Márta Mészáros’s Adoption (1975)

Katalin Berek in Márta Mészáros’s Adoption (1975)

Writing for Film Comment in 2006, J. Hoberman noted that when Miklós Jancsó’s The Round-Up was released in 1966, it was “immediately recognized in Hungary as perhaps the greatest film ever made there.” A decade later, Márta Mészáros’s Adoption (1975) became the first Hungarian film to compete in Berlin—and the first film directed by a woman to win the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear. New restorations of both films are screening this week in the New York Film Festival’s Revivals program, and a theatrical release of Adoption is forthcoming from Janus Films.

Jancsó and Mészáros were married for thirteen years before they parted amicably in 1973. Their son, Nyika Jancsó, is a cinematographer who worked with his mother on the autobiographical trilogy she’s perhaps best known for, Diary for My Children (1984), which won the grand prize of the jury in Cannes, and Diary for My Lovers (1987) and Diary for My Father and Mother (1990), which depict life in Hungary in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Stalinist years, and the failed revolution of 1956.

Mészáros, who turned ninety last week, lost her father, an accomplished sculptor, to the Stalinist purges, and the death of her mother, a painter, remains shrouded in mystery. Mészáros herself says the cause was “heartache.” Raised by her foster mother in Russia, Mészáros returned to Budapest as a teen hoping to become a filmmaker, but no school would accept her. So she went to Moscow to study at the renowned State Cinema Institute (VGIK) and began making documentaries, focusing primarily on the lives of women.

Having established herself as a director, Mészáros was ready to return home once again. “When I asked for technical support, the Hungarians couldn’t really refuse to help me, because I had studied in the Soviet Union, and that impressed them,” she told Ela Bittencourt in Sight & Sound. Her first feature, The Girl (1968), was one of the first Hungarian films to be directed by a woman. Writing in the Guardian, Ryan Gilbey finds this story of a young woman searching for her biological parents “as radical and zesty as anything from the French or Czech new waves.”

A few years ago, the Hungarian National Film Fund began restoring Mészáros’s films, sparking renewed interest in her work that led to a retrospective this past summer at the BFI in London. MUBI launched its series back in March, accompanied by an excellent primer on Mészáros from Kat Sachs. “Through film,” writes Sachs, “she commits to posterity the memories of a nation, of a people, and, perhaps most importantly, of women as individuals.”

In Adoption, Kata (Katalin Berek), a forty-three-year-old factory worker, tells her lover that she wants a child. He needn’t worry about leaving his wife and family; she’s prepared to raise the child on her own. But he refuses. Kata then meets and befriends a much younger woman, Anna (Gyöngyvér Vigh), who has spent much of her life checking in and out of institutions for troubled teens. Kata is determined to help Anna break away from her parents so that she can marry her boyfriend. “Seen today,” writes Ela Bittencourt, “Adoption, which features a single woman who constantly defies expectations, is powerful not just as a refreshing counterpoint to Europe’s rising conservatism but, even more importantly, in the context of bold feminist cinema.”

If Jancsó is, as Martin Scorsese has claimed, the “master of the long shot,” Mészáros’s signature is what philosopher and cultural critic Steven Shaviro calls the “moving close-up: a pan or traveling shot in extreme close-up.” Adoption is “a film about transpersonal affect,” writes Shaviro. “It narrates, not so much a single plot, as the multiple, and subtle, shifts of affection, attention, and concern between Kata and Anna—and to a lesser extent between these two women and their men. You could call it a balance of passion, in contrast to the more commonly discerned balance of power in intimate and social relationships. Part of the uniqueness of Mészáros’s approach here is precisely that she makes us think and feel in terms of passion rather than power.”

In 2019, Adoption returned to Berlin to screen in the Berlinale Classics program, and Ruth Schneider spoke with Mészáros for the Ex-Berliner. “With the Golden Bear,” said Mészáros, “I’d become a film director, not a woman who makes films. Fassbinder accepted me, and many others accepted me—Godard and the others. I entered the club not as a woman, but as a filmmaker.” She recalled that Agnès Varda, who would pass away just a few weeks after the interview was conducted, “told me, ‘You’ve won now, the next time I will.’ She’s a good friend, I love her. She has a good life because she lives in a good country. See, France loves women. Hungary hates them!”

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