Andrea Virginás: Film Genres in Hungarian and Romanian Cinema: History, Theory, Reception

Lanham, Boulder, New York, London: Lexington Books, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-7936-1343-1, 978-1-7936-1344-8, 341 p.

Elżbieta Durys
genres; genre theory and criticism; Eastern European Cinemas; Hungarian cinema, Romanian cinema, small cinemas.

The issues of entertainment and genre formulas in European film industries and in the cinemas of Central and Eastern Europe in particular, form an important topic for scholarship and critical discussions nowadays (Imre 2005; Imre 2012; Iordanova 2003; Näripea and Trossek 2012; Ostrowska, Pitassio and Varga 2017). While the idea of genre cinema is not problematic when discussing cinematic productions from before the Second World War, it does pose a problem in the context of the model adopted in the countries of the Eastern Bloc after 1945. These doubts and questions result not so much from the fact that genre films were not produced in those countries during the communist period, but rather, the opposite. Many scholars are accustomed to referring to and problematising movies made in this part of Europe in terms of art cinema and the categories connected with this mode of film practice, i.e. schools, waves, or auteurs.

Not surprisingly, the transformational processes resulting from the overthrow of communism in this part of Europe resulted in a return to previous models of cinema. However, the changes brought by globalisation, postmodernist aesthetics, and the departure from traditional divisions into high and popular culture in both American and European cinemas have complicated the picture. In her book Film Genres in Hungarian and Romanian Cinema: History, Theory, Reception, Andrea Virginás focuses on the implementation and use of genre elements (“generic building blocks”) in contemporary Hungarian and Romanian cinema after the two countries joined the European Union in 2004 and 2007 respectively. She avoids popular genres (rom-coms and the like), prioritising art-house-style productions.

Although genre is the key notion and genre theory serves as the main theoretical framework throughout the book, Virginás employs the concepts of “small cinemas” (Hjort and Petrie 2007), “polysystems” (Even-Zohar 1990), and “analogue-to-digital transformation” in order to be more precise in applying genre theory to contemporary Hungarian and Romanian film productions. Virginas believes that the term “small cinemas” is more functional in the context of today’s local film industries. As a result, she favours the term “Eastern European small national cinemas” to distinguish the cinemas of Central and Eastern Europe.

Among the concepts allowing Virginás to supplement genre theory and develop her argument on its usefulness in the analysis of contemporary Eastern European small national cinema productions, two are crucially important: “diegetic building blocks” and “medium concept cinema.” The former combines Rick Altman’s “recurring semantic elements” with Jörg Schweinitz’s “figural/plot/story/visual/sound” stereotypes. “Diegetic building blocks” enable Virginás to combine narrative, stylistic, spatio-temporal, and media dimensions into one element that captures the basic idea governing the adaptation of particular genres to the contemporary Hungarian and Romanian contexts. She describes these diegetic building block as follows: “the crisis heterotopia in melodrama, the (technological) spectacle in the (musical) romantic comedy, the transparent immediacy of natural panoramas in the western, the (analogue) body in pain in the horror film, the hypermediated alien (view) in science fiction, the analogue/digital trace in the crime film, and finally the hypermediate(d) truth in the thriller” (Virginás 2021: 20). These are later developed in detail.

The second concept Virginás uses ‒ “medium concept cinema” ‒ is more general. This term was coined by Andrew Nestingen in his analysis of Scandinavian fiction and film to highlight the changing role of genre formulas (specifically crime). As he explains: “Medium concept can be understood as filmmaking that involves the adaptation of genre models and art-film aesthetics; an engagement with political debates, lending the films cultural significance; and that integrates with these elements a marketing strategy designated to reach a specific audience” (Nestingen 2008: 53). Henning Mankell’s Inspector Kurt Wallander crime series is one example Nestingen offers. Constructed like police procedurals, the stories also delve into contemporary social and political issues such as poverty in developed countries, global inequalities, violence against women, or the consequences of war (especially in the former Yugoslavia). The figure of a burned-out detective reflects the existential condition of a man struggling with trauma from his past experiences. The creative use of noir aesthetics refreshes the realistic conventions often associated with artistic cinema (ibid.: 223-254). The “medium concept” has already been adopted in the analysis of Eastern European cinemas and used to problematise changes resulting from applying genre formulas to both filmic and TV series productions (Durys 2018; Durys 2019). Virginás applies it in a broader way by referring not only to the genre of crime films but also to other genres. She stresses, however, that contrary to Scandinavian counterparts, Easter European “medium concept” films were not well received neither by critics nor audiences.

Film Genres in Hungarian and Romanian Cinema consists of eleven chapters. In the first chapter, “Conceptual Foundations, Corpus and Methodology,” Virginás details her main ideas and basic premises. She also lays out her general theoretical framework and introduces the key concepts (for example, “small national cinemas” and “polysystems” mentioned above) and provides justification for comparing and contrasting the two cinemas. Both countries have relatively small populations and territories, are poor compared to other EU states, with low per capita GNP, share the experience of foreign domination (the Habsburg monarchy at first and later, the USSR), and linguistically coded literature (Hungary) and theatre (Romania) are at the center of their national cultural polysystems. Virginás returns to some of those concepts in the third chapter, “Small National Cinemas, Genre Theory and Cultural Polysystems,” adding the idea of genre cinema and pointing out the changes that occurred in the post-classical era. Despite her focus on the most recent cinematic productions, Virginás does not overlook historical considerations. In the second chapter, “A Historical Overview of Hungarian and Romanian Genre Cinema,” she carefully outlines genre developments in both Hungarian and Romanian cinemas, pointing to crucial historical events as turning points in their evolution (the First and Second World Wars, the introduction of communism and centrally planned economy, and the transformations of 1989).

Chapters five to ten are analytical and form the main section of the book. Virginás analyses and juxtaposes the manifestations of individual genres in contemporary Romanian and Hungarian cinema, considering them alongside selected cultural concepts crucial for today's humanities. I would like to situate her methodology within the existing historiography.

Writing about Classical Hollywood cinema, Thomas Schatz claims that at a deeper level, genres rework basic cultural contradictions essential for a given community. Particular genre productions do not necessarily solve those contradictions, but rather provide temporal emotional relief. In this way, western, gangster, and crime film thematise “mediation-redemption, macho code, isolated self-reliance, utopia-as-promise” as basic cultural ideas (Schatz 1981: 35) while musical, screwball comedy, and family melodrama work out the problems of “integration – domestication, maternal-familial code, community cooperation, utopia-as-reality” (Schatz 1981: 35). Other researchers who employ ideological criticism and critical approaches to genre theory have also followed Schatz’s path (Altman 2000; Neale 1980; Neale 2009).

Virginás adjusts this approach to suit her needs. When referring to specific cultural categories in the context of particular genres, she seems to echo the idea of linking genre criticism with the cultural studies reflection on both the aesthetic and social level. It is clearly visible in chapter five, “Melodramas: “Non/Excessive Crisis Heterotopias” in Small National and Global Melodramas,” the one opening the analytical part of the book. Virginás analyses selected Hungarian and Romanian films as melodrama, while recalling the concept of “crisis heterotopia” proposed by Michel Foucault. She supplements it with the notion of “negative cinematic excess” (here she uses the modified version of the concept proposed by Kristin Thompson’s term “cinematic excess,” which Thompson originally used in her work on the cinematic motivation). Finally, Virginás employs the concept of “small melodrama” to describe the modified use of melodrama in Eastern European small national cinemas, in particular those of Romania and Hungary since the 2000s. Moreover, Virginás suggests that recurring scenes of marital (and familial) conflicts happening in the confined spaces of the tiny apartments the protagonists inhabit, refigure (or symbolise) the chaos resulting from political and social changes. It should be emphasised, however, that Virginás’ deliberations are closer to the cultural-philosophical than socio-political axis of problematising the current situation in Eastern European countries.

In the following chapters, she draws further links between and among the cultural, aesthetic, and filmic by adding the issue of genre mixing, blending, and hybridisation to complicate the picture. In the sixth chapter, “Westerns, Gangsters and Thrillers: “Transparent” Western Vistas and Male Traumas along the Global Mainstream – Small National Axis,” she writes about the neo-Western in Hungarian and Romanian cinema, pointing to the tropes resulting from the combination of the western, gangster, and thriller formulas. Here, on the cultural level, she recalls and problematises the category of trauma in its male version. Chapter seven, “Transitional Horror and Science Fiction: Patterns of Embodiment in Mainstream and Small National Horror/Science-Fiction Hybrids” focuses on the issues of body, monstrosity, (non)human, metamorphosis, alienation, while norms and transgressions of norms are indicated as important cultural references. In chapter eight, “Crime and Changing Society/Technology: Analogue Feminine Traumas and Digital Electronic Traces in Small National Crime Thrillers,” Virginás returns to the conventions of crime thrillers in their pure forms, complementing her discussion by introducing female traumas and the use of media, especially in the context of analogue/digital transformation.

A slight shift can be noted in chapters nine and ten. Aspects of international (co-productions) and global connections as well as film acting (the use of local stars and their star personas) become part of her argument. In the former chapter, “A Post/Classical Formation: The Co-Productional Eastern European Film Noir,” she focuses on film noir formulas in the small national cinemas, while in the latter, “Women’s Films and Female Film Stars in 21st-Century Hungarian and Romanian Cinema: Simplifying and un-Glamorizing the Global,” she switches from genres to formulas and focuses on women’s films. Finally, in the book’s last chapter, “Classical Film Genres and Eastern European Small National Cinemas: Creative Interferences,” Virginas gives an overview of her research by underscoring its crucial ideas. The concept of “creative inferences” turns out to be useful in that. At the same time, she does not limit herself to recapitulating her own ideas. By adding another concept, that of “network” (as introduced by Barabasi), Virginas suggests the further development of her ideas.

Film Genres in Hungarian and Romanian Cinema: History, Theory, Reception marks the differences in the ways genre theory and criticism are used in contemporary Eastern European small national cinemas. The book is a bold attempt to take up an old subject and view it from a new and fresh perspective. Andrea Virginás is eager to discuss and problematise the convergence of the art and the popular in national cinemas. What is more, she proposes a new approach, perspective, and tools to deal with issues some scholars have overlooked as too challenging. Virginas’s rich and theoretically grounded propositions will resonate among those eager to explore genres in their not so obvious emanations.

Elżbieta Durys
University of Warsaw


Elżbieta Durys is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Warsaw, Poland. Her research focus has recently been on cinema history, history and memory practices in film and visual culture, and Polish historical cinema. She is a member of the Steering Committee of the NECS European Network for Cinema and Media Studies (


Altman, Rick. 2000. Film/Genre. London.

Barabási, Albert-László. 2002. Linked. The New Science of Networks. Cambridge.

Durys, Elżbieta. 2018. “The Potential of Nordic Noir: The Pustina Miniseries as an Example of the Transnational Usage of the Formula.” Literatura i Kultra Popularna XXIV: 157–174.

Durys, Elżbieta. 2019. “Crime Narratives in Contemporary Polish Cinema.” Paper presented during the 13th NECS Conference “Structures and Voices: Storytelling in Post-Digital Times.” University of Gdańsk, Poland, 13–15 June.

Even-Zohar, Itamar. 1990. “Polysystem Studies.” Poetics Today 11 (1): 1‒268.

Foucault, Michel. 1998. “Different Spaces.” In Aesthetics, Methods and Epistemology, volume 2, edited by James D. Faubion, translated by Robert Hurley, 175‒185. New York.

Hjort, Mette, and Petrie, Duncan. 2007. “Introduction.” In The Cinemas of Small Nations, edited by Mette Hjort and Duncan Petrie, 1‒22. Edinburgh.

Imre, Anikó, ed. 2005. East European Cinemas. London.

Imre, Anikó, ed. 2012. A Companion to Eastern European Cinemas. Chichester.

Iordanova, Dina. 2003. Cinema of the Other Europe. The Industry and Artistry of East Central European Film. London.

Näripea, Eva, and Trossek, Andreas, eds. 2008. Via Transversa: Lost Cinema of the Former Eastern Bloc. Tallinn.

Neale, Steve. 1980. Genre. London.

Neale, Steve. 2009. Genre and Hollywood. London.

Nestingen, Andrew. 2008. Crime and Fantasy in Scandinavia. Fiction, Film, and Social Change. Seattle.

Ostrowska, Dorota, Francesco Pitassio and Zsuzsanna Varga, eds. 2017. Popular Cinemas in East Central Europe: Film Cultures and Histories. London.

Schatz, Thomas. 1981. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. New York.

Schweinitz, Jörg. 2011. Film and Stereotype. A Challenge for Cinema and Theory. Translated by Laura Scgleussner. New York.

Thompson, Kristin. 1977. “The Concept of Cinematic Excess.” Ciné-Tracts. A Journal of Film, Communication, Culture and Politics 1 (2): 54–64.

Suggested Citation

Durys, Elżbieta. 2022. Review: “Andrea Virginás: Film Genres in Hungarian and Romanian Cinema: History, Theory, Reception.” Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 15. DOI:


Copyright: The text of this article has been published under This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner's terms.