Pioneering director Márta Mészáros’s worldview was profoundly shaped by the tragic events that occurred during her early childhood. She was born to politically liberal artists in Budapest, Hungary in 1931 and spent periods of her childhood in Stalinist Russia. Her mother died while giving birth to her and her father was arrested and killed by Russian authorities when she was just seven years old. She would go on to spend her teen years in the USSR and entered into the film industry at the age twenty three. She gained notoriety for her work as a documentary filmmaker and, in 1968, became the first Hungarian woman to direct a feature film. Many of her films caused controversy because they dared to criticise Stalinist policies and acknowledge the power imbalances that existed within Hungary’s supposedly egalitarian society. 

With her thirteenth feature, Diary for My Children (1984), Mészáros drew direct inspiration from her own life and produced a highly autobiographical work. She made the film at a time when Hungary was seen as the least repressive nation in the Eastern Bloc; with artists being given the freedom to produce works that were critical of government institutions, but the film still hit a nerve with viewers who had lived through the failed 1956 revolution. 

Diary for My Children‘s plot follows the basic outline of Mészáros’s own life, with Juli (Zsuzsz Czinkóczki) serving as a self insert character. She is forced to live with her aunt Magda (Anna Polony) but falls under the influence of János (Jan Nowicki), a charismatic idealist who dreams of toppling Mátyás Rákosi’s corrupt administration. Juli grows desperate to leave Hungary and live a quiet life in the country but comes to accept the fact that her struggle is hopeless. She remains optimistic about János’s future but fails to anticipate the harsh punishment that is handed down to anybody who speaks out against the government. 

As a criticism of Stalinism and a bitter reflection on idealism gone wrong, Mészáros’s political rhetoric still packs a punch. She makes an effort to present Magda as somebody who is simultaneously a victim and an oppressor. At one point in time, she was a socially conscious young activist who wanted to create a utopian society. She became so deeply devoted to this cause that she has become willing to overlook human rights abuses perpetrated by the ruling class. Rather than being one of the terrifying “Reds Under the Bed” who appeared in jingoistic anti-Communist films that were produced during the Red Scare in the United States, she is a woman who has understandable motivations. 

Mészáros also refrains from presenting the impressionable, rebellious Juli as a symbol of everything that is good and right about a democratic society. She emerges as an angsty, hormonal adolescent who is desperate to present herself as a worldly, self reliant adult. One is allowed to understand that she is still trying to carve out her own identity and find her place in a world in which various individuals are trying to gain control over every facet of her life. Mészáros bravely suggests that Juli’s attraction to János might have more to do with her fondness for his warm, open personality than any strongly held political convictions. Perhaps Juli’s bond with Magda serves to expose one of the most contradictory aspects of Communist ideology. Magda spends a great deal of time talking about her love for the people and her belief that the needs of others should be valued above her own whims and desires, but she treats her close friends and family members in a ruthless, inefficient manner. If she felt that Juli were not following the party line, she would eliminate her in order to serve the greater good. She is ostensibly helping the faceless masses by refusing to offer her grieving niece any special treatment but her heartlessness only drives her niece deeper into depression. This ‘selfless’ approach to life seems to make everyone miserable and, when mass killings are involved, it becomes fairly difficult to argue that Juli should just shut up and take whatever the government chooses to force upon her. 

Diary for My Children also remains firmly invested in conveying Juli’s fragmented mental state through the use of dreamlike flashbacks that present an abstract view of her youth. In one especially memorable scene, Mészáros appears to dip back into documentary territory, as she holds on a shot of a rocky cliff face for an extended period of time. The sequence is largely free of pictorial effects and Mészáros chooses to take a minimalist approach in attempting to capture the majesty of this moment. The harsh beauty of the natural environment speaks for itself and becomes overawing. For a brief moment in time, Juli is comforted by a feeling of moral clarity that she doesn’t feel in any other context. The sight of the smooth, polished surface in front of her is deeply comforting and she associates the earthy, dignified strength of the natural environment with her own highly idealised vision of her father. This scene cuts straight to the core of Juli’s uncertain, constantly wavering perspective on the family unit and the role that parental figures play in her life. 

In fusing together her observations about the repressive nature of Stalinism and her recollections of life as a young woman coming of age, Mészáros creates something truly captivating with Diary for My Children. Her examination of Juli’s thoughts and feelings is never schematic and one never comes to feel that they are watching a vanity project. Mészáros simply doesn’t have it in here to bang out a piece of navel-gazing nonsense. 

Rating: ★★★½

Diary For My Children is screening as part of Janus Films’ ‘The Films of Márta Mészáros‘ series at the Lincoln Centre between the 21-26 January, 2022.