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Béla Balázs (1884-1949)


Hungarian poet, screenwriter, playwright, film critic, director, the author of the libretto for Béla Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle (1912) and the story for the The Wooden Prince (1917). Balázs's Der sichtbare Mensch (1924) is considered the first major work in silent film aesthetics. Balázs also wrote the scripts for more than two dozen films, including Die Abenteuer eines Zehmarkscheines (1926), a pioneering work of the Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity), and Das blaue Licht (1932), directed by Leni Riefenstahl.

"Every art deals with human beings, it is a human manifestation and presents human beings. To phrase Marx: "The root of all art is man." When the film close-up strips the veil of our imperceptiveness and insensitivity from the hidden little things and shows us the face of objects, it still shows us man, for what makes objects expressive are the human expressions projected on to them." (from Theory of the Film)

Béla Balázs was born Herbert Bauer in Szeged, the son of Simon Bauer, a teacher and translator, and Jenny (Levy) Bauer, also a teacher. Due to his liberal opinions, Simon Bauer was moved to Lõcse, a small town in the northern part of the country, where he died in 1897. Balázs's mother returned with her three children to Szeged. While still at school, Balázs published his first writings in the local paper, using the pseudonym Béla Balázs, but he encouraged his closer acquaintances to call him by his original name. After graduating from the gymnasium, he moved in 1902 to Budapest.

Balázs studied at the famous Eötvös Collegium, where his roommate was the future composer Zoltán Kodály. Among his friends was also Béla Bartók, with whom he traveled in the countryside collecting folk music. Though Balázs admired Bartók's musical gifts, they never became truly close friends. "Apart from his music," Balázs once confessed in his diary, "I am able to enjoy little about him."

Bálazs continued his studies in Berlin and in Paris, and then published in 1908-09 his doctoral thesis on the tragedies of Friedrich Hebbel. While a doctoral student, Balázs started to contribute essays to the magazine Nyugat. His first play Doctor Szélpal Margit (1909) was performed at the National Theatre, without much success. In 1910 Balázs finished his third play, A kékszakàllú herceg vára (Duke Bluebeard's Castle), which was influenced by symbolist technique and the dramas of Maurice Maeterlinck, such as Ariane and Barbe Bleue (1901). Balázs's libretto of Béla Bartók's famous opera was first performed in 1913. The composer himself had a high regard for his opera, but he never talked much of his cooperation with Balázs.

Fairy tales inspired several of Balázs's works, but not because of their depiction of the eternal battle between good and evil. Balázs's interest was in the thin line between reality and fantasy, and the search for meaning behind phenomena. In Duke Bluebeard's Castle the duke's new wife wants to open the dark doors of the castle, and bring light into their life. She reveals the horrible secrets of her husband, and eventually the Duke is left alone in the darkness. Another central theme in Balázs's works was the sense of loneliness, which he dealt with, among others, in the short story 'Die Geschichte von der Logodygasse von Frühling, vom Tod und der Ferne' (1912).

When World War I broke out, Balázs volunteered for the Hungarian arm. Before becoming seriously ill, he served at the front. From his diaries Bálazs collected the anti-war book Lélek a háborúban (1916). In December 1915 Balázs joined The Budapest Sunday Circle, led by the philosopher and literary theoretician György Lukács (1885-1971), whom Balázs had known since 1904. The group included Karl Mannheim, the art historian Arnold Hauser, the writer Anna Leznai, and the musicians Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály. Also Balázs's first wife, Edith Hajós, and Anna Schlamadinger, his second wife, attended the meetings. Usually the group met at Balázs's elegant apartment or the Lukács's country estate and discussed about the end of the liberal society.

In 1919 Hungary was for 133 days a communist republic under Béla Kun, whose government was brought to end by the intervention from Romania and Czechoslovakia. Balázs was forced into exile with his wife, Anna Schlamadinger, as a fellow traveler of the Communists. He settled  in Vienna, like a number of other exiles, including Sándor Korda (Sir Alexander Korda), Mihály Kertész (Michael Curtiz), László Vajda, Paul Czinner, and Bela Lugosi. Balázs cooperated with the director Hans Otto Löwenstein (1881-1931) in several film projects. From 1922 Bálazs contributed film reviews to the newspaper Der Tag, founded by Sigmund Bosel. In 1924 he published his first book of film theory, Der Sichtbare Mensch. This collection of articles roused much attention and was translated into 11 languages.

Balázs emphasized that the moving pictures brought back the language the body and the expressions of the human face, which had been buried by the culture of books and words. "Facial expression is the most subjective manifestation of man, more subjective than speech," Balázs wrote in Theory of the Film. "The language of the face cannot be suppressed or controlled." The close-up was for Balázs the most essential feature of the film art, which separated it from all other arts, especially from the theatre. "Not even the greatest writer, the most consummate artist of the pen, could tell in words what Asta Nielsen tells with her face in close-up as she sits down to her mirror and tries to make up for the last time her aged, wrinkled face, riddled with poverty, misery, disease and prostitution, when she is expecting her lover, released after ten years in jail; a lover who has retained his youth in captivity because life could not touch him there." Much later, in 1939 Balázs wrote in the essay 'Das Filmszenarium, eine neue literarische Gattung' that the screenplay is an independent and a new form of literature, and emphasized the role of the writer as the auteur of the film. In Theory of the Film (1952), which was first published in Moscow in 1945 as The Art of Cinema, Balázs developed his earlier ideas and used writings produced at the State Film Institute.

Balazs was regarded as one of the leading critics of his day, but his sharp opinions clashed with the interest of the film producers and directors, and he was forced to resign from Der Tag. The mid-1920s also saw the decline of the Austrian film industry. In 1926 Balázs went to Berlin, where he was involved in a number of activities. He directed the Workers' Theatre Group, the Arbeitertheaterbund, wrote plays and film scripts, lectured, and cooperated in left-wing film projects with the director G.W. Pabst, the producer Erwin Piscator, and the writer Bertolt Brecht. He declared that the "crowd is the soul and the significance of stage plays," a view that influenced Piscator's Total Theatre productions.

Most of Balázs's essays were published during this period in Die Rote Fahne, Film und Volk, and Linkskurv, and Die Weltbühne. Die Abenteur Eines Zehnmarkscheines (1928), Balázs's first screenplay in Germany focused on a ten-mark note, which passes from hand to hand amidst diverse characters in Berlin. The cool analysis of money was softened by the production company with a love story between two young workers. Dreigroschenoper (1930), based on Brecht's famous play, caused Balázs troubles. The original screenplay for the film was written by Leo Lania and László Vajda. When Brecht did not like the adaptation, Balázs tried to improve the script. Eventually Brecht sued the production company, but he lost the case, and accepted a sizable settlement. The film was a popular success.

Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light), co-written by Leni Riefenstahl, Carl Mayer (not credited), and Hans Schneeberger, was set on the Alps. According to Riefenstahl, Balázs was so excited about her treatment that he was willing to co-author the script without a fee. Mayer, F.W. Murnau's writer, finished the script. Balázs possibly directed the scenes involving Riefenstahl. After the war, Riefenstahl claimed responsibility for "script, direction, and art direction." The story was about the struggle between beauty and materialism, illusion and realism. Riefenstahl played a beautiful woman, Junta, who knows the secret of the mysterious light high on the mountains, which tempts young people into death. The film was admired by both Hitler and Chaplin, but criticized in the west-wing newspapers. Later Riefenstahl gained fame for her visually brilliant films, such as Triumph of the Will (1935), produced by order of the Führer, and Olympia (1938), about the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.

When the Nazis came into power, Balázs left Vienna for the Soviet Union, where he taught film aesthetics at Moscow's State Film Institute from 1933 to 1945. In the late 1930s he wrote the screenplay for Die Löwin, based on a novel by Ferdinand Ossendowski. Die Löwin was shot in Algiers. When the director went to France with the film, its material was confiscated and destroyed by the customs officials. The years in the Soviet Union were bitter for Balázs. He was attacked by orthodox, Stalinist ideologists, and also Lukács turned his back to him. In 1939 Balázs wrote a poem for Stalin, 'Auf ein Stalinbildnis,' but it did not help his situation. During World War II Balázs was in Alma Ata, where he collected folk poetry, later published in Das Goldene Zelt (1956).

After the war the communists gained control of government in Hungary, and Balázs returned to his native country, helping to rebuild its film industry. Balázs taught at the Academy of Theatre and Film Arts, and continued writing scripts, although his projects were turned down - by the communists he was considered a "bourgeois" theorist and author. He also lectured on films in Poland and at Prague University. Valahol Európában (1947, Somewhere in Europe), directed by Geza von Radvànyi, was Balázs's most succesful achievement. The story dealt with orphaned children in post-war Europe. Ének a búzamezõkrõl (1947), in which he worked with the director István Szõts and the screenwriter Lázsló Ranódy, was forbidden. Balázs died in Budapest on May 17, 1949, in the same year when the opposition political parties were outlawed. After his death, the Béla Balázs studio for young experimental film-makers was opened in 1959 in Budapest.

For further reading: Balàzs és akinek nem kell by György Lukács (1918); 'Béla Balázs' by Guido Aristarco, in Bianco e Nero, June (1949); Balázs Béla világa by M.K. Nagy (1973); The Major Film Theories: An Introduction by Andrew Dudley (1976); A History of Hungarian Literature, by István Nemeskürty et al. (1983); The Oxford History of Hungarian Literature by Lóránt Czigány (1984); 'Béla Balázs in German Exile' by John Ralmon, in Film Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 3 (1987); 'Béla Balázs and the Cinematographer's Art' by Joseph Zsuffa, in American Cinematographer, vol. 68, no. 10 (1987); Béla Balàzs, the Man and the Artist by Joseph Zsuffa (1987); Sininen valo: Belá Balázs ja hänen elokuvateoriansa by Matti Lukkarila (1991); International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers 4: Writers and Production Artists, ed. by Samantha Cook (1993); World Cinema, 5: Hungary by Bryan Burns (1996); The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz (1994); Film Theory and Film Criticism, ed. by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (1998); Zur Dialektik zwischen Zuschauer und Schauspieler in Béla Balázs' Filmphysiognomik (1924/1930) by Canan Turan (2009) 

Selected works / fiction and non-fiction:

  • Halálesztétika, [1907]
  • Doktor Szélpál Margit, 1909
  • A kékszakàllú herceg vára, 1910 (libretto; music by Béla Bartók)
    - Bluebeard's Castle: Opera in One Act (English version by Chester Kallman, 1952) / Castle of Duke Bluebeard: Opera in One Act (translated by N. Rozhdestvenskaya, 197-?)
    - Herttua Siniparran linna (suom. Jussi Jalas, 1981)
  • Misztériumok, 1912
  • Dialógus és dialógusról, 1913
  • Az utolsó nap, 1913
  • Lélek a háborúban, 1916
  • Halalos fiatalság: dráma, 1917
  • A fából faragott királyfi, 1917 (The Wooden Prince; story for the ballet; music by Béla Bartók)
  • Der Mantel der Träume, 1922
    - The Mantle of Dreams (translated by George Leitmann, 1974) / The Cloak of Dreams (translated and introduced by Jack Zipes, illustrated by Mariette Lydis, 2010)
  • Férfének, 1923
  • Der Sichtbare Mensch, oder die Kultur des Films / A látható ember, 1924
    - Béla BaLázs: Early Film Theory: Visible Man and The Spirit of Film (edited by Erica Carter, translated by Rodney Livingstone, 2010)
  • Die Phantasie-Reiseführer, 1925
  • Das richtige Himmelblau, 1925 (with Tibor Gergely)
  • Mammon, 1927
  • 1871. Die Mauer von Pére la Chaise, 1928
  • Hans Urian geht nach Brot, [1929]
  • Achtung, Aufnahme!!, 1929 (Attention, This is a Take!; comic opera, music by Wilhelm Grosz)  
  • Menschen auf der Barrikade, 1929
  • Unmögliche Menschen, 1930
  • Der Geist des Films, 1930
    - Béla BaLázs: Early Film Theory: Visible Man and The Spirit of Film (edited by Erica Carter, translated by Rodney Livingstone, 2010)
  • Karlchen durchhalten!, 1936
  • Karcsi kalandjai, ifjúsági regény, 1936
  • Álmodó ifjuság, 1946
  • Mozart, 1947
  • Filmkultúra, 1948
    - Theory of the Film; Character and Growth of a New Art (translated by Edith Bone, 1952)
  • Die Jugend eines Träumers, 1948
  • Filmesztètikai gondolatok, 1948
  • Der Film, 1949
  • Das Goldene Zelt, 1956
  • Der Film, 1961 (edited by Edmund Th. Kauer and Tibor Barta)
  • Essay, Kritik 1922-1932, 1973 (edited by Gertraude Kühn et al.)
  • A vándor énekel: versek és novellák, 1975 (edited by Sándor Radnóti)
  • Schriften zum Film, 1982-1984 (2 vols.; Band 1: "Der sichtbare Mensch," Kritiken und Aufsätze 1922-1926, 1982 (edited by Helmut H. Diederichs, Wolfgang Gersch, and Magda Nagy)
  • Napló, 1982
  • Schriften zum Film. Band 2: "Der Geist des Films," Artikel und Aufsätze 1926-1931, 1984 (edited by Helmut H. Diederichs and Wolfgang Gersch)
  • Die Jugend eines Träumers. Autobiographischer Roman, 2001 (edited by Hanno Loewy)
  • Táncjátékok, 2004


  • Kaiser Karl, 1921 (dir. by Hans Otto Löwenstein, starring Josef Staetter, Louise Seemann and Grit Haid)
  • Der Unbekannte aus Rußland, 1922 (dir. by Hans Otto)
  • Moderne Ehen / Modern Marriages, 1924 (co-script; dir. by Hans Otto Löwenstein, starring S. Polonsky, Helena Makowska and Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur)
  • Kiedy kobieta zdradza meza, 1924 (dir. by Hans Otto, Konrad Tom, starring Józef Wegrzyn, Kazimiera Niewiarowska and Fritz Kortner)
  • Die Abenteuer eines Zehnmarkscheines, 1926 (dir. by Berthold Viertel, starring Agnes Mueller, Mary Nolan and Walter Franck)
  • Madame wünscht keine Kinder / Madame Wants No Children, 1927 (dir. by A. Korda, based on the novel by Clément Viertel, starring María Corda, Harry Liedtke and Maria Paudler)
  • Eins plus eins macht Drei / One Plus One Makes Three, 1927 (with Hermann Kosterlitz; dir. by Felix Basch)
  • Grand Hotel...!, 1927 (dir. by Johannes Guter, starring Mady Christians, Dagny Servaes and Günther Hadank)
  • Das Mädchen mit fünf Nullen / The Miss with Five Zeros, 1927 (dir. by Curtis Bernhardt, starring Marcel Salzer, Viola Garden and Paul Bildt)
  • Eins + Eins = Drei, 1927 (co-sc., with Henry Koster, dir. by Felix Basch, starring Veit Harlan, Georg Alexander and Claire Rommer)
  • Die Abenteur Eines Zehnmarkscheines / The Adventures of a Ten-Mark Note, 1928 (dir. by Berthold Viertel)
  • Doña Juana, 1928 (co-sc., with Paul Czinner, based on a play by Tirso de Molina, dir. by Paul Czinner, Elisabeth Bergner, Walter Rilla and Hertha von Walther)
  • Narcose / Narcosis, 1929 (co-dir. with Alfred Abel, based on Stefan Zweig's novel Briefe einer Unbekannten, starring Renée Héribel, Jack Trevor and Alfred Abel)
  • Fräulein Elise / Miss Elise, 1929 (dir. by Paul Czinner)
  • The General Line / Old and New, 1929 (dir. by Sergei Eisenstein, in collaboration with Grigori Alexandrov)
  • Die Dreigroschenoper / The Threepenny Opera, 1930 (co-sc., with Leo Lania and László Vajda; dir. by G.W. Pabst, based on Bertolt Brecht's play, starring Rudolf Forster as Mackie Messer, Lotte Lenya as Polly and Fritz Rasp as Peachum)
  • Sonntag des Lebens, 1930 (dir. by Leo Mittler, based on the American movie The Devil's Holiday, story by Edmund Goulding, starring Camilla Horn, Willy Clever and Oscar Marion)
  • L'opéra de quat'sous, 1931 (adaptation of Bertolt Brech's play Die Dreigroschenoper, prod. Nero-Film AG, Tobis Filmkunst, Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. by Georg Wilhelm Pabst, Albert Préjean as Mackie, Florelle as Polly Peachum and Gaston Modot as Peachum)
  • Das blaue Licht / The Blue Light, 1932 (co-sc. with Leni Riefenstahl, dir. by Leni Riefenstahl, starring Leni Riefenstahl, Mathias Wieman and Beni Führer)
  • Vor, 1934
  • Karl Brunner, 1935-36 (dir. by L. Masljukov)
  • V chorni gora, 1941 (dir. by Nikolai Shengelaja)
  • Valahol Európában / Irgendwo in Europe / Somewhere in Europe, 1947 (co-sc., with Géza von Radványi, dir. by Geza von Radvànyi, starring Artúr Somlay, Miklós Gábor and Zsuzsa Bánki)
  • Ének a búzamezõkrõl, 1947 (advicer; dir. by István Stõts, screenplay by Lázsló Ranódy et al. )

Films as director:

  • Agyu es Harang, 1915
  • Maki allast Vallal, 1916
  • Obistos, 1917
  • Sphynx, 1918
  • A Megfagyottgyermek, 1921
  • Was wir wollen - was wir nicht wollen, 1928 (with A.V. Blum)
  • Tisza garit, 1933-34
  • Edes Mostoha, 1935
  • Azurexpress, 1938
  • Opiumkeringo, 1943

Films based on Balázs's texts:

  • Chemie und Liebe, 1948 (dir. by Arthur-Maria Rabenalt, based on Lulu ès Beata by Balázs)
  • Az igazi égszinkék, 1957 (dir. by Roberet Bán, Ferenc Dienes, based on Balázs's Das richtige Himmelblau)
  • A póruljárt madárijesztõ, 1959
  • Herzog Blaubarts Burg, 1963 (libretto, dir. by Michael Powell, starring Norman Foster and Ana Raquel Satre) 
  • A kékszakállú herceg vára, 1970 (libretto, TV movie, dir. by András Mikó, starring Katalin Kasza and György Melis)
  • A faból faragott királyfi, 1970 (libretto, TV movie, dir. by Ádám Horváth, starring József Forgách, Mária Kékesi and Adél Orosz)
  • Álmodó ifjuság, 1974 (dir. by János Rósza, starring Zoltán Csoma, Csaba Damenija, Loránd Lohinszky,Eva Ras, László Szabó)
  • Veszélyes játékok, 1979 (dir. by Tamás Fejér, based on Heinrich beginnt den Kapf by Balázs, starring Dirk Schönberger, Jenny Gröllmann and Gunter Sonneson)
  • Karcsi kalandjai, 1980 (dir. by Frigyes Mamcserov, starring Ildikó Hüvösvölgyi, Mari Szemes and Ottó Ulmann)
  • A kékszakállú herceg vára, 1981 (libretto, TV movie, dir. by Miklós Szinetár, starring Kolos Kováts and Sylvia Sass)
  • Duke Bluebeard's Castle, 1988 (libretto, TV movie, dir. by Leslie Megahey, starring Robert Lloyd, Elizabeth Laurence and John Woodvine) 

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