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9.9.2011

Haber´s Photo Shop

Gábor Csiky is released from prison after five years. Once out of prison he follows a tip-off from a fellow inmate and presents himself to the photographer Háber, whose shop Fotó Háber is only a front, in reality it is one of the most important branches of a spy ring. Csiky quickly gains Háber's trust and is deployed in the mission R-100, the aim of which is to get hold of an invention vital to the national economy. The mission is a success, but then failures occur: Is there a mole in Fotó Háber?

Still from the movie "Haber’s Photo Shop". (© Magyar Nemzeti Filmarchívum)


Haber's Photo Shop / Fotó Háber, made in 1963 by director Zoltán Várkonyi, is an excellent example of how important the spy film was in East as well as West European cinema. What is especially significant is the fact that films like this were made as entertainment, in much the same mould as other popular films of the time, which explore and adapt a number of well-defined plot themes. In this respect, Haber's Photo Shop is a thriller in the guise of a spy film: it contains classic elements from both genres. Thus, the audience is kept guessing about the background to the action in the opening scenes; the usual spy gadgets are on display; messages are encoded and decoded; people work undercover, cover their tracks and get shot. In short, the key elements we would recognise in a Western spy film are also here in this classic of Hungarian cinema.

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About the Movie

Haber’s Photo Shop

Original Title: Fotó Háber
Hungary 1963, 108 min., subtitles

Director: Zoltán Várkonyi
Cast: Éva Ruttkai, Zoltán Latinovits, Miklós Szakáts et al.
Just how important and highly regarded this film was at the time it was made, can be judged from the number of top-flight actors on its books. The lead part of Gábor Csiky is taken by Zoltán Latinovits, the brightest star in the cinematic sky of 1960s and 70s Hungary. He, and the female lead, Éva Ruttkai, were the dream team of the 60s, just as O.W. Fischer and Ruth Leuwerik were in Germany at the same time, with the difference that the Hungarian pair were lovers as well as fellow actors.

The consequences of the political confrontation between East and West in that decade, and how the attendant espionage activity affected the lives of ordinary people, are evident from their impact on the actor who plays the title role of Háber, the photo shop owner and head of the spy ring. Miklós Szakáts, the third star in the line-up, was born in 1920; by 1943 he was a member of the anti-fascist resistance in occupied Hungary and had helped many Jews organise their escape from the country. He had also made his first contacts with the British secret service during this same period.

After the war he became an actor and married Tamara Nijinsky, the daughter of the legendary Russian ballet dancer Vatslav Nijinsky. In October 1956, there was a popular uprising in Hungary – 'the bourgeois-democratic revolution' – against the communist dictatorship and the Russian military occupation. Within a few days, the one-party system had been abolished and multi-party elections promised; Hungary then announced its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. But only a few days later, the Soviet Army invaded, entered Budapest and crushed the revolution by force. Its political and intellectual leaders were executed, thousands of others were imprisoned and the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party was re-installed, under a new General Secretary János Kádár.

During the uprising, Miklós Szakáts led the Actors' Revolutionary Committee in Budapest. He and one of his colleagues on the committee were arrested after the revolution failed: his colleague was sentenced to four years in prison, but Szakáts was released after just eight weeks. He was immediately engaged by one of Budapest's top theatres, given a passport and permission to travel abroad. So what had happened? Had the new Kádár regime suddenly remembered his anti-fascist activities during the war? Not at all... Miklós Szakáts had been recruited by the Hungarian Secret Police to inform on his theatre colleagues. Throughout the 1960s, under the code-name 'Cyrano', Szakáts wrote numerous reports on the political atmosphere in the country's theatres. But what the secret police didn't know was that he had simultaneously re-activated his old contacts in the British secret service and was filing reports to them and later to the Americans as well. It's since been established that he was frequently invited to eat at the British Embassy and also celebrated Independence Day at the American Embassy in Budapest.

Miklós Szakáts made his first trip to London only in 1969 – and sought political asylum at the US Embassy there. The Communist Party in Budapest had wanted to exploit his well-established Israeli contacts in connection with a planned anti-Zionist campaign: the régime believed it had been infiltrated by Zionists. There followed a series of grotesque anti-semitic incidents, of which Szakáts wanted no part. He was given asylum by the Americans and moved to a 'safe town' run by the CIA in the Dakotas, where he lived until the mid-1970s. He then returned to Europe and to Austria, where he worked for Radio Free Europe.

Szakáts died in 1984 after a series of heart attacks... but there are still people in Budapest, who believe that he was murdered either by the Hungarian Secret Police or by the KGB.
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Oliver Baumgarten

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