Monday 7 June 2021

[BEYONDE] Marcell Jankovics, Hungarian Animator

I came to praise Marcell Jankovics, not to bury him. After all, his visionary, psychedelic animation masterpiece, Fehérlófia [Son of the White Mare, 1981] is finally getting the US Blu-Ray treatment in a new, restored 4K edition, the sort of recognition it deserved many years ago. I already had part of this post written when I learned from the news that Jankovics was dead at the age of 79. The post, once a recommendation, had turned into an eulogy. We lose the greats, but at least this time, we have the work: the restoration (which Jankovics had closely overseen), the Blu-Ray, and – by incredible fortune – the finished version on Toldi, his final project, expected to debut in Hungary in late 2021, and worldwide somewhat later.

But first things first, Fehérlófia. If you are a fan of fantasy, myth, animation, or a combination of the three, this is a film you owe it to yourself to watch. Based on a Hungarian folk tale that exists in several variations, and is considered particularly archaic, this is a modern retelling of primordial myth, with bold visuals and heavy symbolism. It is a story of mythic heroes – archetypes – struggling with the forces of nature and an undefined evil. It is the story of Treeshaker, a great hero born of a white mare (who breastfeeds him for fourteen years, granting him sufficient strength to uproot trees); two mighty companions who are almost but not quite as strong (Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer); and their journey to the Mythical Underworld (really!) to defeat three dragons and rescue three princesses. It is a journey set against a backdrop of titanic forces of nature, archaic bestial horrors, and a world where simple human craft takes on the importance of religious ritual. The tale is universal: it is the tale of pre-historic, pre-modern man in his youth, finding his way in a dangerous and grand world. 

There are very few animations which look like Fehérlófia, and none that look exactly like it: Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen compares with its feverish visions and golden colours, and also with its modern yet deeply respectful treatment of its source material. Jankovics’ animation works with bold shapes and radiant colours. It is psychedelic, although without recourse to drug use: it aims to depict the unreal, and employs unreal visuals to this end. It is heavy with symbolism, from the spiritual to the psycho-sexual (of varying subtlety), and it is particularly rich in motifs taken from folk art: flowers and geometric patterns which shift, move and meld into each other; jagged shapes contrasted with flowing curves. There is a splendour to the film’s imagery, and it is a visual journey from start to finish. (Parenthetically, if you can’t obtain, or don’t want the Blu-Ray, there is a full, pre-restoration version with subtitles here: https://www.y – link deliberately broken to safeguard it.)

Like most products of its time, the cartoon is laden with hidden meaning as well. In repressive cultural environments, art is filled with secret messages you have to decode to interpret properly. Well-known stories are used as vehicles to speak about current issues that cannot be spoken about in the open. Fehérlófia is a retelling of myth with a heavy use of symbols, but it is also an outraged, powerless cry about the devastation and wilful destruction of a society. The story’s setup, the White Mare’s flight from a mechanised an all-seeing terror, is easy to see as a vision of totalitarianism; the draconic chimeras fought by Treeshaker are embodiments not just of human vices, but also the more hateful aspects of over-consumption, modern warfare, and the faceless dread of the digital age. There is a haunting, mourning tone to the work that treats the age of myth as a distant echo, as something that has passed and shall never return. When the opening dedication reads, “In the memory of the Scythian, Hunnic, Avar, and other plains people”, the careful viewer knows that “other plains people” means “and Hungarian people”, past tense included. When the tale ends, with the customary “And they lived happily ever after, until they died” of Hungarian folktales, the “until they died” part seems to take on a peculiar significance.

Why did Jankovics see the world in apocalyptic tones, especially in the relatively permissive 1980s? Arch-pessimism is certainly the default stance of his works: in the bittersweet “happy ending” of Johnny Corncob, in the abstract shorts Sisyphus and The Struggle, and in his quixotic 28-year (1983 to 2011) journey to adapt The Tragedy of Man, Hungary’s grand 19th century play about the ultimate futility of history and human progress, to an animated movie. In Jankovics, personal experience met with the Hungarians’ baseline brooding nature. As a child of the 1940s, he was nine when his father, a member of the anti-nazi resistance, was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to lifelong forced labour on trumped-up charges; he was only released to go home to die. The point was not to punish a specific crime, but to humiliate and break what remained of the Christian middle class, and reallocate their belongings to regime loyalists: masses of families were deported with minimal belongings to the countryside for menial labour, and housed in chicken coops, pigsties and stables. Jankovics later studied at Pannonhalma, Hungary’s most ancient Benedictine school, the only one allowed to operate with heavy restrictions; in his class, the majority of pupils came from families where one or both parents were dead, in prison, or under police supervision. The students of this prestigious school could count on graduate to become outcasts from society. Jankovics’ applications for architect school were rejected year after year. It was clear he would never be allowed to obtain a higher degree. He worked various menial jobs to support himself, until Fortune, or perhaps Providence smiled on him: while he could not be an architect, he was hired as a phase animator for Pannonia Film, Hungary’s cartoon studio.

Of all inhabitants of an unhappy country that held the world record of per capita suicides and abortions, and whose inhabitants mostly died of preventable malaises much earlier than other, similarly developed states, children at least had it fairly good. The regime had exiled its undesirable authors, poets and playwrights into childrens’ literature; and the best artists of the time went on to produce amazing, literate works of art for the young generation. Pannonia was an isle of excellence in a system that pushed everyone into grey mediocrity; its director, while a party loyalist, was fairly reform-minded. Jankovics worked his way up through the ranks to direct shorts, and got his big break with Johnny Corncob (1973), a feature-length story of a young shepherd who becomes a hussar and a hero to win the hand of his love from an evil stepmother. Johnny Corncob was much influenced by George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine (you can spot the blue meanies if you look enough), but also began Jankovics’ lifelong infatuation with folk art and symbolism. The cartoon was a success, even on the international level. It was picked up by Hanna-Barbera for US distribution, and to the author’s colossal disappointment, put in a box and never shown to local audiences – raising the question whether HB had made a mistake, or was just trying to cheaply block overseas competition from its US markets.


It would be fair to say that Jankovics was to Hungary as Miyazaki is to Japan. In my childhood, he was one of the two giants of animation. Attila Dargay made Disney-style stories about cute talking animals (and well made ones, too – in this scene, you can even spot Yours Truly lording over various forest critters), while Jankovics made weirder and – at least on the level of subtext – mode adult fare. Around them were the lesser peaks of a golden age of animated films – from Zsolt Richly’s proto-Powerpuff Girls work in The Rabbit With the Checkered Ears; through my generation’s non-anime anime cult classic, Cat City; Gyorgy Kovasznai’s long-forgotten but recently restored, avant-garde Bubble Bath (which, unlike Fehérlófia, very much does involve hallucinogenic drugs); the Oscar-nominated The Fly (it is about politics, and its director got into serious trouble for it); and whatever the HELL Sandor Reisenbüchler was doing. But these two were at the top of the game – both great and prolific.

Me when I see a Twitter

For people my age, Jankovics’ most recognisable work is undoubtedly Hungarian Folk Tales, the long-running TV animation series (nine seasons from 1977 to 2011, 100 episodes). These shorts were collaborations with various other artists (particularly with dramaturgist Agnes Balint, the uncrowned queen of Hungarian child’s literature), but the vision bears the mark of the originator: they are abstract, economic in their animation style (for both stylistic and cost-cutting reasons), and the episodes each draw on the motifs and style of a specific Hungarian ethnographic region. As it tends to go, the first few seasons directed hands-on by Jankovics are superior in vision; the later ones are fun, but more conventional. As a kid, I accepted them at face value; it was on later rewatching that I discovered their excellence and visual power. In a great gift to international animation, the studio has made the episodes freely available on Youtube, in a dubbed version no less. It is easy to dig in at a random point, but as a starter, I can highly recommend:

S01E05: The Pork Pudding (comedy horror, featuring a black pudding mimic!)

S02E02: The Giant Tree (the local version of the well-known Jack and the Beanstalk story, featuring my favourite one of Jankovics’ decidedly non-reptilian dragons)

S02E03: The Princess, Three Pigs, and Three Birthmarks (cartoon nudity!)

S02E13: The Jackdaw Girls (eerie weird fantasy)

S03E01: Abeles-Kobeles (introducing a bunch of devils which look suspiciously like the blue meanies)

If the first half of Jankovics’ career was about projects which allowed him to hone his skills and develop his craft, much of the second half was dedicated to a single task: animating The Tragedy of Man, Hungary’s great 19th century “civilisation play”. “The Tragedy”, as it is often known, is a long, slightly ponderous, deeply philosophical and immensely quotable play spanning the history of human progress, from primitive man to modern capitalism, mankind’s future, and beyond. Featuring a striving Adam who wants to see mankind’s bold future, a mysterious Eve as an embodiment of femininity, and Lucifer in the role of the ultimate smartass cynic, it is very challenging to stage (there are relatively few players, but a tremendous amount of historical sets), but perfectly suited for the medium of animation with its grand visions and allegories.

Preliminary work on the Tragedy started in 1983, and actual animation began in 1988. The project would take almost thirty years to complete. Pannonia, once one of the world’s largest animation studios, crumbled and went to the dogs. The theft and plunder of public assets (mostly by former party insiders) would become more lucrative than creating capital-intensive cultural products; foreign investors and banks were disinterested in funding art. Animation was a profitable business, but the turnover was slow and initial investments were high. Everyone wanted to get rich overnight. Jankovics, who chafed under the restrictions of socialism, soon grew into a bitter critic of the new order. He wrote books on ethnography and solar myths, occupied himself with lesser projects, and filled positions in cultural policy (whose holders are always hated by the jealous beneficiaries), while trying to raise capital for newer and newer segements of his film. At one point, he worked on the early design stages of Disney’s Kingdom of the Sun, but the project was gutted and bowdlerised, and his work went unused. The Tragedy progressed. Corners were cut, which are more apparent in some scenes than others. In 2011, he was finally given a lump sum from the new conservative government to complete the film, on the condition that it be released without further delay.

An Old-School Revolution

The finished Tragedy of Man is a monumental 160-minute animation faithfully following the play’s 15 scenes, its philosophical poetry and its quips: what it adds is the visual dimension. This is a slower, statelier work than Fehérlófia, and it often animates ideas rather than things. Each scene in its historical journey uses a radically different animation style (some co-designed with colleagues). Egypt is seen as the two-dimensional flat world of tomb paintings (only the mighty Pharaoh is allowed to assume the third dimension), and Greece as figures on clay pottery. The Middle Ages follow the style of codex marginalia; the Modern age as engraved plates; and the carnivalesque Victorian scene in a Dickensian London as an ever-evolving tableaux of popular culture. By the play’s dystopian vision of a cold and rational future that destroys human endeavour in an age where mankind has exhausted its resources, we are in the realm of comic books. Against this are set the strivings of Adam, his longing to win the attentions of Eve, and his dialogue with Lucifer, “the ancient spirit of negation”. It is not as rawly inventive and powerful as Fehérlófia, and it starts rather slow – the first half-hour is the weakest section. It is the very definition of indulgent and pretentious. However, it has a grand sweep, and it is rich in a myriad small details, cultural citations, easter eggs, and subtle visual humour. It is not for everyone, but some will like it very much.

There is much of Jankovics’ legacy that points at unrealised plans: he published his ideas as picture books or turned them into book illustrations (Toldi, his yet-to-be-released swan song, is one that miraculously got made). At one point, he contemplated animating the Bible, a project that got to the stage of a painted animation screenplay, one finished episode, and a later art album in the style of Jodorowsky’s Dune. (A fairly crappy trailer is found here). Perhaps that was too much. It was certainly hubris. And yet, as the Lord tells an exhausted and dejected Adam at the end of the Tragedy: “I have told you, Man: strive on, and trust!”

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Fehérlófia is now available for pre-order from Arbelos. Don’t miss it.


  1. Amazing study and tribute! thank you!

  2. I need to rewatch all of these, thanks for the reminder!

  3. All of this is fascinating!

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  5. I should revise myself as comments cannot be edited.
    Marcell Jankovics was a really fine scholar too. I read some of his works when I was a kid.
    I thought he (among others) wrote Mythological Encyclopedia too, but internet research said he was one of the editors? I remember his name popping up on the title page or colophon of that book. I have to check it next time.

  6. I am very grateful for being introduced to Jankovics! I love my Laloux to death, but have not found many equals. Thanks again for showing the way to another master.