Installations like these were familiar sights at the venues where
Hong Kong International Film Festival screenings took place
1989 (Denmark-Germany-Hungary, 2014)
- Part of the Documentary Competition programme
- Anders Østergaard and Erzsébet Rácz, dirs.
- Featuring Miklós Németh, Gundula Schafitel, etc.
For many people in this part of the world, the most politically significant event that took place in 1989 was that which took place that summer in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. For people in other parts of the world, however, it was such as the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, Solidarity's election victory, or the Fall of the Berlin Wall (and the Iron Curtain in general) -- and it's the last, along with events taking place in the then Hungarian People's Republic (which itself ceased to exist on October 23rd of that year) that majorly contributed to it, that is the focus of Danish documentary maker Anders Østergaard and Hungary filmmaker Erzsébet Rácz's 1989.
Employing a fascinating mix of filmed interviews, archival footage and "recreated dialogues" (i.e., words that are on the record as having been spoken by the likes of Soviet leader Mikael Gorbachev and East German ruler Erich Honecker being dubbed into footage featuring them so as to seem like they were saying those particular words in those particular scenes), this creative documentary charts how events taking place in Hungary combined to create a situation where the first breaching of the Iron Curtain came to occur in that country.
Some of the events and personalities highlighted in the film will be familiar to many, others less so. With regards to the latter: they include leading Hungarian political lights, such as then prime minister Miklós Németh and his predecessor of several decades before, Imre Nagy -- whose stories turn out to indeed be very interesting and worth knowing -- and Kurt-Werner Schulz, the East German man whose death ended up playing an important role in a fateful decision that Németh would go on to make.
In what could be described as a major coup, Østergaard and Rácz got the cooperation of Miklós Németh -- so that he appeared on camera to recount to the audience his thoughts and reactions to various developments that took place in 1989 as well as in archival footage where he can be seen doing such as taking his oath of office at the age of 40 and at a 1989 Warsaw Pact meeting. The former Hungary prime minister comes across in the film as an unusual leader -- one who didn't want to be involved in keeping many things secret from the Hungarian people but also actively lying to them -- who wasn't just at the right time and right place but really was the right man to be at the helm and therefore play a pivotal role in making history in 1989.
Although the documentary would have been compelling enough even if it focused on the words and actions of the political leaders of the time (and also during the ill-fated Hungarian Revolution of 1956), Østergaard and Rácz opted to also tell the stories of East Germans who sought to cross to the west via Hungary in 1989. And here again, the filmmakers pulled off a coup -- this time in getting the cooperation of Gundula Schafitel, Kurt-Werner Schulz's widows, and some of his friends to recount to the camera some of the thoughts they had back then and even to reenact scenes from their lives that took place some two and half decades ago.
Considering how well Miklós Németh and a number of his fellow Hungarians are portrayed in the film, it's surprising to hear co-director Erzsébet Rácz -- who took part in a Q&A after the screening -- talk about how 1989 hasn't been particularly well received in her native country. For my part, I found her eloquent about events that took place in Europe in 1989 but naive with regards to that which took place in the past year in Hong Kong -- and wish that she had done for Hong Kong even one quarter of the research she had done about her country's past before she came over here to speak at the Hong Kong International Film Festival.
My rating for the film: 8.0