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DIRECTED BY: Benjamin Meade, Andras Suranyi

FEATURING: Erno Locsei, Stan Brakhage, James Ellroy, Roy Menninger, Etuska Locsei

PLOT: Filmmakers discover a batch of home movies shot by a Hungarian family in the years following World War II; they set out to find surviving members of the family, while calling upon a group of expert viewers to help them interpret the footage.

Still from Vakvagany (2002)

COMMENTS: For as long as there have been movies, there have been professionals who seek to deliver a story to a wider audience, and there have been amateurs who only wish to record personal moments for later reminiscence. When it comes to the latter, the idea that anyone beyond a very small circle might see the footage borders on absurd. To reach a mass audience, the film would have to present something of enormous significance, like the scene captured by Abraham Zapruder in Dallas in November 1963. Or perhaps it could be used to comment on current events, such as to understand the accused subjects of Capturing the Friedmans. But beyond that, a home movie seems of little public value outside of the home, and to watch one uninvited feels nosy at best and invasive at worst.

The directors of Vakvagany seem to feel they’ve backed into a Rear Window scenario. Someone has found some old home movies, they’ve watched them, and they’ve seen some surprising things: a couple sorting through a treasure trove of jewelry and other valuables. Unusually lengthy shots of a nude infant. Footage of a mother holding her toddler son’s penis as he attempts to urinate. “What’s going on here?” they must have asked themselves. “Is this immoral? Criminal, even?” Their snooping has led them to a possibly unsavory place, and now they feel compelled to know more.

In these discovered films, we meet the Locsei family, and the first facts we receive are unsettling. Mr. Locsei was evidently a functionary in the postwar Hungarian government. A neighbor suggests he may have overseen the collection of valuables from Jews who were deported to concentration camps during the war, which may explain that delighted sorting of valuables we witnessed. (On the other hand, it will be suggested later in the film that Mr. Locsei was actually saving these possessions to be returned to their owners.) We also see his wife cavorting with grapes, which matches with suggestions of alcoholism. Most importantly, we see the two Locsei children, who don’t relish being on camera, hardly surprising given some of the awkward moments to which they’ve been subjected. 

To help us out, the filmmakers have enlisted onscreen interpreters, who are shockingly confident in their impromptu reactions. Legendary experimentalist Brakhage, upon seeing a father embracing his squirming daughter, opines, “I don’t quite believe his hugs,” and later compares the son’s efforts to free his arm from his father’s grasp to a Nazi salute. (“Perhaps I’m reading too much into it,” he then admits.) Psychiatrist Menninger wryly notes the professional skill of the cameraman and questions the passivity of the children. Ellroy charitably chalks up several of the stranger behaviors to differences in time and place, a charitable reaction considering his earlier confusion over why anyone would shoot home movies in the first place. 

The tone changes halfway through when we get our first look at the grownup boy Erno, now a slovenly older man with apparent developmental issues. He holds a job picking up litter which he qualified for by having no education. He drinks heartily when given the means, doesn’t bathe (according to his caretaker), plucks out tuneless melodies on a piano, and urinates in public as willingly as we once saw him do reluctantly. And during this new footage, the commenters continue to pass judgment, speaking with authority and impressing upon us their reactions of danger, disdain, and doubt, even though they are just as uninformed as we are.

The filmmakers might argue that I’m proving their point by bringing my own biases to this review, and… yeah, that’s just how this works. But Meade and Suranyi want to be let off the hook by placing the burden of the observation on their audience. They admit as much in a lengthy and defensive text prologue, which declares, “This film is an experiment in cinematic language. It seeks to explore the meaning and memories created by celluloid images… Its aim is to expand the possibilities of modern cinema, allowing viewers to construct a meaning of the film themselves.” Except that this is a bunch of hand-waving claptrap. They’ve created nothing new here, nor have they treated or edited the film in such a way as to give it new meaning. They’ve intentionally omitted narration or commentary, which also means we have the barest sense of provenance or completeness. Through the ominous score by the Alloy Orchestra, they’ve put their thumb on the scale to make you think “creepy.” In short, these guys haven’t left it to viewers to decide at all.

The movie takes a critical turn in the final act, when Erno leads the filmmakers to the home of his reclusive sister, Etuska. Someone (who, is not made clear) breaks into her unkempt house. Smash cut to a panicked cameraman hightailing it out of the house with the irate woman in vocal pursuit. “You have invaded my personal rights,” she declares. (She is, of course, correct.) We see the entire conversation, despite Etuska’s insistence that she refuses to be filmed. At this point, a very important fact should become clear: we’re not learning anything from this movie. There is no insight into a famous figure, no discovery of a terrible crime. “Why are you making this film?” she demands. It’s a fair question. As Ellroy concludes, all the things that would make this story compelling are missing: plot, inciting action, context. And that’s the dirty little secret of documentary: it still has to have a story. To just be “real life” is not enough. Perhaps that’s why the English-language title for this film is sometimes given as “Dead End.” (Google Translate reports that the literal translation of  “vakvagany” from Hungarian is “stupidity.”) The filmmakers have traveled a road that doesn’t go anywhere.

Vakvagany sets out to answer a genuinely fascinating question: what can we learn about people from their movies, and what can we predict about people from the clues they give us? It seems to indicate that we can’t learn a single thing. If anything, Vakvagany doesn’t want you to draw your conclusions. It opposes drawing any conclusions at all. You might get the gist, but there’s no way to be right.


“… it all sounds quite weird, and while I appreciated what was being done as the film progressed, it was too incoherent and frustrating to be in any way successful.” – Matt Cale, Ruthless Reviews (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by david, who called it “the weirdest Documentary I think I’ve ever seen.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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