Saturday, February 10, 2024

Q&A with Susan Rubin Suleiman


Photo by Allen Reiner



Susan Rubin Suleiman is the author of the new book István Szabó: Filmmaker of Existential Choices. Her many other books include the memoir Daughter of History. She is the C. Douglas Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France and Professor of Comparative Literature, Emerita, at Harvard University. She lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book about the Hungarian filmmaker István Szabó?


A: Good question! My first reason was that I love his films and wanted to make them better known to today’s film buffs. Over his long life (he’s turning 86 this year), Szabó has won major prizes all over the world, including an Oscar for best foreign film. Many people have seen at least one or two of his films without necessarily knowing his name.


I hope that my book will make his name at least a little bit more familiar, especially to English-speaking readers and viewers.


But there was another, more personal reason as well for my writing this book. As you know, I was born in Hungary and came to the United States as a child with my parents. For a long time, I forgot about Hungary—like so many immigrants, I wanted to be 100 percent American.


But eventually, many years after we left, when I was already the mother of two boys and my own mother’s health began to fail, I returned to Budapest with my kids and reconnected with my past. I tell that story in detail in my memoir Daughter of History: Traces of an Immigrant Girlhood, which you and I talked about last May.


As it happens, I wrote Daughter of History in the middle of my work on Szabó, during the Covid lockdown! I literally interrupted the Szabó book to write the memoir and came back to it as soon as the memoir was finished.


Szabó’s early films, made in the 1960s when he was a very young man, are all about his generation, those who came of age in Budapest after World War II. But that’s my generation as well—I’m just a year or two younger than he is. So in a way, he made me discover what my own life might have been like if my family had stayed instead of emigrating.


Szabó is alive and well, still living in Budapest, and I interviewed him several times while working on the book. He’s a wonderfully kind and generous man in addition to being a great filmmaker.


Q: The book jacket description says, “Above all, Suleiman addresses the single most important philosophical question that haunts Szabó's do individuals attempt, through the life choices they make or that are foisted on them, to create a viable self in extreme historical situations over which they have no control?” Can you say more about that theme?


A: Szabó was a young child in World War II, and he is obsessed (that’s not too strong a word) with the history of Central Europe in the 20th century. He has often stated that Central Europe, in particular Hungary, is a place where the “strong winds of history” have buffeted people around, interfering with and sometimes destroying their lives.


When you think about that region, with its two World Wars, the Holocaust, then decades of Communist rule behind the Iron Curtain, followed by economic crises and ethnic conflicts after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, you can see what he means!


Just about all of his films feature individuals —some of them ordinary citizens, often young people just starting out, others artists or people with special talents—who have to navigate the “strong winds of history” in order to survive.


This involves struggling with existential questions and choices that determine the rest of their lives. To leave the country and choose exile, or to stay home, however imperfect home is?

That was the question many thousands of people in Hungary faced after the failure of the 1956 uprising against Soviet rule, when for a brief moment they could flee the country. To collaborate with an authoritarian regime or to refuse, at some personal cost?


That was the question that many talented artists and writers in Germany faced in 1933, when Hitler came to power. To be or not to be Jewish? After Jews in Central Europe gained emancipation around the middle of the 19th century, some had to decide whether to become completely assimilated, giving up their Jewish identification, only to discover that it was not easy to stop being Jewish if those around you rejected you.


And finally: To try and forge a community or to seek only individual advancement? That was the question underlying the films Szabó made after 1989, when the end of communism signaled a whole new era of European and world history.


I chose the subtitle “Filmmaker of Existential Choices” for this book because Szabó is so good at showing the choices that people have to make in what are often extremely difficult and dangerous times.


Q: This book is part of a series called “Philosophical Filmmakers.” How do you see Szabo fitting into that framework?


A: Existential questions are eminently philosophical! All the existential philosophers, starting with Kierkegaard—whether it’s Nietzsche, Sartre, Beauvoir, or the Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller, among others—have placed the notion of choice at the center of their thinking.


In his book Either/Or, Kierkegaard wrote that “it is by no means indifferent how one employs one’s youth,” because “before one there lies a choice, a real either/or.”


All of these philosophers are concerned with how people “become who they are,” to paraphrase Nietzsche. They do so by making choices, small ones and large ones, which in the end constitute a life. In a very real sense, they choose themselves.


This is very important, because as Heller wrote (Sartre and all the others would agree), “if you do not choose yourself, others will choose for you.”


When I told Szabó that my book would appear in a series on “philosophical filmmakers,” he protested that he’s not a philosopher. But I responded that you don’t need to have an advanced degree in philosophy to ask philosophical questions. His films make the deep impression they do on viewers because they encourage them to think about their own lives.


Szabó has often stated that it’s not enough to master the techniques of filmmaking in order to make a good film, one also has to have something to say to people.


In one recent interview, he said he had made all his films because he “wanted to tell stories that helped people to live. To realize that they are not alone in struggling with problems.” As I said, he is an eminently philosophical filmmaker.


Q: Which of his films do you find especially compelling?


A: All of them! But if I had to choose, I would mention three as a start: first, Mephisto, the film that earned Szabó an Oscar for best foreign film in 1982. (He has made films in Hungarian, German and English).


Mephisto is in German, starring the great Klaus Maria Brandauer—it was one of his first film roles (as opposed to TV), and it really launched his career.


Mephisto is the story of an actor in Germany in the 1930s who becomes more and more enmeshed in collaborating with the Nazis, even though he keeps telling himself he’s not a Nazi, “just an actor.” The character is based on a historical personage, and the film is adapted from a novel by Klaus Mann.


It’s a fabulous study of self-deception and bad faith, the way a man persuades himself to sell his soul out of personal ambition. The subject is obviously more timely than ever!


My second choice is the English-language film Sunshine, with a star-studded cast headed by Ralph Fiennes, along with Jennifer Ehle, William Hurt, Rosemary Harris, and Rachel Weisz.


It’s a historical epic about a Hungarian Jewish family from the late 19th century to the late 20th, which won the Canadian Oscar-equivalent for Best Film in 2000.


Fiennes plays the main character in three different generations, a real tour de force for which he won the Best Actor award in the Berlin Film Festival.


Finally, I would mention Lovefilm, one of Szabó’s early films in Hungarian, about young lovers separated by emigration, a familiar story in Hungary after 1956.


All of these films are available for streaming, on Amazon or other servers. If you haven’t seen them, you have a real treat in store.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m doing a lot of book talks and visits to book festivals! That’s always fun, especially when they’re abroad. I’ll be at the London Jewish Book Week in March to talk about Daughter of History and will travel from there to Paris to talk about Szabó at an international conference on Eastern European cinema.


Aside from that, I’m reading a lot and writing some book reviews, which I always enjoy doing. No major book projects at the moment.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: When I retired from teaching, several years ago, I was slightly worried that I’d find myself with nothing to do. But now, I sometimes tell myself I need to retire from my retirement! It’s good to feel engaged in work you love, though. I love what I do and hope I can keep on doing it for years to come.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Susan Rubin Suleiman.

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