Thoughts for a late Valentine’s Day

Published 9:38 am Friday, February 25, 2011

In an attempt to spend my last semester of college learning about the most random things possible, I decided to take a class on Hungarian film.

Classic way to begin a Valentine’s Day column, right? Stick with me, this is going somewhere.

Hungary used to be a tightly controlled communist state that was basically run by Stalin. It was not exactly a fun place. Everyone was depressed, everyone was poor and everyone was an alcoholic. In that way, Communist Hungary was a lot like college today. Jokes!

Anyways, one of the few ways the Hungarian people had to stand up to this terrible, terrible regime was through film.

One of the things that typified specifically Communist film was its reflection on the struggle of the people, no matter what, even if those people were poor, depressed alcoholics struggling against their own government.

And plus, if you’re a poor, depressed alcoholic, it’s fairly unlikely you’re going to be making films about people holding hands and skipping through fields.

I recently watched a film called “Szerelem.”

It’s been hailed as a classic of Hungarian film, and is fairly famous among those “in the know” about international film.

The basic plot is that a woman’s husband has been taken away by the Hungarian secret police for possibly being a political dissident, and now she doesn’t know who to trust.

She’s too depressed to even tell her infirm mother-in-law what’s happened, and so has instead made up a crazy story about how the imprisoned husband is now a filmmaker in America.

The basic struggle involves the woman trying to reconcile her love of her husband with her love of her mother-in-law, wondering whether or not it’s right to perpetuate this lie to someone she loves.

See where this is going? No?

Well, what if I told you that the word “Szerelem” translates to “Love” in English? It’s pretty interesting, actually, but in the Hungarian language, there are two concepts of love – one, szeretet, refers to a very general, platonic love that you can have for mankind, and the other, szerelem, refers to romantic love.

It’s an interesting concept to think about. Obviously, in English, love has many different meanings, but at least we’re delicate enough to give them a catch-all term. In Hungarian, obviously, not so.

Imagine a scenario where some guy (we’ll call him “Ben”) is madly in love with a girl (we’ll call her “Tina”), so he comes up to her one day and tells her, “Tina, I love you.”

Now, Tina and Ben are very close friends, but let’s say it just so happens that Tina doesn’t necessarily think of Ben in “that” way.

Still, she really loves Ben as a friend, so she says to him, “Ben, I love you too.”

Think of the confusion! Now Ben thinks he’s got himself someone who’s in love with him, and Tina thinks she’s got a really good friend.

In Hungarian, this would be completely different. Ben would simply go up to Tina and say, “Tina, I szerelem you,” and then Tina would get kind of an awkward look on her face and say, “Oh, well that’s really nice Ben, but I only szeretet you. Sorry!”

Now, Ben is going to be sad enough to throw himself down a Hungarian well for a few days, but eventually, he’ll get his act together and go find a new girl to szerelem.

In our language, you’re sacrificing clarity in order to preserve people’s feelings, and in Hungarian, you’re cutting straight to the chase and telling it like it is. I’m not saying either way of doing things is “right,” because I’m not trying to inadvertently indict a culture, but it sets you to pondering, doesn’t it?

It’s the sort thing that I, erm, love to think about.