Marcell Jankovics

(1941-2021)

animation film director, graphic artist, writer and educator

With his boldly stylized, heavily symbolic films and series, Marcell Jankovics established himself as a highly distinctive filmmaker and helped raise the profile of Hungarian animation, both during the communist era and since.

Political circumstances frustrated his efforts to study architecture – his father had fallen foul of the communist authorities and ended up in prison. Instead, Jankovics worked for a lab at the national Power Plant Repair and Maintenance Company, before joining Budapest’s Pannónia Film Studio as an in-betweener in 1960. The young animator swiftly rose up the ranks, becoming a director in 1965. He started out on the satirical series Gustav before directing his (and indeed Hungary’s) first animated feature, Johnny Corncob.

Local folklore explicitly inspired his long-running, widely seen series Hungarian Folk Tales (1977–2012) and his second feature Son of the White Mare (1981), which was recently remastered and re-released. The restored 4K version of the Son of the White Mare was shown at the Classics program of the Annecy Festival in 2021.

Jankovics, who considered folk tales to be universal, mined the legends of other cultures for stories too. His two-minute film Sisyphus (1974), which was nominated for an Oscar, recounts the Greek myth in stark monochrome. Another one of his short films, Fight (1977), won the short film Palme d’Or at Cannes. The Tragedy of Man (2011) was his most epic work: a near-three-hour feature about the history of human civilization that took 23 years to finish (although Jankovics calculated that he had spent six years in total on the production). The collapse of the communist regime in 1989 upended the industry, forcing Jankovics to seek private funding for the film; which dragged out the production.

In later life, Jankovics spoke openly about the censorship he suffered under communism. At the same time, he regretted the lack of government support for animation under capitalism. He was also uneasy about the rise of digital technologies. His oeuvre – more stylized and fantastic than most – has left an indelible mark on animation in Hungary and elsewhere. He was a true one-off.


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Marcell Jankovics's Films

Johnny Corncob

1973

Johnny Corncob (1973) is based on an epic poem by Hungarian poet Sándor Petőfi and it was commissioned by the government to mark the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth. Pannonia Film Studio assembled a team of around 150 for the landmark production. Johnny Corncob was a huge milestone in Jankovics’s career as his (and indeed Hungary’s) first animated feature.

The visual style of the film is bright, psychedelic, at times almost abstract, with more than a touch of Yellow Submarine to it. In both its design and its use of Hungarian legends and literature, the film set the tone for much of Jankovics’s future work.

In 1973 alone more than 1.5 million people saw the film and over the years it has become a genuine global cult classic.

Son of the White Mare

1981

Son of the White Mare, the second feature film of Marcel Jankovics, was released in 1981. The  film’s avant-garde, fairy tale-like plot is based on ancient legends of nomadic tribes. Its breath-taking, dreamlike visual world is created from abstract geometric forms and the circular images of the mandala. Its unique, atmospheric score is based on murmuring sounds.

The film’s main character is Fehérlófia, who is a man with superhuman powers. He was born as the third son of a white horse and listened to old tales about the Forefather and the end of his reign, caused by evil dragons. Following the death of the white horse, the son sets out to fight the evil dragons and the Son of the White Mare is his coming-of-age story

Inauguration

1969

A new bridge is completed over a precipice, but when the large crowd gathers to witness the official inauguration ceremony, a minor hitch (the ribbon refuses to be cut) develops into a major catastrophe.

Sisyphus

1974

This Academy Award-nominated short film is an artistically spare depiction of the Greek myth of Sisyphus, sentenced to eternally roll a stone up a mountain. The story is presented in a single, unbroken shot, consisting of a dynamic line drawing of Sisyphus, the stone and the mountainside.

Fight

1977

Fight is a symbolic self-reflection. The topic of this naturalistically drawn, three-minute film is the battle of the creator and the creation – that shape each other to the very end.