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Balázs, Béla

(1884–1949), film theoretician and screenwriter. Balázs was born Herbert Bauer, the son of assimilated German Jewish parents, both school teachers, in Szeged, Hungary. After studying at the Budapest University of Arts, he published poetry and plays; his friends and associates included composers Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók, philosopher Georg Lukács, art historian Arnold Hauser, and sociologist Karl Mannheim. Balász held several cultural posts with the revolutionary Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919. When the regime fell, he went into exile, first in Vienna—where he published his early works on “film culture”—and then Berlin. Balázs was among the first and most lucid writers on film language, with a particular appreciation for the power of the close-up; his formalism was tempered by a sense of vision as essentially cultural and motion pictures as determined by economics.

A highly regarded scenarist, Balázs wrote numerous screenplays—including the 1930 adaptation of Die Dreigroschenopera (The Threepenny Opera) and Leni Riefenstahl’s 1931 Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light). He was never paid for his contribution to the latter film; later, Riefenstahl would grant Nazi official Julius Streicher “power of attorney in matters of the claims of the Jew Béla Balázs on me.” In 1931, the same year that he joined the German Communist Party, Balázs accepted a Soviet invitation to make a film on the Hungarian Council Republic. The project never came to fruition, but Balázs took an appointment at the Moscow Film Academy. He remained in the Soviet Union for 14 years, writing scenarios, children’s books, and plays, among them a never-completed epic drama to be called “The Wandering Jew.” His summarizing work Istusstvo kino, known in English as Theory of the Film, was published in Moscow in 1945.

Balázs returned to Hungary after World War II; there he helped organize the Academy of Film Art, the Hungarian Film Archives (where his assistant was future director Miklós Jancsó), and worked on the international neorealist success Valahol Európában (Somewhere in Europe), as well as the first production of the now-nationalized film industry Ének a búzamezökröl (Song of the Wheatfields), both 1947. A cosmopolitan socialist, Balázs was subject to political criticism in Hungary, while briefly active in the newly nationalized Czech, Polish, and East German film industries. Nine years after his death, the Hungarian studio for experimental young filmmakers was named for him; Álmodó ifjúság (Dreaming Youth), his 1946 autobiographical novel, was adapted for the screen in 1974 by János Rósza, one of the few Hungarian films of the period with even minimal Jewish content.

Suggested Reading

Béla Balázs, Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art, trans. Edith Bone (New York, 1970); Joseph Zsuffa, Béla Balázs: The Man and the Artist (Berkeley, 1987).