It takes years even for the other protagonist of The Door, the famous Budapest woman writer, to understand her capricious housekeeper. Magda simply accepts the impeccable service and tolerates, like the decent intellectual that she is, that the old woman keeps vexing and annoying her: why she goes to church on a workday; why she fusses with her writing rather than look after her sick husband; why she has no children; and anyway, why she trusts words, books, or her obviously unfair God, the obviously nonexistent otherworld, or the stupid political system whose literary prize she accepts. While she serves her to perfection, Emerenc launches a full attack against the world order in which Magda, the successful writer lives. Here's another paradox.
And of course, these two women passionately fall in love with each other. Magda Szabó’s unputdownable novel about strict Emerenc and her smart, famous mistress, Magda, is a struggle of almost mythological dimensions which finally claims the housekeeper’s life. Magda Szabó, on her part—like a latter-day Münchausen—finally decides to at least publicize her moral condemnation of herself in a novel entitled The Door.
Had The Door been written in the 60s, it would surely had been adapted to a film. This strange class struggle that is the topic of Magda Szabó’s novel was waged by every first-generation intellectual at that time. This is the topic of the most beautiful early films of the Hungarian new wave. In the 80s, when Magda Szabó’s novel was written, it was not as topical a problem as before, but this strange novel still has enough secrets and layers left. Why else did it become a bestseller within a few hours and was translated into more than thirty languages?
We have, for instance, the eternal conflict between intellectuals and manual workers. The former keep forgetting that it is their duty to protect the interests of the latter, and the latter keep suspecting that they have been abandoned. Or we have the subject of eternal Hungarian feudalism, and the cheated loyalty of the serf. Or the great topic of solidarity between women as these two formidable women help and support each other. Or the eternal desire to help each other overcome social barriers, which does happen in The Door, even if it ends tragically. Or the topos of lost and found family. Emerenc loses her family, and she is willing to accept Magda as her daughter who—as a writer and as a daughter of a mother of noble origin—is all too happy to embrace a mother of peasant origin. Then we have the grave moral questions, on the national as well as on the individual scale. Saving Jews and saving Communists is sarcastically brought on the same level in the novel with saving cats and dogs, with disarmingly simple answers given to overcomplicated questions: shouldn’t we simply quit persecuting and hanging people? The reason Emerenc doesn’t give a damn about politics is not that she doesn’t get it, but rather that she does get it all too well. Emerenc is an anarchist, and this is why we like her so much.
What has István Szabó accomplished of all this in his new film? Not much, unfortunately. The Door is a professional catalogue, a decent and fair enumeration of the subsequent scenes, in which the excellent cinematography (Elemér Ragályi), the fluent rhythm, the skilful narration are all laudable—and nowadays this is enough to make a film—but the whole thing is not be excited about at all. Let’s forget for a moment that film used to be a political medium—in Hungary, for example. Let's not expect a portrayal of the atmosphere of the 60s, that of consolidating socialism. But even then: where is intimacy? Something that Szabó was the one to portray the best? Perhaps it is there for a few moments when Magda’s husband dies, but Szabó quickly turns the page.
In any case, the actors are very good. Szabó is one of the greatest master of leading actors in Hungarian filmmaking. The excellent British star actress, Helen Mirren (Emerenc) is accompanied by wonderful Hungarian actors—Enikő Börcsök, Mari Nagy, Ági Szirtes, Péter Andorai.
And as for Helen Mirren, she is absolutely fine—she cleans vigorously and quarrels unpleasantly, the lace boot suits her, and we believe her when she talks about trust. It is not her fault if the above mentioned historical layers were not coded into her nervous system—neither feudalism that we just cannot get rid of here in Hungary, nor the series of betrayals by intellectuals.
It is hard to say such a thing, but I prefer modernist praxis to this international kind of filmmaking. I prefer the kind when a great master—Jancsó, Tarkovszkij, Truffaut, Vajda, or Szabó himself—tells his own truth that he had acquired through suffering at home, and the international audience makes whatever they can of it. And they usually can.
There is a great price to pay for the inverse practice in a genre where the authenticity of a story literally depends on the fine movements of a face, capable of coding centuries-old collective traumas. To put it more simply: in István Szabó’s Sunshine, Ralph Fiennes simply cannot be an assimilated Hungarian Jew, unfortunately. Neither is Helen Mirren a servant girl from the Hungarian Great Plains. And this is not a question of excellence as an actress. I apologize to this wonderful actress; she got entangled into a deeply Hungarian affair—she couldn’t have known.
Magda’s character—personified by the German actress Martina Gedeck—raises different problems. Her role in this film is rather that of a raisonneur, whereas in the novel Magda Szabó fights Emerenc in a grand way with her intricate sentences. A million insulted people, transformed into heroes, fight passionately in a million Hungarian families in the middle of the kitchen: this is what this novel is like, passionate and smart. Like a verbose Greek tragedy. Writer and film director Géza Bereményi, who also wanted to make a film of The Door, once said that Magda Szabó tends to somewhat overwrite her novels. However, Magda’s stream of words has a very important dramaturgical role in this work, which should not have been forgotten.
Without these militant, self-tormenting sentences the writer’s character has no weight in the film. Emerenc has no dramatic counterpart. She does not fight, she just thrashes about; the film simply does not let her tell us what her problem is, what her point is. In István Szabó’s film Emerenc is merely a strange, half-crazy old woman.
The last film I really liked by Szabó was Taking Sides (2001), in which Harvey Keitel represented the historical truth of simple people in the Holocaust, just like in Magda Szabó’s novel Emerenc Szeredás represents that of the eternally oppressed in Hungary. Unfortunately, there is nothing of this pure protest force in The Door. And I don’t even dare to ask why the secret of the door of the title—the tragedy of the Grossman family, their home that had turned to dust—is left out of the story.
(The original Hungarian version of this review was published on the art portal prae.hu)