(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008 after a London screening of The Round-Up attended by Miklós Jancsó)
“Even I don’t like films with bad endings, but unfortunately that’s life – the good guys fall for the bad men’s tricks.” That was a paraphrase of what Jancsó said after the screening of his 1965 film The Round-Up in London recently (2008), the first time he had seen his film in 27 years apparently. It’s an appropriate comment for that film, in which gendarmes pitilessly root out the survivors of a rebellion from among the group of peasants that they have corralled into a stockade, introducing discord and uncertainty by setting former comrades in arms and family members against each other.
The Round-Up is one of three of Jancsó’s films from the 1960s happily now available on DVD from Second Run, along with My Way Home from 1965 and The Red and the White from 1967. Although these only make up a small proportion of Jancso’s filmography, which boasts over 70 films across a career of nearly five decades, they are three of the main films on which his reputation rests and are all major works that belong in any self-respecting world cinema collection.
All three films deal with specific historical times and events – My Way Home details the journey home of a young Hungarian man in the final days of the second world war, The Round-Up, set in 1869, shows the corralling, isolation and methods of capturing the holdouts among the resistance fighters from the 1848 rebellion, men that were seen as a threat to the wealth and stability of the Austrian rulers, while The Red and the White takes place during the 1919 civil war in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, in which Hungarians joined Bolsheviks against the counter-revolutionary forces looking to restore the old Tsarist order. However, it would be wrong to categorise them only as historical films, as all three use their given situations as starting points for astoundingly clear-sighted, coolly distanced and unemotional investigations into such areas as the nature of power and control and the behaviour of men in wartime. They were films with contemporary significance too. The Round-Up may have been set in 1869 but it was also about the Soviet crushing of the 1956 Hungarian uprising and the ways and means of rooting out rebellious elements then.
Before I look at the films in more detail, here are two quotes regarding Jancsó’s films. In a nice phrase, the film critic Penelope Houston called them ‘dream documents of civil war’, and there is certainly something of that about them in their distilled, uncluttered, disorienting visions, while Tony Rayns once likened them to what you would expect to see if Michelangelo Antonioni took it upon himself to make a western. As Rayns admits, even though Jancsó was certainly influenced by Antonioni in his approach to film, the comparison has something of youthful exuberance behind it, but it does give a compelling idea of what to expect from the films if you haven’t seen them.
All three of the films share common characteristics, not least the dominant feature of the Hungarian plain which is a character in itself – mercilessly open and affording neither hiding places nor escape routes. A place where women can try to run from the gendarmes, who unconcerned and leisurely, send out horsemen to bring them in again, knowing that running from them is futile and where men are told that they are free to go, even though all parties involved in the conversation know that at some point before the man gets out of rifle range, he will be shot in the back with the single crack of a rifle’s report. All the films also, partly because of the apparent sparseness of their settings, transcend their location and are studies of friendship, betrayal and the indifference of death to its random subjects. In The Round-Up for example, in the prison stockade on the featureless plain, wherein hooded prisoners execute circular movements at the whim of their captors – nominally exercises but which resemble scenes from a minimalist theatre of cruelty performance – the very sparsity of context intensifies its oddity and it becomes an example of psychological cruelty that, with its hooded figures, cannot fail to resonate in our own time, recalling scenes of prisoners in Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo.
Character is likewise stripped to essentials. Psychology is replaced by movement, position, action and commands. Indeed, after watching the three films the viewer will feel that he has gained a rudimentary grasp of Hungarian, as speech in all three is largely restricted to curt, repeated, barked orders: Go back, stay there, come here, stand up, line up, hurry, stop, yes, no.
It is worth stressing however that each film has its own particular atmosphere – of temporary respite from war in a chance friendship between men on opposing sides in My Way Home, of remorseless inevitability of capture or death in The Round-Up, and of the temporary nature of power in a futile battle in The Red and the White.
My Way Home is certainly the most humane of the three films, though even here mundane killing and the random nature of survival still figure large. It even begins with people sharing useful words for once – bread, water, to eat, give me food. However, in a move typical of Jancsó, within minutes we have left these apparently important figures to their own fates, and we instead follow the one man who separates from their group, a young Hungarian man who decides to follow his own path, possibly because of jealousy – though that is far too strong a word for something denoted by a brief wartime tumble with a girl in their group – possibly on a whim. He is nominally the Hungarian Joska, though through the course of the film he is referred to variously as Fritz, Magyar, Joseph, Russki, fascist, Nazi, tovarich. He also changes uniform in the course of his journey, one man perceived many ways. A long central section of the film sees him sent out to a cattle post to assist the young Russian man working there. Suspicion, and lack of a common language is overcome, and they begin to play games in an all-too brief respite from the daily occupation of survival in ragged times.
Nearly every study of Jancsó’s films rightly mentions his exceptional camera movement, noting crane shots and the choreography of characters through extended scenes. Fewer mention the beautifully sculpted sound design of his films. It’s apparent in My Way Home for example, where in a scene at the cattle post, where, just before Joska takes it into his mind to escape, the soundtrack becomes an extraordinary rendition, through low bowing on a cello, of the lowing of cattle, with skylarks mixed in above this, the sounds together approximating to the buzzing of the decision to run hardening into action in Joska’s mind. Later, when Joska and Kolya, his Russian captor, have grown in friendship, the music becomes a playful twittering on an oboe as they investigate their surroundings and play among the ruins of a building.
Early on in My Way Home, Joska bathes in a river with a group of other prisoners he has been temporarily allotted to. One of his group tries to escape by swimming under the barbed wire that stretches across the river but fails when he finds that the fence goes all the way down to the river bed. When they are called out of the water, the barbed wire fence divides the screen at the left hand edge, roughly into the ratio of 9 to 1. That thin strip on the narrow side of the fence is emblematic of Joska’s route home, with its unexpected luck, anf the misfortune that turns to opportunity. The film shows part of one man’s extraordinary route home, threading a course that is his only. Although he doesn’t complete the journey, he ends on a road and we never have the impression that he won’t make it. Through the course of the three films, this possibility is something that is snuffed out.
Both The Round-Up & The Red and the White begin with a piercing martial bugle call, setting the scene in The Round-Up for what Jancsó referred to as a film of defencelessness and humiliation. After the scene-setting introduction, we see figures moving towards us on a plain. Horses ride out to circle them and return whence they came in a movement that seems wholly unnecessary except for the purposes of domination and control. It is like the constant predatory circling of the gendarmes around their prisoners, a movement reinforced by the camera’s own circling movements. Is a compulsively addictive film, repellent in its relaxed detailing of the way to entrap and crush the spirit, beautiful in its large-scale choreography mixed with close-ups of faces of men who have so far survived on their wits. It is often referred to as Jancsó’s masterpiece. Astoundingly it was made in 28 days.
The Red and the White takes as its subject an obscure battle for the land between an abandoned monastery and a river in the Russian civil war. it is a film of ceaseless ebb and flow. It is, quite deliberately, notoriously difficult on first view to completely follow the action. The Reds of the title are the Bolsheviks, the Whites the Tsarists, yet there is really little to tell between them, and though certain characters impress themselves on our minds, they soon move on, or are shot. This deliberate confusion is part of Jancsó’s intent of course; though this may be a film set in war, it follows none of the conventions of such films. It is not really important that we know their characters or causes. Orders are unexplained, there are no larger goals to lend a sense of purpose to the actions taken, and few characters stay long enough for us to empathise with them. Command passes though a succession of people in the film as in a game of tag; soldiers impose order for a brief while on a situation before another relieves them of command, through capture, death or seizing a situation. Again, speech in the film occurs almost entirely in the form of commands, and here again we are in constant motion: Go away!, Stay!, Come here!.
The Red and the White is not a bloody film; death is a random, abrupt punctuation, nothing more. It is a film too of ritualisic nakedness; time and again characters are stripped bare before escape, ordeal or death.
There are moments of surreal beauty too (and on one level, the elegant, luminous black and white photography stands in contrast to the subject throughout), no more so than when the nurses are rounded up and marched to the middle of a birch wood, there to waltz for the watching soldiers. There is relief that they are not abused as we half-expect they will be.
The Red and the White was less well-received than The Round-Up, possibly because survival is by now a matter of completely indifferent chance (which may however seem something very like destiny to the survivors), but also because the clinically detached mode of representing death and the vagaries of power and survival in such an aesthetically pleasing way was considered repellent. Watching the three films together however, this seems like a natural progression. The movement in My Way Home is more jittery and choppy, journeys are broken as people move to and fro. The Round-Up, as its title suggests is a film of circling and entrapment, while The Red and the White is a film of horizontal ebb and flow.
Time and again, action in The Red and the White returns to the river. A natural feature so important to the soldiers, it is entirely indifferent to them and their futile movements, knowing they will soon all be gone. In The Round-Up too, one of the most dominant sounds in the film is that of skylarks singing, utterly indifferent to the ritualised figures of power and abuse that the humans trace out beneath them on the plain.