Budapest — The hero makes a compromise. Then another. And another, until he compromises his soul. This theme powers Hungarian director Istvan Szabo's Oscar-winning film ``Mephisto,'' the story of an actor, Hendrik H"ofgen, who reaches artistic stardom by succumbing to Adolf Hitler.
It also powers Mr. Szabo's new award-winning film, ``Colonel Redl,'' the story of a boy from a humble family who rises to become head of the counterintelligence service in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy just before the outbreak of World War I. It is a task that will bring him down, prefiguring the eventual downfall of the deceitful empire itself.
``H"ofgen and Redl could have lived in Hungary or in the United States,'' Szabo explained in an interview at his office in the Budapest headquarters of Mafilm, the biggest Hungarian film producers.
Baby-faced but prematurely grey-haired, he cuts a trim, elegant figure. He speaks French in a smooth, soft voice, but he articulates deep-seated emotion, his words grappling with human frailty.
``They want to be accepted, just like you want to be accepted as a good journalist by your editor, just like we all want to be accepted.''
By making films with such frank, universally understood messages, Szabo, along with a number of other talented directors such as Pal Gabor, Pal Sandor, and Marta Meszaros, has given Hungary a growing cinematic reputation in the West.
Other East-bloc countries have made good films, too. But since Soviet troops crushed the Prague Spring in Czecholslovokia in 1968, eventually forcing Milos Forman and his talented fellow directors abroad, and since martial law was declared in Poland in 1981 at least temporarily ending Andrzej Wajda's domestic production, Szabo and his fellow Hungarians stand out.
As in other communist countries, the Hungarian government retains control of what can and cannot be produced, forbidding anti-Soviet or overtly antiparty films, anything ``which contradicts the basic tenets of the state,'' according to Ferenc Kohalmi, general director of cinematography at the Ministry of Culture. But Mr. Kohalmi says that during his two years in office he stopped only one production. ``That was because it was doing bad at the box office,'' he says.
The country's economic reforms have affected film making.
``For a long time, studios could produce five nightmares in a row, and they would receive the same funds the following year,'' Kohalmi explains. ``Now every year we decide what studios receive according to the critical reception of their films, the awards they win at film festivals, and the money they bring in at the box office.''
``Colonel Redl,'' incidentally, captured the jury prize at this year's Cannes festival.
Szabo's career has spanned all these changes. Born in Budapest in 1938, he describes his youth as a long series of crises. Not personal crises, but historial ones. He grew up during World War II, the postwar economic depression, and the communist takeover. The Stalinist-inspired purges followed, and then the tumultuous events of 1956, when the Soviet Union invaded the country.
``There wasn't a moment without a problem,'' he says, ``and I always felt obligated to create characters which live with such problems.''
This background explains why he says his films, like ``Mephisto'' and ``Colonel Redl,'' concentrate on the ``individual caught in the crosscurrents of history.'' Even as the films express universal themes, Szabo stresses that his particular inspiration comes from living in central Europe, ``an area with a big problem, the problem of security.''
Entering the Hungarian Academy of Theatre and Film Art in 1956, he received his diploma in 1961.
Szabo now faces a difficult career decision. He must choose between continuing to make tough, intellectual works like ``Colonel Redl'' or lighter films that will appeal to broader audiences.
In the past decade, he explains, the Hungarian film market has changed. Hungarians these days are preoccupied with taking advantage of the economic reforms to make money. They don't want to talk about politics or personal-identity crises.
``If you are working very hard, and these days, Hungarians are working very hard,'' he says, ``you want to relax at the cinema.''
He praises the Hungarian film system for letting him, to a large extent, buck popular tastes. Hungary does not have much money to spend on films, he says, but here there also is less pressure than in the US to succeed at the box office. Art, he says, remains the most important.
State subsidies represent the only way to create a thriving Hungarian film industry, he says.
``In a small country like ours,'' he explains, ``all the arts -- theater, opera, and cinema -- wouldn't survive without the state.''
Still, the choice between the popular and the artistic looms. He reveals that a Hollywood studio has offered him a chance to make a film, an opportunity he hasn't decided whether to accept.
He fears losing his Central European roots. He fears the tyranny of the box office. Most of all, he fears losing his personality to ``Coca Cola, hamburgers, and Levis.''
``In America, you can make successful films for 15 years and then as soon as you make a bad one, you're through,'' he says. His voice lowers. ``I'll tell you the truth.'' He pauses.
``I'm scared of America.''