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Vas, Robert (1931-1978)


Main image of Vas, Robert (1931-1978)

Robert Vas was born in Budapest on 3 March 1931 and came to England after the Hungarian uprising in 1956. His style of filmmaking was very much in keeping with that of Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz, who helped him get funding for his first film, Refuge England (1959), and included it in their final Free Cinema programme at the National Film Theatre.

Refuge England, which centres upon an immigrant arriving in England from Hungary and trying to understand the strange environment and behaviour of its inhabitants, is imbued with a sense of wonder and bewilderment. The same sense of affectionate observation is apparent in The Vanishing Street (1962), which starts with a shot of a Whitechapel street market community through the cross trees of the surveyors lens and ends with the wrecking ball smashing through the old buildings to clear the way for new high-rise housing.

Unlike Reisz and Anderson, Vas remained totally committed to documentary and, after a short period working for the National Coal Board, he went on to make a seminal series of films for the BBC. These include The Golden Years of Alexander Korda (1968), the first serious study of the Hungarian filmmaker who did so much to establish a viable British film industry; and Heart of Britain (1970), a tribute to Humphrey Jennings, the documentary-maker most admired by the Free Cinema directors. Vas also made films about Eastern Europe, including The Issue Should be Avoided (1971), about the Katyn Forest Massacre; My Homeland (1976), a celebration of Hungarian culture and the 1956 Rising; and a three-hour examination of the life of Stalin (1973). Vas was allowed a remarkable degree of freedom to make what he wanted, though his controversially non-establishment view of the General Strike - Nine Days in '26 (1974) was postponed because of an oncoming General Election, and requests for repeat showings have fallen on deaf ears. He had planned to make films about the 'Gulag Archipelago' and the wartime bombing of Dresden before his untimely death on 10 April 1978.

In the BBC documentary tribute to Vas directed by Barrie Gavin, Karel Reisz said of him that his aim was to "inspire thought, to remind and warn". Though his career was tragically cut short, Robert Vas left an enduring legacy of exemplarily honest and poetically acute films.

Davies, Brenda, 'Obituary', BFI News, n. 34, July 1978, p. 3.
Gavin, Barrie and Alan Rosenthal, 'Witness: In Memoriam, Robert Vas, Sight and Sound, Summer 1978 pp. 186-189
Robert Vas Film-Maker (BBC, tx. 3/5/1978, Barrie Gavin)

Bryony Dixon, Directors in British and Irish Cinema

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Selected credits

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Sensitive documentary about a Welsh mining community

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Moving film about a Hungarian refugee's first day in London

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Documentary about a slice of East End Jewish life about to disappear

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