ÉDES ANNA (1958)
Director: Fábri Zoltán
Writer: Kosztolányi Dezső, Fábri Zoltán, Bacsó Péter
Cinematography: Szécsényi Ferenc
Cast: Törőcsik Mari, Mezey Mária, Kovács Károly
Fülöp Zsigmond, Báró Anna, Gobbi Hilda, Makláry Zoltán
Director Fábri Zoltán had a long film career, beginning in the early fifties and ending with his final feature in 1983. Fábri was a man known to be mostly concerned with humanity, often choosing narratives surrounding the events of World War II as a vehicle to deconstruct his ideas about humanity. This interest would lead him down an aesthetic path that mostly dealt with realism. He would also adapt most of his films from well-known Hungarian novels and short stories.
ÉDES ANNA is an adaption of the book of the same title, written by beloved author Kosztolányi Dezső. While Kosztolányi is little known outside of Hungary, he is known for trailblazing Hungarian fiction at the start of the twentieth century by contributing to the Hungarian journal Nyugat. While Kosztolányi sought mostly to distance his creative works from politics, he would find his work constantly attacked by both sides as Hungary rapidly changed from fascism to socialism, and finally to occupation in the early part of the twentieth century. Bacsó Péter, who helped to adapt the novel for the film, would later direct films such as A TANÚ (THE WITNESS, 1969) which starred Fábri Zoltán as his only appearance as an actor.
ÉDES ANNA begins after the fall of Kun Béla’s socialist republic in 1919. Only briefly a socialist state, Hungary would soon transition back to a monarchy after a Romanian invasion of Budapest. The Vizy’s are a middle class family who live in a building where the superintendent, Ficsor, is a socialist supporter. As the country shifts from socialism back to monarchy, Ficsor looks to save himself from persecution by promising his goddaughter, Anna (Törőcsik Mari), as a maid for the Vizy’s. Mrs. Vizy (Mezey Mária) abuses Anna by psychologically controlling her life. Anna becomes desperate to find a connection with another person and falls in love with Mrs. Vizy’s nephew, Jancsi (Fülöp Zsigmond). However, Jancsi is only misleading Anna, and she quickly finds her world falling apart. She succumbs to her psychological state, killing both of her masters and waiting at the scene of her crime to be arrested.
A Bitter Taste
ÉDES ANNA takes a deeper and darker look at the complicated relationship between a servant and a master. Until Anna is introduced as a character, the film follows the perspective of first Mr. Vizy and then Ficsor. At the start of the film, Mr. Vizy is worried to speak about the revolution in front of Ficsor in case the socialists maintain control of power in Hungary. However, both characters are quick to switch sides for their benefit. Ficsor tries to convince Mr. Vizy that his nephew is a part of the push to abolish the socialist powers. When monarchy returns to Hungary, the Vizy’s hold Ficsor’s socialist past over him. To protect himself, he offers his goddaughter as a maid for the Vizys.
Mrs. Vizy exerts her control over Anna by psychologically abusing and torturing her. Her main method of exacting this torture is by removing any identity Anna may have or want. When Anna is first brought in to the household, Mrs. Vizy goes through the few items Anna has brought with her, trying to discern what may be emotionally important. This isn’t the only time Anna is reduced to the few items she owns; at the end of the film, her few possessions are accounted for and when she is proposed marriage by the local chimney sweep, he counts the few possessions he can offer her. Mrs. Vizy will also mock and test Anna in front of guests, either by discussing how obedient she is or how she can’t cope with a nicer lifestyle, such as stomaching the same food she and her guests might eat.
Both the shifting of political alliances and the use of psychological control form the framework of a master and servant relationship as experienced in ÉDES ANNA. An audience will identify with Anna, as she is the only character who is never given the role of master, and until the end of the film never tries to influence or control another character. ÉDES ANNA actually plays both political sides as distasteful, at the end of the film when Anna is desperate for any sense of compassion she turns at last to her only family member, Ficsor the socialist superintendent, who claims she is betraying him and risking his life.
Anna is also a naive character, unaware of her role as a pawn in a larger game. Halfway through the film, Anna is proposed to by a widowed chimney sweep but she is afraid to leave the Vizys. Later on in the film, the nephew of Mrs. Vizy, Jancsi, who convinces her that he’s in love, seduces her. Anna sacrifices the offer of continuing to live in her social class for the dream of reaching new heights, but she is unaware that someone else is just using her.
While the plight of Anna is universally understood by the viewer with an interest in humanity, Fábri transcends this sentimentality by contextualizing Anna as a larger metaphor for the nation of Hungary. While in the early twentieth century in which ÉDES ANNA takes place, Hungary finds itself occupied and torn apart by the victors of the first World War. The novel’s original still rang true, if not painfully more so after the 1956 Revolution. That revolution proved how little power Hungary had in its servant and master relationship with the Soviet Union. At the conclusion of ÉDES ANNA, Anna kills her masters but patiently waits for the police to come and arrest her. Though she rebels against the looming power, she doesn’t escape her servitude and instead realizes what she actually is, a prisoner.
All That Glitters
ÉDES ANNA is at most times dark in its realistic portrayal of Anna’s servitude, yet Fábri wants the audience to witness the humanity that dwells deep within the core of Anna. This is best seen in the relationship between Anna and Bandi, the child she takes care of before becoming a maid for the Vizys. Bandi’s toy trumpet is one of the few things that Anna keeps as a possession. In an early scene we watch Anna as she dreams, asleep in the Vizy’s kitchen, of Bandi and the fairy tales she told him of birds flying out of a clasp knife. As she listens to Bandi’s words, we watch as birds fly past her window in the kitchen. This is one of the only times that director Fábri blends reality with the surreal. He returns to this imagery when Jancsi seduces Anna in her bed in the kitchen, again the birds past the window, a visual reminder that Anna is detached from the reality around her.
It’s interesting to think how Fábri presents Anna both as the ideal servant to Mrs. Vizy and deeply humanistic to the audience. Yet by meeting both agendas, Anna is unable to escape in the inevitable, where she strikes back at her masters. Fábri elects not to spend much time dwelling on Anna’s consequences, instead leaving it up to the audience to decide if the rebellion was a natural part of her existence. In the original novel however, Kosztolányi continues the story following the trial of Anna as she continues being a pawn in a larger game of control. When she is eventually convicted, we see as how the rest of the lives carry on without thought of Anna.
What works so well to keep the audience engaged with such a depressing tale is how well executed the atmosphere is in ÉDES ANNA. Fábri perfectly captures the dark tone of the book, even enlisting a heavy and at times brooding piano score. This atmosphere is something Fábri doesn’t explore as deeply again until AZ ÖTÖDIK PECSÉT (THE FIFTH SEAL, 1976), another film that explores the moral depth of its characters in difficult situations. What separates AZ ÖTÖDIK PECSÉT from ÉDES ANNA is the amount of hope that remains in the film. While Anna’s outcome may be ambiguous, what is important to her remains with the audience in their thoughts. While Mrs. Vizy tried to control every aspect of Anna’s life, she couldn’t change who she was as a person.
Fábri adapted a novel that was perfect for revisiting in the context of its initial release. The sting of the failure of the Revolution in ’56 was still there two years later during the film’s release, and the paternalism of Kádár was just beginning to settle in, which is perhaps why the film found itself released past censors. Because of this context, I feel that Fábri saw ÉDES ANNA as a ray of hope, that human ideals can carry on through the darkness. While a masterpiece still in modern times, ÉDES ANNA continues to be a relevant message about the dark relationship that exists between a master and its servant.