Though they would eventually rise to the forefront of what many have dubbed the “American New Wave,” cinematographers Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond first met at a film school in Budapest. When the Soviets invaded in 1956, Kovacs and Zsigmond grabbed one of the school’s Arriflex cameras and some film stock and went out secretly to film the brutal crackdown on protestors and freedom fighters. The two men smuggled the footage out of the country, and it later aired on CBS, becoming the lasting visual evidence of the crushed Hungarian revolution.
“I think you can see in how [Kovacs and Zsigmond] shot violence in their films that they were impacted by what they saw in the streets of Budapest,” explains James Chressanthis, director of “No Subtitles Necessary.” “When Laszlo laid a camera on the side of the road for the death sequence at the end of ‘Easy Rider,’ with it being so vivid and violent, you wonder, how did he sense that and capture that? The vivid nature of their cinematography, where does it come from?”
Watch a clip from ‘No Subtitles Necessary.’
Kovacs and Zsigmond helped each other throughout their careers, offering both moral and professional support. Their similar cinematic sensibilities were a direct result of their shared past. “I got the idea of how to light ‘The Hired Hand’ from the villages in Hungary where there was no electricity and they used kerosene lamps,” Zsigmond says in tonight’s documentary. “Creating the mood is more important than making everything look beautiful. Laszlo and I sort of created the nouvelle vague in the U.S.; simple lighting, but more realistic.”
Their combined resumes read like a nearly comprehensive catalog of the best of independent American cinema at its epoch: Kovacs shot “Easy Rider” and then “Five Easy Pieces” in 1970. Zsigmond followed with Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” in 1971 and “Deliverance” in 1972. They worked with Steven Spielberg, Peter Bogdanovich, Brian De Palma, Norman Jewison, and Mark Rydell, among many other of the greatest directors from that period, with whom and for whom, these two men helped shape the look and feel of the American film.