Péter Bokor was a producer and director of documentaries who played a crucial role in reshaping popular knowledge on Hungarian history under the Kádár regime and after the regime change in 1989. He grew up in Kaposvár in an intellectual-merchant family. His father worked as a pharmacist. World War II had a lasting impact on how he perceived Hungarian history and its impact on his life. He was the only survivor of his family, which had Jewish origins. His mother was deported and never returned, and his brother died as a member of the forced labour service when the Second Hungarian Army was destroyed in fighting along bank of the Don River. Bokor hid using fake identity papers during the German occupation of Hungary, when a puppet government under the Arrow Cross Party was set up. At the end of 1944, Bokor was captured and taken to a camp on the western border of Hungary. Here, he and the other captives were held in open buildings without any comforts. They were likely either to freeze to death or be deported to a concentration camp. With the help of an elderly captive, he escaped. On the run, he was almost caught in a raid, but prompted by a sudden idea, he pretended to be a German Hungarian and joined the SS. He was given armoured car-training by a Waffen-SS corps, and was deployed to the area next to Berlin, but he escaped from the battlefield. He suffered a serious injury to his foot, however, and he was taken captive by the British. In captivity, he explained his real identity. The end of the war found him in a British field hospital in Schwerin in northern Germany.
He joined the illegal communist party during the war and, naturally, he sympathized with them after his homecoming in 1946. Thanks to his party connections and excellent knowledge of German (which he had acquired in the SS), he was employed as an export correspondence clerk at the communist film agency, Mafirt. In 1947, he was transferred to the department of dramaturgy, a position which he enjoyed much more and where he decided to commit himself to the film industry for his entire life. Until 1958, he worked at various film companies, including one of the largest, Pannónia Film Studio. Over the course of this decade, however, his relationship with the Party was troubled. In the 2000s, in a TV-interview he recalled that his loyalty was shaken as he saw the Party building a dictatorship. The distrust was mutual: his alienation was accelerated by his exclusion from the Party. According to the official explanation, he was guilty of having put on the uniform of the enemy. Bokor was readmitted to the Party later, but as he remembered, he could neither forgive nor forget this unfair procedure, and his disappointment proved to be a lasting experience.
The life and career of Péter Bokor and the history of the Hungarian television were closely interwoven. The Hungarian State Television was launched in 1957. Its operation was strictly supervised by the party, but cultural politics changed in the 1960s, and political pressure eased. Bokor’s career in television began in 1961, and his first independent feature-length documentary film came out that year. The documentary Halálkanyar (Death Bend) is about the decimation of the Second Hungarian Army at the Don River by the Soviets in 1943. This was an issue which could hardly be dealt with objectively in the Hungarian media on the rare occasions when it was even addressed. The documentary was seen by an outstandingly high number of viewers: one million in one single year. In the film, Bokor used archival footage shot on the Eastern front. He was the first person in the history of Hungarian film to do this.
In 1966, the Hungarian television had 900,000 subscribers. By 1972, this number had increased to two million. It became evident to party leaders that popular documentaries could be an efficient means of propaganda. As a result, historical documentaries were given state support and also almost 10 percent of the entire program time. The Agitation and Propaganda Department of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party supervised the work, and as was true in the case of journals and the printed media, the chief editor had to take political responsibility for the content. In 1961, Bokor made his debut in the genre which eventually became associated with him: he wrote and directed his first documentary series. Panoptikum (Wax Museum) consisted of eight parts. It was about important political figures of the interwar period in Hungary. Bokor used archival materials as sources and interviews he himself had done. This was the first series in which politicians of the Horthy era and Horthy’s close associates were given voice. Unfortunately, the original interviews done by Bokor did not survive.
His most famous series, Századunk (Our Century), launched was started in 1965 with the support of György Ránki, the deputy director of the Institute of History at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The series covered the history of twentieth-century Hungary, and it was a prime time program on Hungarian TV. By 1988, fifty episodes had been completed, and almost half of them were about one single year: from the German invasion of Hungary on 19 March 1944 to the Soviet “liberation,” as it was called in the Kádár era. Bokor faced challenges during the production of the series, and production was stopped between 1971 and 1976. This was a period when politicians seeking a Stalinist restoration found a foothold, and conflicts between the creators and the management of the Hungarian Television escalated. According to Gergely Oláh-Bakody, who relies on the interviews he did with the producers of the series, chairman of the Hungarian State Television István Tömpe did not approve of the scripts of the episodes and financially undermined the production of the series.
In the years when no new episodes of Századunk were allowed to be produced, Bokor led the Híradó és Dokumentumfilm Stúdió (News and Documentary Film Studio) for a year from 1972, and from 1972 to 1986 he was employed as a film director at Mafilm (Hungarian Film Studio). In 1974, when Richárd Nagy took over the presidium of the Hungarian Television, negotiations were started to relaunch Századunk. Bokor was able to continue his work, but he could not entirely avoid censorship. Even as late as 1988, he was required by the head of the Television, György Vajda, to revise certain episodes. For instance, Miklós Horthy, the former regent of Hungary, was portrayed in too favourable a light in Vajda’s judgement. Bokor’s main supporter, the historian Ránki, was abroad at the time and could not intervene on Bokor’s side.
In addition to the political conditions and the quality of the technical equipment, two further conditions profoundly affected Bokor’s activity as a documentary filmmaker. First, Bokor’s documentaries profited from the changes in historical studies which were underway from the 1960s on. György Ránki, Gyula Juhász, and other historians developed new approaches and employed new methodologies reflective of scholarship in the West. They navigated the historiography on the recent past, from rigidly ideological interpretations to historical accounts which were based on critical reviews of a wide variety of sources, without preselecting these sources on an ideological basis. Bokor aspired to employ this kind of approach in the documentaries he produced, and he wanted to mediate the most recent findings of the discipline to the wider public. Bokor based his work on careful research, and he featured “talking heads” when telling the story of a historical event. Bokor compiled eyewitness accounts and archive film recordings with an excellent sense, which he had acquired when he had been working as a dramaturg. In addition to the statements made by eyewitnesses, the episodes included something that was innovative in Hungary at the time: certain historical scenes were staged, and actors and actresses played the characters. All these elements were bonded by narrative reflecting the most recent findings of Hungarian historiography at the time.
Another process which profoundly affected Bokor was the acrid dispute concerning historical feature films, which began in the mid-1960s. History feature films emerged as a popular genre in the film industry at the time, with significant productions like Hideg Napok (“Cold Days”) by András Kovács, Tízezer Nap (“Ten Thousand Days”) by Ferenc Kósa, and Miklós Jancsó’s historical parables. These films triggered discussions on how to narrate events of the recent past in film, and an interest in personal storytelling emerged. According to historian Réka Sárközy, the new documentaries emerging in the 1960s could be understood as products of this intellectual milieu, and they facilitated personal engagement with a traumatic and suppressed recent past (like the events of 1944 and the deportations, the events of the Rákosi era, and 1956).
It was Bokor who introduced the method of oral history in television shows. He recorded the life stories of well-known historical figures, but he also allowed other witnesses, who were not the main actors but had had a direct experience of the events, to speak. He was working primarily in Hungary, but also in émigré circles abroad, and he did interviews with some former Nazi officers in German. By getting access to witness accounts, Bokor could often provide more nuanced histories in his documentaries than the official history writing of the time.
Bokor was well aware that doing interviews with people who were considered enemies of the regime was not a safe practice, so he looked for supporters in the party apparatus. According to his reminiscence, his work was supported by the Administration Department of the party headquarters, a section which supervised the armed forces. Bokor was allowed to do these historical interviews, but he was not allowed to screen them. In addition, the political leadership prohibited him from interviewing four specific people: former prominent Communist politicians Ernő Gerő and Pál Demény, army officer and protagonist of the 1956 revolution Béla Király, and the widow of László Rajk, who had been the main victim of the famous 1951 political trial. Bokor did not abide by these rules. Although he did not attempt to talk with Gerő, he personally knew Júlia Rajk (Lászlo Rajk’s widow), and he did (and recorded) an interview with her in secret. During his trip to the United States, Bokor also set up a talk with Béla Király, who lived in exile. Even as late as 1989 the chairman of the Hungarian television did not permit this film to be screened.
Many important historical figures were interviewed for the first time by Bokor. These people included Alfred Trenker, commandant of the Gestapo in Budapest, Wilhelm Höttl, the head of the SS in Hungary, Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments in the Third Reich, and Franz Novak, member of the Eichmann-Kommando. The quest to find prominent figures of Nazi Germany was time consuming, and it demanded persistent research. Bokor also managed to meet with Edmund Veesenmayer, plenipotentiary of the Third Reich in Hungary and one of the main perpetrators of the Holocaust in Hungary. According to Bokor, during a preliminary meeting, Veesenmayer agreed to a recorded interview, but he died before the unique film could actually be made.In 1985, Bokor and Gábor Hanák founded the video collection of the National Széchényi Library. The Collection of Historical Interviews includes more than 400 interviews which were recorded by Bokor. Naturally, these interviews are much longer than the excerpts that Bokor used in his films. Hence, Péter Bokor added an important collection to the historical sources on the twentieth.
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- Pécs, Hungary
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- Huhák, Heléna
- Scheibner, Tamás