Hungary: Recommended Books and Movies

By Rick Steves and Cameron Hewitt

To learn more about Hungary past and present, check out some of these books and films. (And see our similar lists for elsewhere in Europe .)

Books: Nonfiction

  • Between the Woods and the Water (Patrick Leigh Fermor, 1986). Vividly recounted memoir of a young man who traveled by foot and on horseback across the Balkan Peninsula (including Hungary) in 1933.
  • Budapest 1900 (John Lukacs, 1988). Scholarly but readable cultural study that captures Budapest at its turn-of-the-20th-century zenith.
  • Budapest: A Critical Guide (András Török, 1989, but frequently updated since then). While technically a guidebook, this irreverent book offers more local insight (and wit) than any other source.
  • Bury Me Standing (Isabel Fonseca, 1996). A literary delve into the world of Eastern European Roma (Gypsies).
  • Café Europa: Life After Communism and How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (Slavenka Drakulić, 1999/1992). Insightful essay collections giving a peak into daily life during communist times — albeit not in Hungary — by Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić.
  • Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends (Lonnie R. Johnson, 2010). The best historical overview of Hungary and surrounding nations.
  • Eclipse of the Crescent Moon (Géza Gárdonyi, 1899). Epic about the Siege of Eger that's read and beloved by every Hungarian grade-schooler.
  • The Habsburgs: The History of a Dynasty (Benjamin Curtis, 2013). Illuminating portrait of the Austrian imperial family that shaped so much of Eastern European history.
  • The Haunted Land (Tina Rosenberg, 1996). Dense but thought-provoking work that asks how those who actively supported communist regimes should be treated in the postcommunist age.
  • History of the Present and The Magic Lantern (Timothy Garton Ash, 2000/1990). Two of several good "eyewitness account" books by Ash that analyze the transition in Central and Eastern Europe from the late 1980s through the 1990s.
  • We Are the Romani People (Ian Hancock, 2002). A good textbook-style source of information on the often misunderstood Roma people.

Books: Fiction

  • Fatelessness (Sorstalanság) (Imre Kertész, 1975). Semiautobiographical novel chronicling the experience of a young concentration-camp prisoner, by a Hungarian-Jewish Auschwitz survivor who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002.
  • Prague (Arthur Phillips, 2002). Misleadingly titled novel telling the story of American expats negotiating young-adult life in postcommunist Budapest, where they often feel one-upped by their compatriots doing the same in the Czech capital (hence the title).
  • The Radetzky March (Joseph Roth, 1932). Details the decline of an aristocratic family in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  • Zlateh the Goat (Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1966). Newbery Honor book telling seven folktales of Jewish Eastern Europe.

Films

  • Children of Glory (Szabadság, Szerelem, 2006). Dramatizes the true story of the Hungarian water polo team that defiantly trounced the Soviets at the Olympics just after the 1956 Uprising.
  • Fateless (2005). Adaptation of Imre Kertész's Nobel Prize-winning novel, scripted by Kertész himself, about a young man in a concentration camp.
  • Kontroll (2003). Surreal dark comedy about ticket inspectors on the Budapest Metró whose lives are turned upside down by a serial killer lurking in the shadows.
  • The Last Days (1998). Oscar-winning English-language documentary chronicling the fate of Jews when the Nazis took over Hungary in 1944.
  • Son of Saul (Saul Fia, 2015). Cannes Grand Prix, Oscar, and Golden Globe–winning film by László Nemes that tells the story of a Hungarian inmate at Auschwitz.
  • Sunshine (1999). Accessible and enlightening (if melodramatic) look at recent Hungarian history that traces three generations of an aristocratic Jewish family in Budapest — from the Golden Age, through the Holocaust, to the Cold War. Filmed in English, it stars Ralph Fiennes and was directed by István Szabó (not to be confused with Danny Boyle's very different 2007 film of the same name).
  • Time Stands Still (Megáll Az Idö, 1982). Cannes Film Festival hit telling the story of young Hungarians in the 1960s.
  • The Witness (A Tanú, a.k.a. Without a Trace, 1969). Cult classic about a simple man who mysteriously wins the favor of communist bigwigs — and a biting satire of the darkest days of Soviet rule.

Many American studios have taken advantage of Hungary's low prices to film would-be blockbusters in Budapest (such as the 2015 Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy, and the similarly named 2002 Eddie Murphy/Owen Wilson action-comedy I Spy). More often, Budapest stands in for other cities — for example, as Buenos Aires in Madonna's 1996 film Evita, and as various European locales in Stephen Spielberg's 2005 film Munich.

Two acclaimed German movies offer excellent insight into the surreal and paranoid days of the Soviet Bloc. The Oscar-winning Lives of Others (2006) chronicles the constant surveillance that the communist regime employed to keep potential dissidents in line. For a funny and nostalgic look at post-communist Europe's fitful transition to capitalism, Good Bye Lenin! (2003) can't be beat.


Cameron Hewitt is the co-author of the Rick Steves Budapest guidebook.