Film theorist, playwright, novelist, critic, philosopher, politician, poet.
Born Herbert Bauer in 1884 in Szeged to German-born parents. 1897 father dies. 1902 graduates from gymnasium and moves to Budapest to study Hungarian and German at the Eötvös Collegium, roomate with future composer Zoltán Kodály. Studies in Berlin and Paris. 1908-09 doctoral thesis on the tragedies of Friedrich Hebbel. Writes for Nyugat magazine. Travels countryside with Bartók collecting folk music, admires his musical gifts, though never becomes a close friend: "Apart from his music, I am able to enjoy little about him", writes in his diary. Works with Bartók as a librettist for opera Bluebeard's Castle (1912) and ballet The Wooden Prince (1917); although Bartók had a high regard for the opera, he never talked much about their collaboration. 1914 volunteers for the Hungarian army and serves at the front, before becoming seriously ill. December 1915 joins The Budapest Sunday Circle, led by Lukács, whom Balázs had known since 1904; the group includes Karl Mannheim, the art historian Arnold Hauser, the writer Anna Leznai, and the musicians Bartók and Kodály; also Balázs's first wife, Edith Hajós, and Anna Schlamadinger, his second wife, attends the meetings; the group usually meets at his elegant apartment or the Lukács's country estate and discusses the end of the liberal society. Travels extensively in Europe, lectures in IT, CS, PL, YU, FR, becomes well known in Viennese intellectual circles. 1919 political and cultural organiser at Hungarian communist republic.
Late November 1919 fleeds to Vienna with his wife Anna; 1920 his play Deadly Youth performed there; regularly meets in Cafe Filmhof with emigrés Alexander Korda, Michael Curtiz (Mihály Kertész), Ladislaus Vajda, Ladislaus Biro, Bela Lugosi. Cooperates with the director Hans Otto Löwenstein on several film projects. 1921 novels On God's Hand and Beyond the Body (Diary of a Man and a Woman). Speaks about film art as "the greatest instrument of mass influence ever devised in the whole course of human cultural history" and considers the cinematic education of the audience--teaching the public how to appreciate film art--of utmost importance. Since 1922 film column in Der Tag daily owned by an apolitical stockmarket speculator Sigmund Bosel; 1924 collected as The Visible Man, or Film Culture [Der Sichtbare Mensch], which helped found the German "film as language" theory, and is translated into 11 languages. 1922 The Theory of the Drama. Co-written number of scripts; film criticism, play and book reviews, art-philosophical studies and literary essays for journals internationally (est. a thousand articles between 1919 and 1931). 1925 The Visible Man translated to Russian by Pietrovsky, the artistic director of Sovkino; after which he keeps in close touch with Kuleshov, Pudovkin, Lebedev, and Eisenstein.
Urged by his Russian friends and the German filmmakers in 1926 he moves to Berlin after Bosel bankrupts and the new management of Der Tag is not reconcilable to Balazs's radical culture-political ideas. Writes for Die Rote Fahne, the leftist paper of the German workers' movement; also for Linkskurv and Die Weltbühne. 1926 scripts Die Abenteuer eines Zehmarkscheines, a pioneering work of the Neue Sachlichkeit. UFA production company offers him a contract, but he declines it, due to a growing antagonism between leftist artists and UFA's program policies. Artistic director of a vast nonprofessional radical, 10,000 members strong theater organization Arbeitertheaterbund (Worker's Theatrical Association); working side by side with Piscator and Brecht he writes and directs a number of one-act plays. For three and a half years edits the journal of the workers' theater, published at his own cost. 1929 writes open letter in Film-Kurier warning the Russian filmmakers not to relinquish their thriving for excellence. 1930 The Spirit of Film, his second major theoretical work; analyzes the beneficial and detrimental effects of new techniques upon the film as art, and warns against the potentially domineering role of sound. 1931 spends a few months working with Leni Riefenstahl on co-writing (with Carl Mayer) and co-directing her The Blue Light film; she later removed his and Mayer's name from credits because they were Jewish.
Summer 1931 receives invitation from the Soviet Union, Riefenstahl declines his offer to join him (later reads Mein Kampf, meets Hitler and changes her political views), Balázs leaves in September. 1933 to 1945 teaches film aesthetics at Moscow's State Film Institute. In SU regularly attacked by orthodox, Stalinist ideologists; Lukács turns his back to him; 1939 writes a poem for Stalin, "Auf ein Stalinbildnis", but it doesn't help his situation. 1939 in the essay "Das Filmszenarium, eine neue literarische Gattung" writes that the screenplay is an independent and a new form of literature, and emphasizes the role of the writer as the auteur of the film. Spends WWII in Alma Ata collecting folk poetry, later published in Das Goldene Zelt (1956).
1945 returns to Budapest after the communists gained control of government, to help to rebuild Hungarian film industry; teaches at the Academy of Theatre and Film Arts; and continues writing scripts, although considered a bourgeois theorist and author by the communists his projects are turned down. Also lectures on films in Poland and at Prague University. 1947 Somewhere in Europe [Valahol Európában] directed by Geza von Radvanyi is his most succesful achievement; the story dealt with orphaned children in post-war Europe. 1949 finishes Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art published posthumously in English (1952), first published in Moscow as The Art of Cinema (1945). 1949 dies in Budapest. 1958 Béla Balázs Studio and Prize founded.
- Writings on Balázs
- Andrew, J. Dudley. "Béla Balázs and the Tradition of Formalism." In The Major Film Theories. New York: Oxford UP, 1976. 76-101.
- Koch, Gertrud. " Béla Balázs: The Physiognomy of Things," New German Critique 40 (Winter, 1987): 167-177. 
- Loewy, Hanno. " Space, Time, and 'Rites de Passage': Béla Balázs Paths to Film," October 115 (Winter 2006): 61-76. 
- Zsuffa, Joseph. Béla Balázs: The Man and the Artist. Berkeley: U California P, 1987.
- Turvey, Malcolm. " Balázs: Realist or Modernist?" October 115 (Winter 2006): 77-87.