Review: Variations on a Theme (1963)

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Directed by: István Szabó | 10 minutes | short movie

“Variations on a Theme” (“Variációk egy témára”) is a short film that Szabó made at the Béla Bálasz film studio and which received enthusiastic reactions. In this film, Szabó’s fascination with war, and its consequences for people and society – a theme he would return to often in his feature films – becomes clear.

This short film consists of three even shorter film parts. The first part consists of all kinds of literal images of war, accompanied by cheerful classical music. The first images are still “innocent”: smiling soldiers, overhead shots of a row of tanks in a shed, a group of bombers in the air, groups of people giving the Hitler salute with a smile on their face. Until misery breaks out. The bombs are falling, houses are burning down. And where we mainly saw the soldiers in the picture before, we now mainly see the victims, who lie lifeless on the ground and are sniffed by a horse. All misery.

The second video shows (presumably) a father with his son, walking in a museum where weapons from the war are displayed. The boy initially looks at the pistols and grenades out of interest, but both get more and more adrenaline rushes when the father tells and demonstrates how the weapons were used. This piece is shown without sound for a long time, but suddenly when the father simulates a machine gun, we hear the real sound of this weapon on the soundtrack. Horrifying. Especially when we see the little boy standing near here smiling.

The third film seems to be completely stripped of war. A group of people are sitting on a sunny terrace enjoying a drink or a cigarette while the waitress happily walks around. But something strange is going on. Everyone on the terrace is wearing sunglasses, including the saxophone player on the wall. When we see a man playing with the push button of his pen, we suddenly hear the sound of marching soldiers to the beat of the press. And also combing one’s hair is accompanied by this sound. What does this mean? Has everyone, symbolized by the sunglasses, averted their eyes from possible danger that could be near? The marching sound gets louder, that is, gets closer. And then suddenly one of those present takes off his sunglasses and looks at what is approaching …

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