Hungary’s “fascistoid” turn: interview with actor and director Róbert Alföldi

October 9, 2017

Hungary's "fascistoid" turn: interview with actor and director Róbert Alföldi
Photo: Barakonyi

Róbert Alföldi, a Hungarian actor, director and television host, says that Hungary is going in a “proper fascistoid direction,” and that things are becoming sadder and more desperate. The former director of the Hungarian National Theatre gave an interview to where he discusses his most recent production, a theater adaptation of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul”, the politicization of theater and media under Fidesz, and a recent attempt by Fidesz-controlled government institutions to suspend Jobbik.

How did it come about that you put Fassbinder’s work, “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” on the stage?

Fassbinder entered me, something about him really felt right.

Did it matter that one of the main characters of the piece is an Arab immigrant? 

Of course it mattered. The work was the point, not Fassbinder.

It is especially edgy and obviously significantly enlarges the message of the piece that the premier will be right in the middle of an anti-Soros, anti-migration National Consultation and campaign.

There can be a premier any time. Straight dialogue can always be edgy for some reason. Things are going in a proper fascistoid direction in the country.

Do you think the Soros campaign is playing on anti-Semitic feeling?

Absolutely. [Doing] this is always worthwhile in this country. The same messages were written on the earlier Soros billboards as on billboards in Budapest in the 1930s. And since the election is approaching, this has become expanded. There aren’t only billboards, Soros is everywhere now, they see Soros everywhere. But that’s not the problem. The problem is what comes after this.

Like the case in Őcsény?

Yes. If you watch the Index video report from the village, for example, that shows a perfect picture of the country, the total disarray of concepts. In that video, a heavyset Gypsy person sitting in his car says the most normal, human and Christian six sentences of the last three years.

But then there’s Laci Bogdán, the mayor of Cserdi, who offered the refugees that weren’t welcomed in Őcsény to come to his village for vacation. So there’s such hot-cold events that people can only shake their heads while becoming sadder and more desperate. But this opinion isn’t particularly special coming from me. At most, I’m infinitely sad that nothing is happening that would prove me wrong.

While “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” was playing in the 1970s, people [in Germany] largely rejected the Arab guest workers at first. Quite so. [In the film], Emmi, the German cleaning lady, is ostracized for getting together with Ali, who is of Arab origin. 

Yes, but that’s not the point of the film either. Rather, the film analyzes – and it is therefore important to show, so we can see – how it can be that from the kind of mood that we have now in Hungary, the people in Germany didn’t go in a tougher, more aggressive, more dismissive direction, but instead went precisely the opposite way.

There weren’t different emotions, different habits, different prejudices there than there are here. The society just tried to turn this a tiny bit, and it went toward normal coexistence. This is exactly what I think is very important in this story: how much everything depends on what direction people go in their own tiny micro-environment.

Was it somehow conscious that after Incendies – which shows the horrors of war through the very grave personal story of a refugee family – you went for a piece which is about the kind of immigrant who is not a refugee but merely went to Germany in the hopes of a better life?

What do you think? That I lined up the pieces that I should do one after the other with philosophical, ideological and other educational intentions three or four years ahead of time?

Well, the last couple of pieces have pointed in a rather similar direction. 

The last couple of pieces, like every piece that I’ve put on stage thus far, have been about what we’re living in, what concerns me as a citizen. I wish this didn’t feel as if it were a connected chain. What we have now angers me terribly and I consider it awful.

You gave a long interview to Index in spring in which you said that the theater profession is now characterized by a false peace, and that you are hearing things that were characteristic in the times of the [single-party state]. Has anything changed since then?  

Nothing. Everyone accepted the rules of the game, and that you’ve got to prevail within that.

The situation might be a little different in the media. 

Why, what’s up there?

People are still fighting, there are attempts. 

What kind of fighting? There are a few channels which attempt to press the truth, the rest have become government mouthpieces.

I’m thinking exactly of those few channels which are still trying to do their work. 

But do journalists have any leeway? They don’t. So what kind of fighting is going on? No kind. Either they kick [journalists] out or they leave on their own accord.

It’s a fact that the incorporation of the media is going on, but it hasn’t been totally hushed yet.  

I’m sorry, but the incorporation and the fact that we’re resisting the incorporation is not the same thing. So what’s happening in the media? The same thing as in the theater profession: do you accept or not accept the situation? And if you don’t accept it, then they kick you out or you leave on your own. Nothing is happening because everyone is brave in retrospect, brave on Facebook. There is no alliance anywhere in anything.

Népszabadság was ploughed under just a year ago. Last year you expressed solidarity with the paper. What do you think about this whole thing in retrospect? 

I don’t think anything special, just the same thing I think about all other similar cases: anything that isn’t doing what the government would like will sooner or later be made impossible to operate, bought, transformed or closed.

It’s been five years, so now a new leader will be elected to lead the National Theatre. Had it occurred to you to run for the post again as a joke?

I already ran as a joke five years ago.

Do you ever still think about it?

About what?

About the National Theatre. Everyone is always asking you about this, there’s hardly an interview where it doesn’t come up.

I’m not thinking about that anymore while everyone else is always thinking about it. What can I do about that?

No one can do anything about it anymore. 

Well, that’s right.

There was news in 2014 according to which it came up in certain political formations that you could be the opposition candidate for Budapest mayor. There’s quite a bit of chaos right now on the left. Would you want to help them by perhaps becoming their candidate for prime minister? 

No (laughs). If Süsü (director and writer Árpád Schilling – ed.) will accept a nomination for prime minster, then I will accept the nomination for president of the republic.

It seems that the opposition is unable to get itself together and take advantage of the fact that those who would like a change in government are in the majority. 

But they won’t be [in the majority].

Well, not really, like this. 

For sure. I think that Fidesz is going to win two-thirds of the vote, if not four-fifths.

That would be really “nice.” 

Very “nice.” Four “amazing” years are on the way.

Do you hold grudges?

No. I don’t hold grudges, but there are people who have done such things after which I “erased” them. You shouldn’t take that literally, I don’t have a temper about it, I still talk to them, but if I lose my trust in someone then they can’t get it back. Why do you ask anyway?

It occurred to me that [TV host] Alinda Veiszer told Index that she calls you in vain, that out of resentment you’re still not willing to see her on Hir TV because Lajos Simicska’s TV station hurt you so much before G-Day [when former Fidesz treasurer and oligarch Lajos Simicska broke with Prime Minister Orbán by publicly calling him a motherf*cker].

Alinda said it poorly. I’m not mad and I’m not resentful. It’s very simple: this station didn’t change because [Hir TV] saw what they had done before was bad, but because the owner had fallen from grace.

That is, it changed because of money, and for five years before it abused and bad-mouthed me in the most vulgar way. That’s why I’ll happily go on that television, but it has its price.

Jobbik also behaves quite vulgarly with you. But now they’re in the news not because they’re going after someone but because they are exceptionally in the crosshairs. The prosecutor’s office launched an investigation against them, a strange government decree came out on stricter sanctions involving parties, and figures close to the government have begun talking about banning the party. 

Maybe all the people who are yelling on all kinds of Jobbik portals and at their events will stop yelling against the so-called liberals and instead see what’s going on here.

What do you think about this case?

What I think about Jobbik’s program is a completely different thing from what I think about its communication or about Jobbik itself. Because I think nothing good about them, at all! However, that they would ban a quasi-legally functioning party because they are an opponent of the government is absurd.