FEHÉRLÓFIA (1981)

  • Director: Marcell Jankovics
  • Writers: Marcell Jankovics, based on the Hungarian folk tale
  • Starring: Gyӧrgy Cserhalmi, Vera Pap, Mari Szemes, Gyula Szabó, Ferenc Szalma, Szabolcs Tóth, Ottó Ulmann
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel

I had not heard of Fehérlófia (Son of the White Mare) until July when The Criterion Channel added it as part of a new collection of “Art House Animation,” and I thought the description looked interesting. After watching it, I was left wondering not only why I hadn’t heard of it, but why I have a feeling even most film enthusiasts have likely not heard of it. Yes, it’s in Hungarian, but being in Japanese hasn’t stopped the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki or Satoshi Kon from gaining international acclaim. It also came from the wrong side of “Iron Curtain,” but so did Tarkovsky’s films, and they have no shortage of international acclaim. The point is, if you haven’t seen Fehérlófia, I 100% recommend it. With some movies we say “you’ve never seen anything like this before,” and you might say, “I don’t know, I’ve seen a lot of things.” I am pretty confident in saying you have never seen any movie remotely like this before. The Criterion Channel’s one paragraph description describes the movie as “part Nibelungenlied, part Yellow Submarine,” but I still feel like even that description does this thing a disservice.

Director and animator Marcell Jankovics based Fehérlófia on a folk tale of his native Hungary, and the movie opens with a dedication to “the Huns, the Avars, the Scythians, and all the nomadic peoples.” It is the story of the titular hero, sometimes referred to as “Treeshaker,” and his two brothers, who travel to the Underworld and fight three dragons to rescue three princesses. Treeshaker is birthed and suckled by the white mare of the title. It is a sort of origin myth of a nomadic people, for whom horses were their way of life. This story is told in an ultra-colorful, psychedelic animation style, which Jankovics said was based on “what [his] dreams look like.” It is free of black lines around its shapes, many of which are extremely stylized, sometimes verging into barely recognizable abstract representations. To be clear, when I say “psychedelic,” I don’t mean that this looks like Yellow Submarine or La Planete Sauvage, which pretty much look like normal animation but by people who are on drugs. This is very, very colorful, often in ways that have no basis in real-life colors, but the style is totally unlike other animation.

The combination of storytelling and animation style gives Fehérlófia an absolute, elemental quality. It feels to me like what would have happened if the Cro-Magnons, painting on cave walls, might have done if given access to modern animation techniques. Jankovics captures that obsession of ancient societies with the basics of life that modern society often skims over, with mother’s milk and reproduction. In a pure representational sense, that’s the reason this movie is not for kids. One of the dragons’ virility is emphasized by his huge, hanging testicles. One of the princesses is distinguished from the others by the fact that she always has her breasts just hanging out there. In keeping with the Cro-Magnon theme, this movie has a basic sexuality, but it’s the sexuality of those prehistoric, large-hipped Venus statues you’ll see sometimes.

Jankovics was obsessed throughout his career with mythology. Prior to his work on this movie, his two-minute Sisyphus had received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short Film. Despite these moments of success, Jankovics’ work was almost unknown in North America and Western Europe outside of very hardcore animation fans until very recently. One person who definitely did see it and was definitely influenced by Jankovics’ angular shapes and geometric shadows was Gennady Tartakovsky (creator of Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, and Star Wars: The Clone Wars), who uncoincidentally was born in Moscow.

A restored version of the movie debuted in 2019, and there were plans to show it in theaters that were unfortunately scuttled by COVID-19. Jankovics then suddenly passed away this May (the cause was not announced), at the age of 79. Only a few weeks later, Fehérlófia was finally released on Blu-Ray in the US, and shortly thereafter was made available for streaming by Criterion. Morr than one article was released on the English-language internet at that point proclaiming the movie some version of “the greatest animated film you’ve never seen.” Jankovics died just before he started to get the recognition he deserved in the English-speaking world, but it seems likely that the fact that he got to make this movie at all, and that people in Hungary got to experience their own heritage in this way, brought him all the satisfaction he would have needed.

I could spend a great deal of time describing the specifics of the story and visuals of Fehérlófia, but the task seems a fool’s errand. A few more descriptive lines from Criterion, for good measure: the film is a “color-mad maelstrom of mythic monsters and Scythian heroes,” and features a “massive cosmic oak stand[ing] at the gates of the Underworld, holding seventy-seven dragons in its roots.” If those lines don’t make you want to see this movie, I’m not sure I can help you, but unlike some of other featured films, I am serious when I say that even if they don’t, I still recommend this movie. I really think it might be the greatest work of art of the past fifty years that a lot of people have never heard of, a sort of basic statement of the human psyche. Have fun.

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