Fri Jan 27th, 2006 at 11:40:50 AM EST
István Szabó is a Hungarian film director whose every film seems to be about artists in hard times.
His Oscar-winning 1981 film Mephisto, which launched Austrian actor Klaus-Maria Brandauer's international career, is about a German actor who plays the role of Mephisto in Faust on stage, and for his career goes into a Faustian deal with the Nazi regime in real life.
His 2001 film Taking Sides, with Stellan Skarsgĺrd and Harvey Keitel in the leading roles, is about the post-WWII ordeal of famous German conductor Furtwängler during denazification, who kept his post during the Nazi regime and even conducted for Hitler, tough he did save some Jewish musicians at the same time.
In today's edition of the weekly liberal literature & politics magazine Élet ÉS Irodalom (=Life AND Literature), an archive researcher exposed that in his time at the directors' school, István Szabó spied on his classmates and teachers for the secret service.
Szabó wrote 48 reports to three successive contact officers over four years. In his reports, he wrote about 72 people personally. And that in hard times: just after the 1956 revolution.
Altough (like many) his recruitment took the form of bowing to blackmail by the secret service (with what is not public), what strikes me reading the many quotes is the zeal of an absolute believer - detailed and forthcoming descriptions and sneaks from a committed Party soldier. However, mixing in his own personal opinions and grievances. But also positive stuff, even on persons his contact requested negative stuff on. With seeming ignorance of the consequences, he gives away everything (from private through social to political) about everyone. But he was intelligent enough to write on himself in third person within the reports (more conspirational).
His before-last report seems to indicate a souring and starting disillusion, it is kind of a protest letter against bad management and too many indexed films at the film factory. But his very last is again a disparagement against a colleague (Miklós Jancsó, who became known in art circles in the west in the Sixties).
His reports led to further 'action' on a dozen people. That is, in the known ones' case (many died since): observation, attempt at recruitment, disciplinary measures, 'putting on index'.
With hindsight, his greatest films seem to be about his own guilty feelings.
Annex on the post-1989 opening of files
Throughout the former 'communist' countries, this has been a contentious issue. Some wanted to just expose everyone and close them out from political life (which may appear sensible and practical from the outside, but more on this below). Others wanted a total opening of the files so that people can learn. Still others wanted to limit the opening of files to various degrees to protect victims. Of course, the guilty ones wanted none of this.
But a main problem is that the secret service files became political volleyballs.
The opening of files was held back or was severely limited for years (and in some countries, still is) because most political groups found it convenient to guard their own set of 'hot' files, to unleash a bombshell at one time or blackmail the opposite side at another time. Also, there was some continuity of the secret services.
In the Czech Republic for example, the unlimited opening of files came only a year or two ago. In Hungary, research is permitted but with severe constraints (no direct access only copies, large swathes of 'personal' stuff are blacked out, relevant files are 'lost') - several attempts at a big reform (ironically, usually promoted by the junior government party, the post-liberal-dissident liberal SzDSz) were sabotaged and made half-measures.
Annex on the complexity of the issue
From cases I read in the last fifteen years, it is clear that evil police state vs. the population would be too simple a picture of what went on - and what we have on file.
First, the secret services didn't just persecute the enemies of the dictatorship. You may be aware from recent War on Terra cases that informants don't necessarily tell the truth, nor victims of torture. But, just from some parts of the Szabó files, it is clear that the bureaucratic machine can 'create' enemies to pursue even if the informant's reports don't really incriminate, just to prove its value to the higher-ups (Szabó described a classmate who was imprisoned for nothing in the pre-1956 Stalinist times as a true communist, but the officers commenting his report had other ideas).
Second, those who got recruited by blackmail could act in different ways, shades from light grey to black. Some wrote useless reports until dropped, others wrote some substance but left out truly incriminating stuff, or even lied. Still others were cowards with much to loose (and don't just think of careerists, but family fathers or mothers with children to raise).
Third, not all informants submitted written reports, many only reported to a secret service officer, who then wrote a summary. Only, that summary often reflected that officers' ambitions (scoops and a higher number of recruits furthered their careers) rather than what he was told - to the extent of maintaining files for persons who haven't reported at all (for example, people talking to an agent without knowing that he is an agent), or even, persons who were observed (sometimes done so to blackmail them).
To conclude, in many cases only patient research can tell who is guilty and to what extent. (Tough, to make clear, I don't count Szabó among these.)