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CineClub: The King (A Király), or the appeal of the manipulator – Kafkadesk

Revisiting old classics, discovering hidden gems, and exploring the contemporary movie and TV scene: every month, Kafkadesk brings you new insights and expert reviews of the greatest treasures of Central European cinema and television. This week: The King (A Király, 2022).

RTL’s new series explores the rise and fall of a cult figure while delivering a damning critique of post-communist Hungary.

The career of Jimmy Zámbó has always been somewhat of an enigma. In 1990s Hungary, though no one questioned his singing ability, his melancholic songs were never acclaimed critically.

They were often even the target of ridicule. Yet, Jimmy managed to embark on an exceptionally successful career with an extremely loyal and passionate fandom, largely composed of working-class women outside Budapest. Pair this with his entanglement with the Hungarian underworld and his tragic death in 2001, one can see why Jimmy’s life is worthy of a big-budget adaptation.

Enter RTL, Hungary’s most prominent commercial TV channel, which decided to join the escalating streaming wars with its own service, RTL+. A series about the life of Jimmy – a life already tied to the channel’s golden days in the 1990s due to his tabloid-friendly lifestyle – was a perfect launch event to kickstart the new streaming platform.

The series titled A Király (The King) was overseen by Hungary’s number one emerging filmmaking talent Virág Zomborácz, who was the only person to both write and direct episodes. It stars Ervin Nagy, Renátó Olasz, Judit Schell, and Viktória Staub (playing the older and younger versions of Jimmy and his second wife, Edit, respectively) as the leads alongside a few distinguished acting veterans in smaller roles.

The story follows Jimmy’s life from his time as a struggling pub singer through his entanglement with the notoriously active 1990s Hungarian underworld all the way to his death in 2001. The series is a character study of Jimmy, with a special focus on his relationship with Edit. But it also wants to answer the question: why was Jimmy so popular amongst the masses if he was so poorly received by his peers in the Hungarian art world?

In its character study, the series does not try to sugarcoat the singer’s private life. He is portrayed as abusive and manipulative, not only towards his audience when they don’t appreciate him but also his partners (of which there were many throughout his life). But while the series does not shy away from portraying Jimmy in a negative light, it also makes sure the viewer understands how he came to be the person it claims he was. In the show, Jimmy’s mother is portrayed as a cold woman who is both emotionally unavailable and unappreciative of his son’s musical talents.

As such, Jimmy becomes extremely addicted to those who offer him even just signs of appreciation; he cheats on his first wife, Vera (played by Vera Sipos), with Edit after she appears to look up to him when he mentions he is a singer.

However, Jimmy becomes extremely controlling and abusive whenever such attention is even slightly withdrawn from him (or he thinks is withdrawn from him). This first becomes apparent to the viewer when Jimmy physically assaults one of his lovers when she tells him she’d go on a month-long modelling trip. Jimmy’s desire for validation is such that he is often portrayed to be only aroused by compliments to his musical and artistic talents.

Jimmy does not only crave validation from his fans and romantic partners but also from the elites of the contemporary Hungarian music scene. Even at the height of his career, the cultural elite of the time was unwilling to give much recognition to the singer, which visibly irritates Jimmy at various points in the series. This is also central to the series’ broader socio-political commentary and it is most clearly articulated when the fictional music critic János Elek confronts Jimmy and tells him that his songs are worthless lies. Elek claims that Jimmy’s music is culturally so inferior that even their existence is setting the country back by decades.

It is clear from the series that the creators at least partly share this assessment of the aesthetic value of Jimmy’s music. But there is a twist. The series’ judgement is equally heavy on the contemporary cultural elites who didn’t even try to understand the singer’s appeal among the masses.

In the series, the critic’s contempt for Jimmy is contrasted with one of his superfans, played by Laura Döbrösi. Döbrösi’s character – a working-class, poor girl from the provinces – is cartoonishly obsessed with the singer. But he is also the only source of her happiness while she simultaneously has to do physically demanding full-time manual labour and care for her ill mother. Construction workers are also shown singing Jimmy’s songs enthusiastically as a regular escapist ritual after the end of their shifts. 

Jimmy’s overly sentimental songs might be cheesy lies and he might be manipulative towards his audience. But this was the only attention or care this predominantly working-class, non-Budapest audience received. Jimmy might feel underappreciated and desperate for validation but so do most Hungarians. They are willing to worship even a narcissistic and manipulative man with an inferiority complex, simply because no one else appears to care about them or treat them with respect.

If this sounds a little familiar, your mind is not deceiving you. The series is often quite open about its political commentary. János Elek, the snarky and brutal critic is played by Róbert Alföldi, the politically vocal liberal actor-director icon of late 2000s and early 2010s Hungary. It is through the casting of Alföldi that the series tells us its verdict even more openly. The post-communist Hungarian liberal elite never understood and, worse, never even tried to understand the wants, needs, and souls of a large section of Hungarian society.

Another instance of the series’ rather explicit political commentary takes place while the series explores Jimmy’s attempt to enter the political arena himself. In 1994, he ran as a candidate in his local constituency in Csepel. In the series, upon losing the election, a family member remarks: “Don’t worry Jimmy, you will be prime minister one day” right before spitting on the floor. Whatever Jimmy’s appeal was in Hungary culturally in the 1990s would eventually triumph in politics as well.

The series’ complex themes allow the actors, especially Ervin Nagy and Judit Schell, who play the older versions of the two main characters, to shine. While both are already established in Hungary, it is easily conceivable that their roles in the series will become career defining. Schell’s film roles tended to fall more on the comedic side thus far, and while Ervin Nagy might have been known for the vast majority of his career as a Hungarian prince charming, such is his presence in A Király that in decades’ time, he might primarily be remembered for his role as an overweight, abusive, middle-aged man.

RTL+’s Jimmy series is a cleverly executed character study, interwoven with important socio-political commentary. While doing no favours to the man himself, it elevates his much-ridiculed fandom to unprecedented heights.

A Király (2022) is streaming on RTL+ in Hungary.

By Ábel Bede

Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and has two degrees in History from Durham University. He specialised in Central European history and has been contributing to Kafkadesk since 2019. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here!

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