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A recent restoration of Son of the White Mare sends our animation correspondent Kambole Campbell on a quest for a few words with legendary Hungarian filmmaker Marcell Jankovics, about the external cosmos, inner spiritual worlds, and the latest season of Vikings.
“The true arts are receiving less and less space in every genre.” —⁠Marcell Jankovics
Much adored and highly rated by Letterboxd animation fans, Marcell Jankovics’ 1981 masterpiece Son of the White Mare is, frankly, some of the wildest imagery ever put on the big screen. A swirl of psychedelic depictions of folkloric beings are flattened out into a gorgeous 2D tableau. The titanic figures of the characters twist into impossible and often abstract shapes, all realized with eye-popping and heavily contrasting color.
Arbelos Films recently restored Son of the White Mare to 4K, and it was due for release in cinemas this year. Instead, the film is now available for US animation fans on Vimeo OnDemand, and it’s unmissable. “The restoration made everything pop so much, that at a point I think my brain melted,” writes Bretton, on Letterboxd. “The kind of film that makes me happy to be human,” raves Will. “Appropriately immense imagery for a creation myth,” agrees Lindy.
Based on Hungarian folk tales and poetry, Son of the White Mare begins at the gates of the Underworld, at the base of a massive, cosmic oak tree that holds seventy-seven dragons in its roots. To combat these monsters, a dazzling white mare goddess gives birth to three heroes—the protagonist, Fanyüvő (‘Treeshaker’), and his brothers—who embark on a journey to save the universe. In the telling, Jankovics is clearly only interested in the kind of imagery that, well, only animation can provide.
Son of the White Mare (Fehérlófia) is one of four feature-length films by the animator—his others are Johnny Corncob (János Vitéz, 1973), which was Hungary’s first feature-length animated film, Song of the Miraculous Hind (2002) and the drama The Tragedy of Man (2011), which took Jankovics almost three decades to complete. These features have found continuing acclaim in the animation industry and amongst cult enthusiasts. Jankovics’ shorts are just as celebrated: Sisyphus (1974) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short at the 48th Academy Awards, and The Struggle (1977) received a Palme d’Or for short film at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival.
Born in Budapest in 1941, Jankovics began his career almost casually; after realizing his family’s status meant no higher education would be available to him, he passed a test to work at Pannónia Filmstúdió. He has said that the animated Russian film The Humpbacked Horse (1947) directed by Ivan Ivanov-Vano was the first cartoon he remembers watching, but that art books inspired him more than films. His career has traversed post-war Hungary, including the end of the Communist regime in 1989, and Soviet military regime in 1991. These events led to greater storytelling freedom, a shift that can be spied in his art, which has included television documentaries, commercials, books, teaching, and a Disney paycheck (for work that was never seen in The Emperor’s New Groove).
In our interview, Jankovics remains steadfast in his commitment to his “chosen path”, celebrating—but not being distracted by—others in his field, and revealing glimpses of his renowned sense of humor.
This restoration and re-release marks the first time that your film has been distributed in America in decades. Have your views on Son of the White Mare shifted in the time since?
Marcell Jankovics: They have not changed.
A lot of Son of the White Mare unfolds on a flat, often circular plane. What inspired you to frame things this way?
I never considered 3D. I don’t use it even today. The circularity is a part of what I have to say. A fairy tale (all fairy tales) traverses a particular arc, the year, of the eternal cycle.
Could you run me through the development of the style of Son of the White Mare?
Use of the color wheel accompanied the above-mentioned circularity; this was partly adapted to the circle of time and partly to the characters. I wanted to get rid of contours. I could manage this because my characters are illuminated, this is why I could take advantage of light contours.
I notice that a number of your short films have focused on Greek mythology, while your features have mostly drawn from Hungarian folklore or influenced by Judeo-Christian religion. Did your interests shift?
Absolutely not! All are projections of a similar spirit of the same world. I’m currently writing a book about Biblical symbolism, and in it I make numerous references to (Hungarian) folk tales.
What fascinates you about these myths and legends?
They remain eternally true. They are harmonizations of the external cosmos and man’s inner, spiritual, unconscious world.
Looking at some of the sequences of Fehérlófia, I was reminded of the sequence where Susano’o battles the Fire God in The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon (1963), directed by Yūgo Serikawa and Toei Dog. Is that a film you’re familiar with?
No. And I don’t need to [be]. Tales and myths are universal, the differences are stylistic. Of course, I’d love to see it. When I designed the Fehérlófia figures, I drew countless Japanese woodcuts. I also used Japanese theatrical masks for my heroes’ facial expressions. It’s not common knowledge but the Hungarians and the Japanese consider themselves to be related.
I’ve read in an old interview that you don’t watch much new animation. Is that still true?
Yes. I don’t want to be distracted from my chosen path.
What films, live-action or animated, would you say have made the greatest impression on you?
I’d rather give you directors: Eisenstein, Kurosawa, Fellini, A. Wajda, Ken Russell. In animation: Frédéric Back, Richard Williams, John Hubley. I don’t know if they influenced me but I have the greatest respect for them and I always enjoy watching their films.
What was the film that made you fall in love with animation?
It was a little different for me, I was rather forced into it as a career. It’s a long story and I’ve told it many times. As a young kid I only watched Soviet cartoons, but still I was enchanted because animation impressed with its own kind of genre surrealism. When I started working in the profession and I had the chance to see others as well, I realized that everything was possible in this world, even what I wanted to do.
Do you have a favorite myth, or one that you’ve been wanting to adapt?
Not any more. At the age of 79, I yearn for less laborious work.
Are there any upcoming films you’re excited to see yourself?
I haven’t been to the cinema for a very long time. The sort of films that I would be interested in are broadcast on TV late at night. I usually look forward to the latest season of the Vikings series.
How do you feel about the future of animation?
The true arts are receiving less and less space in every genre. It is sufficient for me merely to mention the latest restrictive aspects of the Oscars. I hope that the marginalization of the arts and this kind of restriction prove to be only temporary.