The glory days of the Hungarian cinema from the mid-1960s to the mid-70s came about mainly because of the relative liberalisation of the communist regime under the Soviet loyalist János Kádár. Károly Makk, who has died aged 91, was among leading Hungarian directors such as Miklós Jancsó, Márta Mészáros, István Szabó, Zoltán Fábri and István Gaál whose films were beginning to be shown and acclaimed more and more in the west.
Because of problems with censorship under the previous, Stalinist puppet regime, Makk, who had been making films since 1955, had to wait until 1971 to gain international recognition with his simply titled masterpiece, Love. “I asked every year for six years for permission to make it. The political elite finally gave in because it was part of a rejection of the Stalin years.”
Love tells the story of Luca (Mari Törőcsik), a young Hungarian woman whose husband is in jail after being arrested by Stalin’s secret police on a trumped up political charge. Left to take care of her old and dying mother-in-law (the celebrated stage actor Lili Darvas), she writes letters purporting to come from America telling of the son’s glittering success as a Hollywood film producer and reads them to the old lady. Whether the mother-in-law believes the letters is left deliberately ambiguous, as is the truth of her extravagant memories of a Viennese girlhood.
Lili Darvas, left, and Mari Törőcsik in Love. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock
An exquisitely wrought film about love, falsehood (political and personal) and illusion, it won the jury prize at Cannes, gained special mentions for the performances of Darvas and Törőcsik and led to Makk’s eclectic career in Hungary and abroad, including a best foreign film Oscar nomination for Cat’s Play (1974). However, his 1982 film about a lesbian romance, Another Way, was initially nominated by Hungary for the Oscar but was later withdrawn on orders from Kádár.
Makk was born in the town of Berettyóújfalu, in eastern Hungary, where his father, Kálmán, owned a cinema, which gave his son the chance to watch many movies. His parents, who like many Hungarians had lost their business after the country came under Soviet rule, initially intended him to become an engineer, a common profession on his mother’s side of the family. Instead, he entered the nationalised film industry, working his way up from assistant to screenwriter and director.
His eventual success with Love enabled him to make Cat’s Play. It tells of an elderly widowed music teacher (Margit Dajka), living in Budapest, who focuses her life on her wealthy but paralysed sister in Germany, with whom she communicates by letter and telephone, and on her old flame, a retired opera singer, who comes to dine every Thursday evening. When a woman from the past appears, the balance and security of her existence are badly disturbed. As in Love, Makk concentrates on the survival mechanisms of the old. Poignant and unsentimental, beautifully photographed by János Tóth, it effectively utilises flashbacks (as in the previous film) to summon up the heroine’s memories of youth.
Michael Gambon and Polly Walker in The Gambler. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock
A Very Moral Night (1977) is set in a small Hungarian town early in the 20th century, where a young student frequents the local brothel. He eventually moves in, and shares a chaste bed with one of the young women. When his puritanical mother turns up to visit him, the madame and the young women encourage her assumption that the brothel is a boarding house. Though rather old-fashioned and missing some of the comic potential, it is nevertheless beautifully shot, again by Töth, and acted.
Looking at parts of Makk’s filmography, it seems that he was comfortable inhabiting the bittersweet romantic world of Hungary’s most famous playwright, Ferenc Molnár. His connection with Molnár extended to Darvas, the playwright’s widow, who had the co-lead in Love. Makk also adapted Molnár’s previously filmed The Guardsman, a Hungarian-US co-production he retitled Lily in Love (1984), starring Christopher Plummer and Maggie Smith. Other international productions Makk directed were Deadly Game (Die Jäger, 1982) in German, starring Helmut Berger and Barbara Sukova; and The Gambler (1997), adapted from Dostoevsky, in English, with Michael Gambon, Jodhi May and Luise Rainer, making a comeback at 86, in her last film.
Most of these commercial productions received mixed reviews, but Makk’s reputation was sustained by Another Way – about a lesbian love affair between two journalists following the 1956 Hungarian uprising, with the attempted murder of one by her husband and the death of the other.
Based on the semi-autobiographical bestseller by Makk’s co-scriptwriter Erzsébet Galgóczi, the film is politically courageous and a touching and intelligent plea for tolerance. The two Polish leads (Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieślak and Grażyna Szapołowska), as the doomed lovers, give remarkably perceptive performances, with the former winning the best actress award at Cannes.
Makk’s best films demonstrate how living under state oppression affects fidelity, love and faith, and how traces of humanity persist in such difficult circumstances.
Makk married three times, and is survived by his daughter, Lily.
• Károly Makk, film director, born 22 December 1925; died 30 August 2017