Not having access to television, people living in the first half of the 20th century relied on documentary films screened in cinemas as their window on events around the world. Demand for reliable and animated sources of information was so great that dedicated cinemas started up specialized in the genre. Films screened here and all moving images made with a non-fiction purpose in mind are today among the most valuable and popular documents with a capacity to accurately evoke the daily events of rapid historical change from the past century. Unfortunately, much has been lost, with the greatest gaps being products from the early decades, while copies of many of the documentary recordings of World War II are only now being added to the archive.
Documentary films as a genre became more commonly produced from the 1920s-30s. Very few documentaries on Hungarian subjects (which literature of the day termed documentary recordings or factual films) have survived from the earliest period. The very oldest historical recordings preserved in our archive – including, for example, processions in the Millennium celebrations of 1896, the coronation of the last Hungarian king, Charles IV, or the return of the ashes of Ferenc Rákóczi – are among the most revered pieces in the national film collection. Newsreels starting in the 1910s also gave impetus to the establishment and differentiation of non-fictional genres. Non-fiction, educational works, known as ‘culture films’ in the period prior to the outbreak of World War II, also represent an interesting field of documentary films. The approximately 1200 items of Hungarian non-fiction films that come to us from the first half of the 20th century cover documentary films that have survived in their entirety, in fragments, rushes used as working footage, as well as yet unidentified frames.
The mapping of the age of silent films is incomplete the world over, thus we only know about documentary films made in Hungary from partial documentation and what films that have survived, frequently in a fragmentary state, tell us about themselves and the circumstances in which they were made. The systematic collection concentrated in a single place of movie material produced by various production companies started in 1949, thus only a thin slice of them weathered the two global conflicts.
The preservation and salvage of our film material dating from the first two decades of the 20th century is highly demanding work. The majority of films are, given their age, virtually unique, irreplaceable works, yet these are the very recordings that demand the most attentive restoration. The two great newsreels forming the core of the collection, Az Est Filmek and Vörös Riport Filmek, have already been restored. The fruit of several decades of persistent research and conservation work means that we have now reached the point where all our pre-1920 documentary films can be found in the archive as carefully prepared copies on safety, that is, non-flammable, film. The transfer of other pre-war film to safety material is ongoing.