This Hungarian sci-fi turned romantic swashbuckler drama from 1942 is a forgotten little gem. It is based on a time machine short story predating H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine by one year, and is the first feature film in history to feature an actual time machine. 6/10
Sziriusz. 1942, Hungary. Directed by Desző Ákos Hamza. Written by Péter Rákószi. Based on play by Imre Földes, based on novel by Ferenc Herczeg. Starring: Katalin Karády, Lásló Szilassy, Elemér Baló, Lajos Rajczy. Produced for Magyar Irok Filmje. IMDb score: 5.7
When looking at the Hungarian invasion of Hollywood during the first 60 years of cinema, one might think that all of Hungary’s filmmakers had emigrated to the United States. Among the notables we find people like the founder of Fox Studios, William Fox, as well as the founder of Paramount, Adolf Zukor. Others worthy of mention are directors Michael Curtiz, George Cukor, George Pal and the three Korda brothers, although they were primarily based in Britain. Of the movie stars everyone of course knows Bela Lugosi, but there were also Peter Lorre, Tony Curtis, Johnny Weissmuller, Ilona Massey, Harry Houdini, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eva Gabor, Leslie Howard and Paul Lukas. And one shouldn’t forget composer Miklos Rozsa, and there were many, many others. But Hungary also had a thriving film scene at home, as evidenced by the country’s third ever science fiction feature film, Sziriusz, that was nominated for the main prize at the Venice film festival in 1942, and featured the country’s biggest film star, the beautiful Katalin Karády.
The film Sziriusz – or Sirius – directed by Desző Ákos Hamza, is really more a fable poised on the verge between Classicism and Romanticism, and made as it was in 1942, it carries with it some societal issues amid the costume drama. The movie features a modern playboy, Count Tibor Ákos (Lászlo Szilassy) taking a time trip back over a hundred years, and cleverly comments on the Hungarian history between then and 1942. So, if you’ll excuse, a short history lesson might be suitable.
In 18th and the beginning of the 19th century Hungary – formerly a giant empire in Europe – was ruled by the Austrian Habsburg dynasty, despite failed rebellions from the Hungarian side. After decades of brewing resentment against the Austrian powers that be, the Hungarian revolution broke out in 1848. Although the Hungarians were ultimately defeated, the Habsburgian throne was pestered by unrest, which led to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise in 1867, creating the dual kingdoms of Austria-Hungary. By the way, it was the Hungarian revolution that marked the first wave of Hungarian immigrants to the US, as many as 700 000 Hungarians are said to have arrived to the United States in the 1840’s.
The second wave of immigrants came with WWI and the following communist takeover, which was quickly quelched, and Hungary entered its first actual period of independence in the twenties. However, Hungary lost two over thirds of its territory and population. The third influx of Hungarians to Hollywood came in the thirties and early forties – this time to a large extent consisting of Jews, thanks to the rise of Hitler. Hungarian politics were extremely nationalistic in the thirties and there was widespread antisemitism. In the early days of the war Hungary fought independently alongside Germany and Italy, and in 1940 the country officially joined the axis powers. By 1942 Hungary had already started deporting and massacring Jews by the thousands. And it is against this historical background that Sziriusz should be viewed.
The film opens with a fancy dress party in current-day 1942, with guests decked out in 18th century costumes, among them Count Tibor (Szilassy). Tibor is a playboy with good looks and a noble title, a favourite with the ladies, whom he courts eagerly, and with a huge debt thanks to his irresponsible lifestyle. The dress party is hosted by the wealthy but eccentric scientist and inventor Professor Sergius (Sergius/Sziriusz – get it?), played by theatrical and film actor Elemér Bálo. Sergius has invented a rocket that can travel faster than the rotation of the Earth, and by going against the rotation, he claims, he can also go back in time. The draw for Tibor is this: Sergius has promised that anyone brave enough to accompany him on the rocket’s maiden voyage will win the hand of his daughter Róza and a HUGE dowry. This is an offer Tibor can’t refuse.
The start is bumpy, and Tibor loses consciousness. He comes to when he falls out of the rocket and finds himself in the 18th century. A horse and carriage come along, carrying the beautiful Venetian singer Rosina Beppo (Katalin Karády), and immediately sparks start flying. Because of his party costume, the residents of a nearby castle assume that Tibor is a relative of the wealthy ruler of the area where he has crashed. Apart from a few comedic situations where Tibor’s modern sensibilities clash with the 18th century residents (as when lighting a cigarette with a match), we now leave sci-fi behind and enter rococo costume drama territory. Director Hamza creates a lavish 18th century world thanks to a large budget and lavish set and costume designs. There are huge ball scenes with choreographed dancing, familiar from Hollywood dramas of the same era, and these scenes in Sziriusz stand up well in comparison. Special mention must go to choreographer Anna Misley who also creates a mystical water ceremony dance on the bank of a river, where we get an almost Disneyesque romantic boat ride with Karády and Szilassy. The scene also contains a song number by singer-actress Karády, in which she gives some proof as to why there was a Hollywood-like star cult surrounding her in Hungary. The song is totally out of place in the 18th century setting, as it is more of a 20’s chanson, but sensually and beautifully sung in Karády’s low, husky voice.
Troubles occur, though, when a rival to Beppo’s affections emerge – in the form of Tibor’s great-great-grandfather, Count Gergely Tibor (Lajos Rajczy). Tibor Jr. quickly develops a strong resentment for the boasting, womanising Tibor Sr, who throws money around himself like candy. ”So that’s how the family fortune was squandered”, he comments at one point. The tipping point comes when his great-great-grandfather forces himself on Beppo and Tibor intervenes, calling his ancestor out to a duel. As the coward Sr. is, he sends assassins in advance, whom Tibor fights off, before entering battle with his great-great-grandfather. Tibor is wounded in the head and just as Sr. is about the make the killing blow, Professor Sergius comes to the rescue in his rocket.
Tibor wakes up in a hospital bed in 1942, and is informed that the rocket never took off. It crashed as soon as it had had liftoff, and Tibor hit his head and passed out. Alas, it had all been a dream! The beautiful Rosina Beppo was just a figment of his imagination. Or was she?… The ending provides yet a twist or two, which I won’t spoil.
So, all in all, a wonderful fairy-tale, an entertaining flight of imagination. But what has it all got to do with the history of Hungary and the Nazis, one may ask. As I mentioned earlier, Sziriusz was nominated for the main prize at the Venice film festival, the aptly named Mussolini prize (known today by the name of The Golden Lion). But German censors intervened and had the movie blocked from competition, as they found the film anti-German. I am not completely sure as to what year the historic part of the film is placed in – but if we consider that Tibor flew back a solid 200 years, it should be 1742, with the Austro-Hungarian conflict in the background, when Hungary was ripe with anti-Austrian sentiment. One reviewer does mention that the film is set in 1748, so I suppose I’ll have to count on that. Throughout the film many of the Hungarian noblemen of 1748 speak mockingly of the current political and social situation with the Austrian Habsburgs ruling the country. One of them sarcastically exorts: ”Italian manners, French dresses, German speech! Only the peasants are Hungarian?” Fun is also poked at the Austrian Queen Elizabeth as she turns up.
One might argue that the Germans were pretty easily offended, but then again there was a war going on. Hungary was a reluctant axis ally, and communist USSR tugged at the country on the other side of the border. The film portrays a Hungary under the yoke of a tyrannical rule it did not choose, and the villain of the film (Tibor Sr.) is a stout defender of the Habsburg empire, and he turns out to be an immoral and evil coward. Tibor Jr, on his part, represents the Mitglieder who is roused from his own apathy and folly to stand up against the despotic madman. Now, replace Austria with Nazi Germany and Habsburg with Hitler, and one can understand that the German censors weren’t absolutely thrilled.
Despite the film’s beautiful direction by Hamza, and the fluid photography by Rudolf Icsay, the film runs a little long at 98 minutes, and will certainly appeal more to friends of romantic costume dramas than that of science fiction. Although the dance scenes are impressive and the music by Tibor Polgár is first-rate, there’s a little too much (literal) fluff in the middle part. There is a complete filmed scene of an opera number that seems to serve no other purpose that introducing the singing talents of Katalin Karády, and it goes on for way too long. Of course I couldn’t understand the dialogue, but there also seemed to be an awful lot of talking heads. Hamza and Icsay also don’t do anything very spectacular with the camera. There are a few very long tracking shots moving through dancers and ball guests which must have been painstaking to set up, but apart from that, the film is traditionally shot.
The duel scene near the end is the climax of the film, but over 15 minutes of film remains after that, and unfortunately the movies loses a lot of momentum. Sure, the mystery is intriguing – did he or did he not travel back in time? But there’s a little too many different scenes of nurses and friends and Roza standing over Tibor’s bed – they could have settled the matter faster.
Many of the people involved in the film fled abroad after the communists took control over Hungary in 1947, including director Hamza. Hamza, originally an artist, learned the film trade while in Paris in the twenties and thirties, working closely with French director and moderniser Rene Clair (The Crazy Ray 1924, review). He quickly emerged as one of Hungary’s top directors after his return in 1937. His first big success was the 1940 film Gyurkovics fiúk (The Gyurkovics Boys), based on a novel from 1895 written by Ferenc Herczeg, who incidentally also wrote a novel called Sziriusz, which Hamza would use as the base for a very successful film. In 1945 he became a co-manager of the film company Mafirt, but soon resigned to go abroad. After a short sejour in France, he settled in Italy, where he directed 8 little known movies, and then travelled to Brazil, where, due to financial reasons, he was only able to direct one movie, but served as a consultant on several others. In 1987 he returned to his birthplace in Hungary, and died in 1993 at the respectable age of 90. Hamza never gave up painting and was a respected artist throughout his life. At the end of his life, he donated his paintings to the local museum of the city of Jászberény, and asked that his house be permanently turned into a museum after his death. Today the Hamza museum is the permanent home of his artwork, and nearly a hundred works by his wife, fashion designer Mária Lehel Hamza.
László Szilassy was a noted stage actor, in possession of classic leading man looks. With a well-groomed, thin moustache, and a swashbuckler smile on his face he carries his role as Ákos Tibor as a Hungarian Errol Flynn, and is a joy to watch. He was an accomplished singer and often appeared in operas. In 1944 he emigrated to South America and spent the rest of his life living in either Brazil or Argentina, where he continued to act, for a long time as a member of the Hungarian Theatrical Company of Argentina.
The biggest star of the film was without a doubt Katalin Karády, the biggest movie star of Hungary in the early forties. After some stage acting she was cast in a prominent role in a 1940 film called Halálos Tavasz (Deadly Spring), which catapulted her to instant fame and notoriety as a diva and femme fatale. Her dark beauty, low, velvety voice and strong personality quickly gave her a huge following in the press, and she became a style icon and the centre of much gossip about her love affairs and her sexuality. This wasn’t helped by the fact that she had an affair with the chief of the nation’s secret police, who bought her a villa and proposed to her. She was also a popular singer, whose songs were often heard on the radio. In 1944 Germany invaded Hungary, and she was arrested on suspicions of being a spy for the Allied forces. Her 23d film in 5 years, Machita, was banned from cinemas. She was imprisoned for three months and nearly tortured to death, until rescued by friends of the above mentioned chief of secret police.
Later that same year she performed the deed for which she is best known outside of Hungary. When she saw a group of families, many of them Jewish, about to be executed by a Nazi-controlled Hungarian fascist militia, she bribed the soldiers with gold and other possessions, thus saving the families. For this act, and others like it, she was posthumously honoured with the Righteous Among the Nations award, handed out by the Israeli Yad Vashem institute.
Karády made two more films and appeared on stage after WWII, but wasn’t able to work under the new communist rule after 1947, and in 1951 she left the country, first for Austria and Switzerland, then to Brazil, where she opened a fashion salon. In 1968, after the intervention of Ted and Robert Kennedy, she received a visa to the United States, and settled in New York, where she opened a hat shop. At her 70th birthday in 1980 she received an invitation from the Hungarian government to return home. She sent them a hat. She passed away in 1990. There is a restaurant in Budapest called Karády Katalin muzeum kavehaz (The Katalin Karády Museum Café).
As mentioned before, Sziriusz was based on a short story by Ferenc Herczeg, written in 1894 – this is worthy of mention, since it was one year before H.G. Wells wrote his highly influential novel The Time Machine. Wells, of course, wrote an all-out sci-fi book and travelled forward in time, while Herczeg was very vague on the ludicrous technicalities, and simply used the time machine as a way to get from 1894 to 1748. But nonetheless, it is one of the first literary works involving an actual time machine. The story was made into a play in 1907 by Imre Földes, and it is from this play that the screenplay of the film is mostly derived.
This is, according to IMDb, the third Hungarian feature film containing science fiction elements, the first being a version of the Alraune myth (the mandrake root under a hanged man turning into a woman, see my previous article about the film), and the second a comedy involving a mad scientist as a plot element. But one might say it is the first all-out science fiction film of Hungary. What makes it even more noteworthy is that it seems to be the first ever feature film in the world involving an actual time machine. It was made a full 18 years before the Hollywood blockbuster The Time Machine (based on Wells’ novel), directed by George Pal – born György Pál, who was, as stated earlier, also Hungarian. Despite the fact that the film was blocked from competition in Venice, it seems at least someone in the British film industry saw the film, as Gainsborough Films released a movie with a very similar premise in 1944, called Time Flies (review). There had been a few films in America before at least touching on the subject of time travel, such as The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918, review) and The Man From Beyond (1922, review), but Hollywood also released its first sci-fi film concerning travelling back in time in 1944, a comedy called Fiddler’s Three, whose protagonists get caught in a time warp and end up in ancient Rome.
Ferenc Herczeg was born to wealthy German parents in Budapest with the name Franz Herzog, and was one of Hungary’s most prominent playwrights and journalists in the late 19th century. He was a proud Hungarian nationalist and even served as a member of parliament. His novels and plays have been adapted into at least 16 films, including the cult classic Erotikon by Finnish-Swedish Hollywood pioneer Mauritz Stiller. Other directors to tackle his stories were Oscar winner Michael Curtiz and Steve Sekely, yet another Hollywood Hungarian, best known internationally for the British sci-fi film The Day of the Triffids (1962). Herczeg was considered for the Nobel prize in literature in the twenties.
All in all, Sziriusz: the sci-fi elements are not prominent, but as a costume drama the film is very successful, and has some funny comedy and a very good score. The two lead actors are superb, the others mostly bland or over the top, but it is a romantic comedy, after all. Occasionally visually striking, owing mostly to the wonderful sceneries, costumes and choreographies and the lavish budget, and less to the – admittedly accomplished – camera work and visual direction. At best the film is a lush fantasy in which the viewer happily submerges herself among plush, chiffons and powdered wigs, at worst a pretentious and slow-moving soufflé. A bit of historical background knowledge gives the movie some extra kick, if viewed in the context of its time.
Sziriusz. 1942, Hungary. Directed by Desző Ákos Hamza. Written by Péter Rákószi. Based on the play Sziriusz by Imre Földes, in turn based on the novel Sziriusz by Ferenc Herczeg. Starring: Katalin Karády, Lásló Szilassy, Elemér Baló, Lajos Rajczy, Géza Berczy, Jenő Bodnar, Ílona Banhidy, Endre C. Turani, Jenő Danis, Sári Déry, Dòra Fay Kiss, Zoltán Greguss, Sandor Hidassy, Lajos Ihasz, Lajos Kelemen, Zoltán Makláry, Ila Nagy, Sándor Pethes, Gusztáv Pártos, Nusi Somogyi, Lajos Sugár, Zoltán Szakáts, Sándor Szapáry. Music: Tibor Polgár. Cinematography: Rudolph Icsey. Editing: Mária Vály. Production design: Klára B. Kokas. Costume design: Kárloyné Nagy. Production management: Klára B. Kokas. Assistant director: Árbis Basilides. Sound: Gyoula Rónay. Choreographer: Anna Misley. Produced for Magyar Irok Filmje.