Kadár, Ján (1918–1979)


Ján Kadár, the Hungarian-born, Czechoslovak film director who won an Oscar for his film The Shop on Main Street in 1966. The Film Archive Library, which became an independent institution in 1959, coincidentally also on 1 April, preserves a few of his personal papers that allow us to reconstruct the fate typical of a Central-Eastern European artist.

Jan Kadár, János Kádár
1April 1918, Budapest, Austro-Hungarian Monarchy
1 June 1979, Los Angeles, USA

Ján Kadár was born Kádár János in Budapest on 1 April 1918, in the final year of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, to a family with Jewish, Hungarian and Slovak roots. He spent his childhood in the newly established Czechoslovakia, and more precisely, the multi-nationality town of Rožňava (Hungarian: Rozsnyó). His personal life and film career were defined by a diverse, Central European and American cultural rootedness and identity.

On finishing school, he began studying law but quit the Charles University in Prague after two years in order to attend the School of Photography and Film in Bratislava, which was one of the first (and short-lived) institutions of film studies in Europe. In 1938, under the terms of the First Vienna Award, Rožňava once again came under Hungarian control, and since the scope of the Hungarian Jewish acts extended to these new areas, Ján Kadár soon found himself in a labour camp in Vác. His parents, sister and her children were deported to Auschwitz, never to return.

(Václav Macek: Ján Kadár. Bratislava: FOTOFO – Central European House of Photography, 2011)

“…I’m waiting each day impatiently for the post. There’s no news from Edith. I wrote to Pista, but he still hasn’t replied. My dear Mother, whatever happens I am always with you in my thoughts, and I believe, and I want to believe, that we will meet again in health. A million kisses to both of you, János” (Card posted from the Vác camp to his mother, 5 June 1944)

In 1945, he returned to Bratislava, made his first documentary film A romkon kihajt az élet (Shoots of life in the ruins), he acted as an assistant and wrote screenplays. In 1950, he made his first feature film (Katka). After the war, he met the Czech director Elmar Klos, who was eight years older than him and, at the time, secretary of the film association. They soon discovered that they shared an interest in subjects and were effective in working together. Their first joint film was Kidnapped (1952), and this was followed by 17 years of fruitful collaboration. They had their own way of sharing out the work: they sought out subjects and wrote the screenplay together, then Kadár’s job was the filming and dealing with the actors, while Klos was in charge of organization.

Their first works were not to the liking of the authorities. In 1958, their satirical comedy Three Wishes pillorying the cult of the personality was banned and they themselves were disqualified from filmmaking for five years; during this time they worked in a theatre. On their return, they made their three most important works. Death is Called Engelchen (1963) was about the Slovak partisan movement, The Accused (1964) is a reckoning about Stalinism, and The Shop on Main Street (1965), a tragic story about urban deportation, won an Oscar in 1965. In 1968, they wanted to shoot a new adaptation of Lajos Zilahy’s novel Something Is Drifting on the Water, but it was completed without Kadár due to his emigration (Desire Called Anada, 1969).

Kadár taught major figures of the Czech New Wave movement at the legendary Czechoslovak film school FAMU. In the wake of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and stifling of the Prague Spring (1968), similarly to other outstanding personalities of Czech filmmaking Kadár also emigrated; he went on to make films in the US and Canada and became a lecturer at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles.

History twice interrupted the career of the emigrant director (from Slovakia to Czechia, and from there overseas): World War II and the Soviet invasion of 1968. He attended three universities but never completed any of them, and he became a defining figure of Czech and Canadian film art as a self-made man. In total, he directed 16 full-length feature films. The film made from the Malamud screenplay (Angel Levine, 1970) had Harry Belafonte in the lead role, and he won a Golden Globe for his film Lies My Father Told Me (1975). In 1969, The New York Times selected him as one of the world’s top 50 film personalities. And yet, when after a short illness he died in Los Angeles at the age of 61, an obituary published in Hungary claimed he remained an outsider in Hollywood despite his awards and important positions he had held.

After the death of the director, a few of his personal papers found their way to Mrs. Ranódy Lászlóné, who donated them to the Film Archive in 1980.

Letter from Mrs. Ranódy to István Molnár, the then director of the Film Archive, in 1980:

Dear Pista,

Jan Kadar (Kádár János), Oscar-winning Czech film director, died in America. His personal documents have been left to me. I believe that these will be of greater value to you. After all, he was an Oscar Prize winner of Hungarian descent. In addition, his family sent a tape recording in which János is speaking. I will send this on to you later, it is just that it doesn’t ‘fit’ into the envelope now.

Warmest greetings,
Katalin Kótzián Dr. Ranódyné
Bp. II. 1026. Harangvirág utca 6.

The story of the bequest of Kadár, who was Slovakian to the Czechs, Hungarian to the Slovaks, and Eastern European to the Americans, followed a typical path: the Hungarian Film Archive was keen to pass on these papers to the Czechoslovak Film Archive, saying that this material was of more value to them since, after all, Kadár “became a recognized figure and prize winner primarily as a Czechoslovak director”. However, for whatever reason, the transfer never happened, thus these documents – everything from Ján Kadár’s party membership booklet to his film ID booklet – are still preserved in the library of the Budapest archive. The restored masterpiece The Shop on Main Street that we screened at the 2017 Classical Film Marathon in the slot ‘Hungarian-born directors who found fame abroad’ is a work that critics to this day still rank as the finest Czechoslovak film.