Winkelmayer/ Gönczi: Ferencvárosi mozi (2009)

I was lucky enough that I grew up in Budapest when going to the movies was very affordable and there were over a movie theaters to choose from. Granted the selection of available movies was slanted towards Soviet productions and there were movies which were banned or never imported, but there was still plenty to watch. Both the introduction and the epilogue of “Ferencvárosi mozi” lament that these golden times have passed. Let me deconstruct the title of this Hungarian book. “Ferencváros” is the old by now mostly unofficial name of district nine of Budapest, while “mozi” is the vernacular word for movie theater.  It is short for “mozgókép” which means moving image. Consequently the book is about the history of movie theaters in this district.

The paperback book was written by Zoltán Winkelmayer and edited by Ambrus Gönczi. Winkelmayer was also responsible of selecting the pictures, which number in over a hundred and make up the bulk of the 124 pages of the book. I enjoyed the structure of the book which follows a chronological order, but deviates form it, wherever necessary to cover the story of a particular establishment in more detail. The historic eras covered start with the  first chapter talking about the origins of moving images: the first projecting machines were set up in a local cafes in 1896, just a year after the first public viewing of the Lumiere brothers’ invention in Paris.

Then a chapter is devoted to the short lived era of the 1918 Republic, when all theaters were nationalized and centralized. The next chapter is from the fall of that system (when the original owners got back their property) to the introduction of the talkies. The chapter that covers the transition to the movies with sounds ends with World War II. Then we can read a few pages about the transitory period after the war and before the communists took over the country. This period is defined by the constant legal changes of the industry, including the peculiar situation when only associations founded by political parties were allowed to operate cinemas. At this time there were four major parties and they all set up their corresponding operating arms, but by 1948 only the communist party stood. The penultimate chapter is the longest , covering the 40 years of communist rule, while the last one is about what happened since then.

But this is just the structure of the book. What I really enjoyed was looking through the images and learning about the history of the cinemas in Ferencvaros. For each location we learn where they were, who operated them how successful they were, what they showed, what kind of challenged they faced. It is a great history book, because it is full of well documented and researched details with sources cited. My description may sound dry. The book is anything but. I felt connected not just the places I frequented, but also to the ones that were before my time. It triggered memories of cinemas I must have been only once or twice. The bygone era of my childhood (and that of my parents and grandparents) were successfully evoked.

Two of the movie theaters mentioned I have more personal associations. When I was a young teen “Kinizsi” cinema showed the more artsy films, the kind I was interested in. I learned from the book that it was originally called “Kultur” (Culture). When I was 21, at the fall of communism, it got new owners and got renamed to “Blue Box”, which occasionally served as a night club too. Later a Hungarian art film by the same title was shot there. After it was closed for a few years the place reopened at the turn of the century as a cultural center named Kultiplex. Every time I visited Hungary since then I visited the place, because it had interesting shows, events and because the building hosted a radio station, where a friend of mine DJed. Eventually the local city council bought the place and razed it a few years ago. The pictures of the empty lot are sad reminder of what was once a thriving spot. Another movie theater that was on the ground floor of an old apartment complex now hosts a small theater company, Studio K. I know many of its crew and actors and its director. To be more accurate they know me as they have been long time friends of my mother. As a matter of fact I will go there tonight to a film showing. It will be a richer experience, now that I know that it used to be called Excelsior Mozgó (1918-34) and then Ráday mozi (1934-51).

As mentioned I grew up with going to the movies very often. It was a bit depressing for me to read the last chapter that none of the 21 locations that served as movie theaters at one point or another in the district function as such. There is a modern mall in the district that has a multiplex, which cannot replace the history of the places gone. There are also places go right outside the district, but the era of people popping in for a movie for the neighborhood movie theater has been replaced with watching DVDs or YouTube clips.

The book’s appendices add a lot of the value to the volume. The first one lists year by year all the cinemas between 1903 and 1949 along with their capacity and the names, ranks and address of the owners and operators. That is followed by the annotated list of every Hungarian periodicals dedicated to the industry that existed from the beginning till 1950. We also get an additional bibliography of sources cited or studied, a GANTT chart of all the movies and their years of operations and map of the district from 1970 with the locations of the cinemas.

What I haven’t mentioned so far how good the book looks and feels. It was a joy to learn history from such a well designed publication. I wholeheartedly recommend it for any enthusiast. If you are afraid of accidently learning something then just page it through to look at interesting pictures of old movie theaters

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