“Do It Today; Tomorrow It May Be Illegal!” – Róbert Szűcs Pálinkás’s Lost Short Film on Illegal Printing Processes

Gábor Danyi

“As long as there are stockings, window frames, and free thought, the independent press cannot be silenced,” was the slogan on the last frame of the short film Gentlemen!, shot by Róbert Szűcs Pálinkás at the Béla Balázs Studio in 1988, which presented a typical way of producing uncensored (so-called samizdat) material. The culture of samizdat, which emerged in Socialist countries in opposition to the monopoly of official state book and newspaper publishing, strengthened in Hungary in the 1980s with the assistance of the Polish opposition. And not without reason—in Poland, underground book and periodical publishing reached extraordinary proportions, as is illustrated by the wealth of material collected by Radio Free Europe, which is available at Blinken OSA.

The slogan at the end of the short film referred to the so-called “ramka” technique imported from the Polish opposition, which, as a device easily constructed from window frames and tights, provided in Socialist countries a democratic form of printing available to all. The short film by Szűcs Pálinkás also conveyed the experience Miklós Haraszti, a key figure in developing relations with the Polish opposition, captured by noting, “There are times when the police besiege the thriving samizdat scene. But the ramka cannot be eradicated. The ramka is freedom of the press itself, although no doubt the publisher’s finger is stained with ink, when flipping the regime the bird.” 

From the late 1970s, the ramka, this great invention of the Polish opposition, revolutionized the reproduction and distribution of uncensored documents as a form of screen printing. What processes did “ramkaing” involve? First of all, printing with a ramka required a typewriter that could be used to make the template. The typewriter had to be fed with stencil paper instead of typewriter paper, and the ink ribbon of the typewriter had to be removed so that the types would not leave an ink mark on the paper but puncture the wax layer of the stencil. The ramka itself consisted of a wooden frame and a fabric stretched over it, onto which the stencil paper was glued (now allowing ink through the punctures); the sucking paper used for printing was placed under the wooden frame. Folding the wooden frame over the paper and pushing the ink through the screen and stencil paper, the copy was done. The advantages of the ramka, producing thousands of prints, were that it used no electricity, it was easy to work, no special skills were needed to repair it, and the structure could be quickly dismantled. One of the disadvantages of the ramka, however, was that it meant extremely hard and time-consuming physical work, requiring several contributors. (So much so that to print one of the first screen-printed publications in Hungary, György Petri’s samizdat poetry book Örökhétfő (Permanent Monday), the screen frame had to be lifted and closed more than 78,000 sweat-laboring times [940 copies x 83 pages]; the book was worked on in three shifts, for days on end.)

The ramka technique became known in Hungary following the first contacts with the Polish opposition. László Rajk Jr. was sent by György Bence and János Kis to Poland to master the techniques of underground printing, while, during the legal period of Solidarity, Gábor Demszky embarked on the “pilgrimage” without consulting anyone. On his return, Demszky gave a talk about his travel experiences, including ramkaming, in the apartment of Ferenc Kőszeg; and immediately embarked on samizdat publishing. In a few months, he managed to find the right materials—available under Hungarian conditions—for the practice he had mastered. The ramka technique spread quickly: in the 1980s, Demszky’s AB Publishing House, Jenő Nagy’s ABC Independent Book Publishing, the Alulnézet Publishing House, and Katalizátor Bureau all used it, and even the seventh and eighth issues of the Romanian Hungarian minority’s samizdat magazine Ellenpontok (Counterpoints), published in the early 1980s, were produced using the technique. The Blinken OSA holdings contains numerous publications produced using the ramka process, for instance, in the personal papers of Gábor Demszky, or in the samizdat collections of Géza Sáska and György Krassó . It is no coincidence that the initial idea for the short film at the end of the decade came from Péter Bokros, a member of the independent artistic group Inconnu, nor that the film’s cast included opposition figures themselves familiar with the practice, such as László Rajk or Miklós Sulyok. The film by Róbert Szűcs Pálinkás could certainly have contributed to the promotion of the technique, however...

However, ironically, the short film presenting the Hungarian application of the Polish ramka technique disappeared on its way to Poland. According to Róbert Szűcs Pálinkás, one of the tapes was lost, while the other, of broadcast quality, was passed on to a Polish crew through Géza Buda—a fundamental link in unofficial Polish-Hungarian relations—but its later fate has remained unknown. As a result, Gentlemen! was seen by only a very small number of people, primarily the closer network of the crew. Although the film is lost, the original script fortunately remained with the director, and has recently been made available for research in Blinken OSA’s Parallel Archive, as well as at the Artpool Art Research Center.

Róbert Szűcs Pálinkás, who as a member of the independent artistic group Inconnu was himself active in the secondary publicity of the 1980s, presented the process of illegal printing with the authenticity of a participant and insider. The 21 film scenes in the script follow the journey of the raw materials for illegal printing in clip-like cuts, introducing the typical stakeholders of samizdat production. By the end of the story, which jumps from one location and contributor to the next, the various routes meet in one single point: the materials—stencil paper, window frames, stockings, ink, and paper—arrive at a conspirational apartment where the two printers, “Printer” (Róbert Szűcs Pálinkás) and “Colleague” (László Rajk), can begin their work.

Let's examine the script’s two main characters, and recount the events backwards. The protagonist, “Printer,” remains anonymous throughout, “his face is never seen,” “only his clothing, accessories, and his typical gestures (e.g. smoking) help viewers in identifying him.” We don’t learn much about his “Colleague” either. What’s clear is that he leads a double life; while he watches TV at home with his family—immersed, seemingly, in consumer Socialism—in his pantry behind jars of food he hides paper and paint, and uses his spare time to do some illegal work. “Printer” and “Colleague,” getting on and off public transport to lose potential tails, approach the actual site of printing from different directions. Their caution is not unfounded, for “Tourist,” who appeared in an earlier scene and, not really interested in city sights, took Polaroid pictures of one of the suspicious contributors, is clearly an agent of state security.

While “Colleague” arrives at the conspirational venue from home, “Printer” comes from the so-called “Base.” The latter is the temporary, intermediate location where “Printer” tries to collect additional materials for printing without being noticed. While the location of the conspirational apartment is unknown to all but “Printer” and “Colleague,” the address of the “Base” is revealed to others: it is here that the text typed by “Secretary” (Judit Marosvölgyi) on stencil paper arrives in the form of a letter, and it is here that “Punk” (Zsolt Deák) visits “Printer” with the window frame. The “Secretary,” involved in opposition activity during working hours, is a typical character: exploiting her “Boss’s” (Miklós Sulyok) clandestine trysts, in the office she types texts she has received earlier. “Punk,” a melon thief living on the fringes of society, delivers the window frame for the ramka structure to the right address, and in return for his services, he settles for a lighter.

Illegal printing therefore required the cooperation of several actors with loose ties to each other. Most of the actors in this network were not familiar with the others, their well-defined tasks were integrated into the broader process of producing uncensored documents through intermediaries. In this sense, there was no real protagonist, since each participant’s contribution was essential to the process, although the different roles—typographer, ink supplier, printer, etc.—required different strategies and skills.

The most important strategy related to the printing process was conspiracy, also prominent in the short film. The facts that, unlike other characters, the traits of “Printer” remains obscure and that the conspirational printing location was known only to the two printers, as well as the tricks to shake off state security, all underline that in producing, distributing, and consuming uncensored material, printing was the most complicated to prepare and the most cautious to be careful about. Caution, suspicion, camouflage, and the ability to cover up traces, were undoubtedly instrumental to illegal printing, and the printing process had to be protected from state repression by strict conspiratorial measures.

However, the dissemination of samizdat and keeping in touch with readers could not be maintained in the isolation of the conspiracy. The anticipated solution to this contradiction was a Polish model, dividing opposition activity into open and conspiratorial parts. This principle that was adopted by the Hungarian dissidents who had visited Poland; both the Rajk boutique, which operated as a samizdat outlet in Budapest between 1981 and 1983, and the samizdat periodical Beszélő followed similar strategies. For example, a schematic drawing of the structure of Beszélő, preserved at Blinken OSA, displays the divide between the editorial staff, which undertook their activities publicly (with their names and addresses), and the conspiratorially organized printing and distribution network. There was only one contact person between the two, and the editorial staff had no knowledge of the identity of the printers or the places of printing. It was publicity that protected well-known actors from serious state repression, while conspiracy protected those who undertook indispensable background tasks. This division was also reflected in the activities of the Hungarian state security and police forces, which, thanks to László Varga’s decade-long research, can also be explored at Blinken OSA. State security did not seek to capture known opposition members who clung to the protection of the public, but to catch the anonymous contributors lurking in the background. This divided structure was the guarantee that Beszélő was able to survive in the 1980s despite all the police harassment.

The Beszélő structure. Drawing by Endre Miklóssy, “head” of Beszélő's external distribution network (HU OSA 302-0-6 Box 1)
The Beszélő structure. Drawing by Endre Miklóssy, “head” of Beszélő's external distribution network (HU OSA 302-0-6 Box 1)

The script of Róbert Szűcs Pálinkás’s short film on the printing process can thus be integrated into the strategies of samizdat publishing. Blinken OSA, as we have seen above, provides excellent additional sources to research these matters. Combining fiction and documentary, Gentlemen! takes the viewer—or the reader, to be precise—back to the underground culture of the 1980s, offering a glimpse into a typical and not quite risk-free form of cultural resistance.

And who knows, maybe the film itself will turn up one day...