Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
László Rajk died on September 11, 2019, peacefully after a painful illness rapidly engulfed him. His beloved and loving wife, the renowned concert singer and professor of music, Judit Rajk, was at his side till the end. Those wishing to pay homage to the wonderful character, life and work of the architect, stage and film production designer, the avantgarde of the democratic opposition, founding member of the party of the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) can all gather around his grave on October 6th in the opening hours of the cemetery on Fiumei Road. His father’s public funeral – which turned out to be the dress rehearsal for the 1956 Hungarian Revolution – took place on the same day 63 years ago.
László Rajk, Jr. was born in the year when his father was hanged by the Hungarian State as the result of an absurd, Stalinist show trial. His mother, Júlia Földi, could hear her husband being executed from her prison cell. Laci was raised under a false name until the age of five when he could finally meet his mother. He had no recollection of his motherless early years. His mother consulted a famous Hungarian child psychologist about Laci’s lack of traumatic memories. According to his professional opinion, it was the sign of healthy resilience. Still, in his entire life, Laci could not help but respond involuntarily to his fake-name, Pisti.
The child’s healthy resilience grew into the man’s healthy resistance, moreover, into healthy heroism. Laci was not possessed by the melancholy of resistance, oppression did not depress, rather energized him and made him more resourceful. The prolific Hungarian underground industry of publishing and disseminating dissenting ideas was driven by his energy and resourcefulness. Although he was cerebral in the academic sense, he was also a man of action with the practical knowledge of how to pull together huge productions. Yet, he was especially proud that the first subversive anti-regime text he printed with his friends in his kitchen was in the poetic form: György Petri’s Örökhétfő.
Laci maintained that his inroad to the dissident movement was through the liberal arts, the arts that cannot be dictated to. Laci found freedom in the playfulness of the arts, ordering and reordering possible worlds through design created only for art’s sake. My Princeton students asked him how he feels when his work products as a film architect are destroyed after the filming is finished. His answer was: ‘It’s a great feeling. Exhilarating!’.
Laci was first and foremost an architect with unstoppable creativity. His talent for architectonic design could not be thwarted by being banned, censored and restricted by politics, market considerations, or simply, philistinism. His creativity always managed to break free and shape the avantgarde stage, films of all kinds and, lately, computer gaming. He taught how to ennoble computer game design through film aesthetics and how to renew filmmaking through computer game aesthetics.
In his most important film work, László Rajk as a film architect has risen to be an auteur and marked his place in film history. His brilliance, however, shines through all the other myriad resourceful, witty, elegant, small or big design solutions he brought into the more than hundred projects he was involved with in his lifetime. Having discussed with him his production designs of the last decade, I can tell that he has grounded each film in a level of painstaking research and deep theoretical reflections that would make any university professor proud. He brought academic research and philosophical speculation into the artistic creation of the film-worlds whose authenticity he took responsibility for.
He has given all he had to his film students and to his film directors. So much so, that I lately worried that he could not stop to rest. But now I understand that he was not stopping for Death. So, Death had to stop for him. Death stopped kindly for him: László Rajk will keep going on to shape newer and newer audiences with his unstoppable, undying work.