A Date in Hungarian History: April 30, 1901

István Arato

A Date in Hungarian History: April 30, 1901

Top: Uránia Színház, street view; interior; detail; Bottom: scenes from the different sections of the film.

The beginning of Hungarian cinema dates back to 1896, when a work of the Lumière brothers was shown in Budapest on May 10th.  A month later, the first Hungarian theater opened on Andrássy út.  This first site did not become very popular, and unfortunately closed shortly.  The first film shooting was also in 1896, commemorating the Millennium Celebration, the march at Buda Castle. But the first deliberately produced Hungarian film, containing dramatized scenes, did not come along until 1901.  It was called “A táncz” (“The Dance”).

The movie, directed by Zsitkovszky Béla, a projectionist, is based on the idea of the writer Pekár Gyula.  He had just returned from a trip to Spain, had written about his trip and presented his experiences with a series of moving pictures.  Based on this, the Minister of Education, Molnár Viktor, who also happened to be the Director of the recently established Uránia Tudományos Színház (Uránia Scientific Theater), asked him to develop educational programs with projected pictures. 

Pekár’s presentation on Spain was a huge success.  It was followed by a series of 10 programs, of which “A táncz” became the third, describing the history of dance.

According to the National Film Institute, "Pekár Gyula decided to illustrate his lecture on the history of dance from Antiquity to the 20th century with his film.  He converted a projector into a camera and used this to take the first moving images on the roof terrace of Uránia.  Those involved in this film shoot were leading actors of the age, including Blaha Lujza, Márkus Emilia, Hegedüs Gyula, and ballerinas of the Opera House.”

Members of the Nemzeti Színház (National Theater) enthusiastically participated in the shooting.  The Opera’s ballet master rehearsed the dances with the 36-member ballet corps lent for the occasion, to the music provided by the orchestra of the Uránia Színház and the Radics Béla orchestra. 

The film is around twenty minutes long; Zsitkovszky made twenty-four 1-2 minute cinematographs.  Divided into three acts, the movie relates many different dance variations, beginning with ancient Greek mythology and Salome’s dance, the latter being danced by Márkus Emilia.  The second act presented 16th to 18th century Italian, Spanish and French dances.  The third act began with a Japanese dance, since Fedák Sári was, at the time, acting a geisha in a theater production.  Her three-minute performance was added to the film only later, in May of 1901.  The rest of the third act showed 19th century (contemporary at the time!) dances from an assortment of foreign ethnic groups, with three foreign film inserts, and presented a group of Hungarian dances. 

The end, most interestingly, presents three variations of the famous Hungarian csárdás: The first was a ”cabbage-treading” satirical form, as danced at upper class balls.  The second version was a fiery Hungarian csárdás and finally, the real one, a dance performed by the village people, in contrast to the first version.

An accident that happened on April 3rd, 1901 destroyed all Pekár’s work, jeopardizing the first Hungarian movie.  A fundraiser was undertaken to collect money with public help.  All the recordings were remade, and despite the accident, the film opened as planned on April 30th

According toDirector György Ráduly, the Hungarian National Film Institute would be able to find lost movies commemorates its annual Hungarian Film Day on that date.  This year the Institute will also introduce the research program for recapturing Hungarian film history.  Approximately one-third of all Hungarian films produced in the last 120 years were lost or vanished.  Unfortunately, the film “A táncz” is one of the many films that have been lost or are missing, and the program will be an excellent help to research them; so far, only some pictures and posters of the famous Hungarian first movie have been found.  The National Film Institute Director, György Ráduly, said that it would be able to find lost movies, and they are going to be at their digital archives.

Not many years after the debut of the movie “The Dance”, film screenings became very enjoyable in coffee shops around Budapest, and lots of movie theaters were available by 1911.

István Arato, son of Hungarian immigrant parents, was born in São Paolo, Brazil where he was a journalist.  He came to the US in 1996 and attends the Hungarian School sponsored by Magyar Studies of America in Fairfield, CT.  He is a member of the Magyar News Editorial Board.