Reviewing the Second Run release of István Szabó’s Father last year (link), I took the opportunity to sum up the availability of the director’s work on disc. Szabó’s career is one that can be divided into two halves: the more internationally-minded filmmaking instigated by Mephisto in 1981 and everything that came before. We’ve been fortunate enough to see all but one of the post-Mephisto features receive a big screen outing in some form or other here in the UK, with many of them subsequently appearing on VHS or DVD. Admittedly there could be a few more discs out there, but these films do find themselves in a better position than those made prior to the eighties. In fact, Father was the first of the earlier works to earn itself on British DVD with those interested in investigating the director further having to go the import route (which at least added another four English-friendly titles to the mix). As I noted in that review the one major omission was 1979’s Confidence. Amazingly it has never received a home video release in any country in any format, and this despite it picking an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and earning Szabó the Best Director prize at the 1980 Berlin Film Festival.
Confidence’s lack of availability hadn’t escaped Szabó’s attention and so, impressed by Second Run’s handling of Father, asked the label if they could rectify this situation. They’ve certainly done the film justice thanks to a first class transfer making use of newly restored elements backed up by a typically meaty booklet essay and an on-disc interview with the director - as indeed they should. Szabó ranks Confidence as the finest of all his works, a statement many will agree with. His next-but-one feature, Mephisto - which would earn the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film - may have the dazzle and that truly remarkable performance from Klaus Maria Brandauer at its heart, yet in its own low-key manner the earlier film is just as intense and remarkable a piece of cinema.
As with Mephisto, Confidence is set during the Second World War. Eschewing the grand sweep of the 1981 feature (which took its audience from the 1920s through to the 1940s) the focus here is comparatively small. Much of the film unfolds within the confines of a tiny room situated somewhere in Budapest during the months surrounding the winter of 1944. It is here where strangers Kata (Ildikó Bánsági) and János (Péter Andorai) are living out an assumed identity as husband and wife. Both are members of the resistance driven underground by circumstances beyond their control. Separated from their real-life spouses and children, they can trust no-one, perhaps not even each other.
Theirs is a paranoid existence and a muted one as a result. Conversation with anyone they do not know is denied lest they provoke suspicion. Emotions too for the very same reasons. Everything has to remain penned in, internalised, kept secret from everybody else. The film itself appears to follow suit thanks to its drained cinematography (blacks, greys and icy blues) and a gramophone record in place of a proper score. Even the moral compass has been blunted as people seek to protect themselves first and foremost: “I’ll kill you so you can’t kill me.” This is life during wartime (and during occupation) and it’s as bleak and unforgiving as you would imagine. Kata being the weaker of the two - not to mention clumsy, ill-disciplined, prone to screaming in her sleep and more besides - finds it all the more difficult. The comparative strength, on the other hand, that János projects is belied by intermittent voice-overs revealing his true thoughts. Nevertheless, his position of power over Kata occasionally lapses into cruelty as the paranoia takes increasing effect.
Such flaws and frailties reveal that, of course, these are just ordinary people. Confidence is concerned with what happens when two perfectly normal and perfectly reasonable everyday folk such as Kata and János are asked to live within this kind of pressurised atmosphere. How do they cope as those various pent up emotions overspill and, all the while, maintain this façade of a typical married couple? The fallout has no choice to manifest itself in all manner of messy and unexpected ways because, once again, these are just ordinary people. One of the film’s great pleasures is in witnessing Szabó’s interweaving of this intensely personal storyline within the political realities of the time - essentially a small tale within a much larger canvas - without losing sight of either or the interplay between them.
Bánsági and Andorai deserve as much credit as their director for rooting Confidence as an intense chamber piece even as it maintains an eye on the bigger historical picture. Whereas Mephisto would soon demand the overt and the theatrical of its lead actor (a feat which Brandauer pulled off magnificently), this earlier film is more greatly concerned the secretive, the assumed and the hidden. Quietness is asked for more than anything else - both in terms of the volume of the performances and the brooding intensity which they deliver. In effect, Bánsági and Andorai are providing the base humanity so essential to creating that emotional connection between the viewer and the film. Without that immediacy Confidence would lose a great deal of its power. With it the results are simply stunning.
Not for the first time Second Run have an international DVD premiere on their hands. As already noted Confidence has never received a home video release in any format or in any country. More than thirty years is a long time to wait to enjoy the film in your living room, but I’m sure there won’t be any complaints now that it’s finally here. This is an excellent presentation from Second Run doing full justice to Lajos Koltai’s chilly cinematography. Confidence appears in its original aspect ratio, anamorphically enhanced, and is practically blemish free. There are some minor scratches from time to time, but in truth are so negligible few will even notice. The clarity of the image is superb as too is the clarity of the soundtrack. The original stereo appears here, in restored form, with newly translated optional English subtitles. I further impetus is needed then I’ll also point out that Szabó himself has signed off this release.
Two additions accompany the main feature: a 20-minute on-disc interview with the director plus Catherine Portuges’ lengthy booklet essay. The former was sourced from TCM and recorded as part of their Off-Set interview series. The focus here is Szabó’s entire career taking us from his years at film school through to the Hungarian features and the international works with plenty clips and anecdotes. Given that it is TCM behind this piece and that it would be therefore have been geared towards a US audience there is an understandable focus on the more popular and better-known aspects: working with Glenn Close on Meeting Venus, for example, or Annette Bening’s Oscar nomination for Being Julia or Szabó’s own Academy Award for Mephisto. Nevertheless it provides a healthy overview of a body of work that may not be immediately familiar to many. Portuges’ contribution, meanwhile, opts to focus more squarely on Confidence, placing it within the context of that body of work (especially in relation to Mephisto) as well as that of Hungary during the Second World War.
First time on DVD for István Szabó's excellent chamber piece.