increasingly better-known in the United States. What Hungary may be on the brink of, suddenly, is a world-class actor of its own: a tall, classically trained, charismatic 28-year-old phenomenon whose name is Karoly Eperjes and who looks like a cross between Gerard Depardieu and Robert De Niro.

He plays a rebellious cadet in “Colonel Redl,” more than holding his own against that relentless scene-stealer Klaus Maria Brandauer. In “Light Physical Injuries,” one of the 1984 releases, he is funny, dangerous and electric as a young man sent to prison only to come back to find that his young wife has set up her live-in boyfriend in Eperjes’ own, precious apartment. And in “The Philadelphia Attraction” he is poignant and perhaps a little mad as a young circus performer obsessed by getting the secret of a retired escape artist’s greatest trick, his famous Philadelphia Attraction, where he somehow lives sealed into a block of ice. In all three vastly different roles, he seems to be balanced by his own inner gyroscope that lets him go right to the edge, yet not overboard.

Eperjes, who won the best-actor award for his two most recent roles (“Redl” and “Philadelphia Attraction”), is obviously already a great hero among young audiences in Budapest, judging from their clenched fists in the air and shouts when his name was announced. Thoughtful, forceful, equally good at comedy or in contemporary drama with tragic overtones, it remains only for Eperjes to appear in the right Hungarian film, or to be lured by the right role in another country, for his talents to be known worldwide.

One theme begins to emerge from at least five Hungarian films this year: Jewish identity--denial of it, reinforcement of it, its values and the sacrifices made in its name. Since 1985 marks the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Europe from the Fascists, some observers believed the theme was worldwide, but after a sampling of the world’s offerings in Berlin, nowhere was it more meaningfully dealt with than here in Hungary.

What was hard to realize in the face of so many disappointing films in Budapest, but became absolutely clear by the end of the Berlin competition, was the comment by Michael Kutza, director of the Chicago International Film Festival with some 20 years experience scouting European festivals. Despite its present problems, he said, Hungarian films are still far and away the best of any Eastern Bloc country, in terms of content, technique and originality.

You might well challenge that until you had seen the embarrassingly weak lineup of films from all over the world at Berlin, a subject ripe for discussion. However, in Berlin, festival jurors must sign a document stating, among other things, that they must award all prizes in all the categories listed; that (in order to spread the prizes about more attractively) no film can win in more than one category; that jurors will not disclose to the press any of the debates or discussions that surrounded the voting, and that in public appearances they will at least attempt to present a united front.

No member of the free press at Berlin so much as questioned us once, together or singly, even in the face of the jury’s ignoring Godard’s newest, “Virgin Mary.” Heaven alone knows how they ever write their stories--there was more challenge from the press during the pungent Hungarian question sessions. In all good conscience, I feel free to say this much: To be an effective international film juror, I would suggest studying chess from Anatoly Karpov; knowing a minimum of three languages; learning T’ai Chi, and in chain-smoking juries like ours, studying breath-holding from “The Philadelphia Attraction.” Beyond that I can say only, ninch.