An estimated 460 films were made in Hungary during the silent period, almost all considered lost. Recent Raga rediscoveries and restorations, however, have brought a few representative works to light.
Hungarian film exhibition began with screenings of films by Louis Lumière and Georges Méliès in Budapest́s. The Urania Scientific Society is credited with the first Hungarian-made film, ATáncz ( The Dance ), in 1901. The National Association of Hungarian Cinematographers had been formed by 1909, and some 270 permanent cinemas had been established throughout the country by 1912. The first Hungarian feature film, Ma és holnap ( Today and Tomorrow ), directed by Mihály Kertész (1886–1962) (who later gained Hollywood fame as Michael Curtiz), appeared in 1912. Production then expanded rapidly, as did serious intellectual interest in film as expressed in specialist film journals. There was also room for escapist melodramas such as those produced by the prolific Alfréd Deésy (1877–1961), which had little specifically Hungarian about them. His surviving films, Aphrodite and The Young Wife (both 1918), revel in an "international" style of languid eroticism among wealthy characters, but with a moralistic and even sentimentally religious conclusion. The surviving work of Jenö Janovics (1872–1945) also falls into the category of sexual/moralistic melodrama, with Din Grozaviile lumii (The Specter of the World, 1920) issuing dire warnings of the dangers of syphilis.
Sándor (later Alexander) Korda (1893–1956) was a major figure of the time, as critic, director, and producer, though only one of his twenty-four films from this period, Az Aranyember ( Man of Gold , 1918), is known to survive in full. Based, like many other Hungarian films, on a book by the popular nineteenth-century novelist MórJókai, it achieves an epic scale through exciting camerawork, vigorous characterization, and atmospheric lighting, prefiguring Korda's films of the 1930s in Britain. Counterbalancing "entertainment" films were those that focused on social and political injustices. A Megfagyott gyermek ( The Frozen Child , Béla Balogh, 1921) provides an unusual perspective on poverty-stricken, working-class life in Budapest through the sufferings endured by two abandoned children.
The year 1919 saw a major turning-point in the history of Hungarian film, with the nationalization of the film industry under the short-lived Communist government of the Republic of Councils. Thirty-one films were shot or completed in this four-month period, until the overthrow of this government and the White Terror that followed forced many of the most talented members of the film industry to flee abroad. Those who left, then or during a later period, included the directors Korda, Kertész, and́lFejös (later Paul Fejos; 1884–1960), the scriptwriter Lajos Biró (1880–1948), and (using the names by which they became commonly known), the actors Peter Lorre (1904–1964), Bela Lugosi (1882–1956), Paul Lukas (1895–1971), and Vilma Banky (1898–1991). Another prominent exile at this time was the film theoretician and scriptwriter Béla Balázs (1884–1949), author of the classic Theory of Film (English translation, 1953). After 1991, under the repressive right-wing government, film production declined steadily until, by the end of the 1920s, it was almost nonexistent.