Bright Lights Film Journal

Dream Documents of Civil War: Three Films by Miklós Jancsó

“Jancsó’s controlled aesthetic acts as a dissonance that vibrates expressively with scenes of violence, torture, and shame.”

With their recent release of The Round-Up (Szegénylegények, 1965), along with earlier issues of The Red and the White (Csillagosok, katonák, 1967) and My Way Home (Igy jottem, 1964),1 the British company Second Run has made available three of Miklós Jancsó’s better-known titles that, considering his long and still active career, are also among his earliest, with My Way Home being his third feature film.

Born in 1921, Jancsó has never ceased to make intensely political films, which may be one reason he is so little known outside his native Hungary. More simply, the biggest reason may be that his films are “difficult,” even as art-house fare back in its ’60s heyday. Jancsó’s historical films, like The Red and the White, are punishingly bleak in tone and outcome. Such a tone was all well and good for cineastes of the ’60s and ’70s, but the director’s oblique way with his narratives challenged even the most dedicated among them.

The Round-Up and The Red and the White make up two-thirds of a triptych of similarly conceived films, of which the final is Silence and Cry (Csend és kiáltás, 1967).2  Like a lot of postwar cinema from former Eastern bloc countries, it’s difficult not to read metaphors of Soviet oppression into the content of these three films, especially considering the brutal Communist clampdown of 1956 that Hungary had suffered, but with Jancsó this sightline is not so deliberately enforced.

As an initiate to this trio of films, the first thing you notice is not any political stance but the beauty of the immaculate black-and-white pictorials. Coupled with Jancsó’s famous long takes, demurral of montage, and the fluidity of his tracking shots, the visuals are formally downright apollonian, an odd aesthetic stance, you would think, in the depiction of the horrors of brute occupation. In her essay, Penelope Houston says this aesthetic has “the lure of the cloister, the white habit, discipline and rigor, the Bressonian impression of spiritual geometry.”3  And, as with Bresson, this is exactly where Jancsó’s unique frisson takes place.

The director’s first truly characteristic film, The Round-Up,4  backgrounds its period and political context in a brief sardonic text introduction, but the actions of the characters, especially on first viewing, are often enigmatic. The sparse, hard-to-follow storyline lacks a protagonist, and in any case, the oppressed and the oppressors are mostly unnamed.

Few filmgoers enjoy being lost in a film, and for much of The Round-Up you feel stranded and perplexed, like the prisoners themselves. But Jancsó has designs on you, just as the jailers have plans for their charges. The narrative’s purposeful arc is made clear only in the final “round-up” at film’s end, which is a switcheroo closing of deadly irony.

The action of The Round-Up takes place in a vast open plain in the Hungary of 1867 when the country was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and within vivid memory of a defeated uprising in 1848 (by an Austrian and Russian alliance) that dispersed bands of remaining Hungarian nationalists into the countryside.

Under Austrian rule, Hungary had experienced a rise in its middle class, which, like any bourgeoisie, wants protection from the chaotic elements outside its gates. Enter Commissar Gedeon Ráday, who invokes national security to dub the remaining resistance a bunch of outlaws, herd it into a net, and eliminate it. “He wasn’t particular about his methods,” says Jancsó in his introduction, and it’s these methods, which unfold like a complicated, bizarre police procedural, that drive the episodic plot.

The film’s very first image features a long shot of the Austrian military herding its prisoners within the kind of massive empty plain that’s apparently endemic of the Hungarian landscape. Plopped down rather absurdly in the midst of barren flatness, the only set consists of a compound of buildings. The Austrians initially gather the prisoners in a large, stucco-faced holding pen, dubbed the earthworks, constructed as a large open-air courtyard that was perhaps once used for livestock.

The flat, open space outside its environs demeans any effort of the prisoners to free themselves. Brought to the adjacent farmhouse, a detainee is told he may go, takes several steps toward the infinite, treeless horizon, and is shot dead in the back. Jancsó, in an interview conducted by Andrew James Horton, explains that, in these great agricultural plains, “there were no more hiding places … that’s why Hungarians were so shitty at fighting; we could never hide anywhere.” Jancsó has a native’s feeling for these empty plains, and photographing in black and white in a widescreen 16:9/2.35:1, designs his frame with a distant horizon in mind. Seen through the gates of the earthworks, the open plain could just as well be a limitless ocean.

In the concise (20-minute) but revealing interview included by Second Run with The Round-Up, Jancsó pauses to explain the larger context intended by these films, that is, how they were meant to universalize human cruelty beyond apparent, coded references to the then recent 1956 Soviet action. Speaking carefully and succinctly, Jancsó offers two themes: “the humiliation by the powerful” and “the defenselessness of the people.”

In The Round-Up, the powerful manipulate the vulnerable with a cold precision made even more unnerving because it’s masked in cryptic routines. Occasionally, for example, a half dozen or so prisoners are selected from the mass, led out to the open plain, and lined up to meet a row of peasant women carrying baskets of food from the far horizon. One time, as they hand the baskets directly to the men, a young woman is — caught? suspected? framed? — for attempting to aid an escape.

Told to strip, she’s marched naked to a double row of soldiers armed with long switches where she endures a gauntlet of thrashing while the gathered male prisoners look on. Making a spectator sport out of the beating seems to be the point of the exercise. Efficiently, the captors create a double humiliation for both the helpless naked girl and the helpless watching men. A few of the men, situated on top of the earthworks, find the spectacle so unbearable that they leap screaming from the height of the wall and kill themselves. Mission accomplished, it seems. Off camera, the girl dies. Was she actually guilty of anything?

Clearly it doesn’t matter. It’s all a game to extract what information the Austrians need from the captives, but at this point the viewer is bewildered and possibly emotionally undone. The director’s handling of this and other atrocious events is mysteriously and blandly matter-of-fact. As the oppressor appears to act without motivation, the oppressed respond with quiet docility. Ordered to remove all her clothes, the girl does so without a struggle, as if she’s been expecting this to happen all along. With their futile defiant suicides, a few men ruffle the still air, and then all is calm again with only occasional birdsong punctuating the silence.

Commentators often note that Jancsó refrains from psychologizing his characters — that is, why does this or that individual behave in this or that manner — but it seems he’s quite astute in portraying the numbing, reductive effect of torture in the form of base humiliation or just plain mind-fuck. Give human beings the permission to kill, torture, or just simply exhibit cruelty and they’ll not hesitate in getting the show on the road. Examples of this truism are as recent as the Abu Ghraib scandal (below, right), in which depriving people of their clothes (scene from The Round-Up, below, left) was a primary tool in rendering them debased, forfeited human beings.

In Jancsó’s next film, The Red and the White, the director takes his agenda to another troubled time, the year 1919, when Hungarian nationalists strove to further their cause by supporting the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war. When, at in abandoned town, a troop of Whites pinions a ragtag bunch of Reds and Hungarians, they winnow out the Hungarians and send them home. The remaining group of Reds submits to a sadistic gambit in which they believe they’ve been set free only to encounter a cul de sac that gathers them up for a mass execution.

A few Reds, including one Hungarian who’d stuck with them, do manage to escape into the countryside. Here Jancsó allows us a protagonist in the Hungarian fugitive played by András Kozák. Called “Hungarian” by the Reds, Kozák is essentially the same character here as he is in the earlier My Way Home and in the final film in this perceived trilogy, Silence and Cry: a hapless youth caught up in a wave of events in which human beings enact uncomprehendingly cruel designs on each other.

As to the unwritten rules of war, the Hungarian just doesn’t get it. The film opens with the group of Reds considering what to do with some captured Whites. To the scruffy officer in charge, shooting the lot of them seems the only option, but in a discordant, humane plea, the Hungarian talks him out of summary execution, and the men, after being ordered to strip, are sent running naked into the open countryside. Nudity once again signals humiliation, helplessness, and ultimate vulnerability, but it is a compromise with death and the first and only time the Hungarian, through his unsullied humanity, has any effect on events. Jancsó positioning Kozák as an unwitting pawn on history’s vast chessboard is reminiscent of Tolstoy placing the bumbling, idealistic Pierre Bezúkhov onto the battlefield of Borodino in War and Peace.

But whereas Jancsó intimates a Tolstoyan wisdom in his depiction of the cruel vagaries of war, he makes no effort to reveal the Hungarian’s internal grappling with larger truths, as Tolstoy does with Pierre. Rather, accomplished by very stylish filmmaking, there’s an emphasis on externals. The film’s black-and-white visuals are as lovely as ever, and the director’s camera movements, which track effortlessly through the action in those long takes, are even more sophisticated and exquisite than before. With a cool disinterest in any individual’s fate, waves of Whites might subsume a mass of Reds, who then turn and vanquish the other, but Jancsó uses no rapid crosscutting, only wide-eyed breathless sweeps.

In his Second Run interview, Jancsó is cagey about his luxuriously long takes, discussing them only as if they were a pragmatic choice, not an aesthetic one. There were 11 to 12 minutes in a 35mm cartridge, he explains, as if to imply that one should just use a single cartridge per take. But then, loosening up, he explains the complexities of arranging the actors and plotting the action around the layout of the dolly tracks, which of course determines the manner in which the camera will move through space. Thus, Jancsó designs these movements in advance of any shooting, as if they were choreographed steps in a ballet.

Watching The Red and the White, you can’t help but notice that this carefully designed artfulness seems at odds in the staging of atrocities and off-handed killing. Jancsó’s formalism could come off as contrived and heartless, but it doesn’t. Instead, in an upside-down flip-flop of audience expectation, his controlled aesthetic acts as a dissonance that vibrates expressively with scenes of violence, torture, and shame.

A pretty nurse (Krystyna Mikolajewksa) has an erotic encounter with a fugitive Red, and when the Whites appear out of nowhere, tries desperately to save him. As a ruse, she strips to bathe naked in the river, thinking exposed female flesh will distract the soldiers. She’s wrong; they find and kill him anyway. Still naked, she watches the killing and then crouches into a fetal position — shamed and distraught. Jancsó photographs it all in a long shot that de-eroticizes the nudity and emphasizes the helplessness of the doomed nurse.

As the Whites work on her further, she’s coerced into revealing the hiding places of the other Bolsheviks, but when a troop of Reds suddenly enters to wipe the slate clean, she’s casually condemned to death for this last-minute betrayal. A few fellow nurses try to plead her case with the commander. “She was forced to do it,” they say, but their words are uttered into a vacuum. Minutes later you hear the staccato pops of the off-screen execution — clean, concise, and with no histrionics. It’s one of the bitterest moments in the film. Deftly, with minute touches, Jancsó has built up our sympathies for the pretty, desirable nurse and now she’s swiftly and meaninglessly dead — a cipher denied what the movies have hard-wired us to expect: a noble, or ignoble, death scene.

Among these films, Second Run’s release of My Way Home can seem like the odd man out. Here a very young András Kozák is Jancsó’s alter ego in what the director admits is a partially autobiographical film. In the waning days of World War II, Jóska (Kozák), a feckless schoolboy, tags along with a group of Hungarian (nationalists?) that need to navigate not only the occupying Russian troops but scattered remaining Fascists in order to get home. They run afoul of both, but Jóska eventually lands in the hands of the Russians, who can’t seem to make up their minds whether to hold him prisoner or let him go.

Their solution is to hand him off as an assistant to a lonely young Russian soldier managing a herd of dairy cows out in one of Jancsó’s remote, empty plains. When not milking the cows, the isolated Kolya (Sergei Nikonyenko) does his best keeping them from wandering onto land mines. Occasionally, a jeep will appear from over the horizon to pick up the gathered milk, which the Russians feed to their wounded. From the start, Jóska realizes he’s there to help and takes part in loading the jeep.

Otherwise, there is a lot of downtime, during which the boys enter into an intense friendship. In spite of neither knowing the other’s language, Jóska finds that Kolya is not only lonely but scared. His superiors have clearly given him the soft duty because he’s been rendered frail from a war wound in the stomach. “The bullet’s still in there,” he tries to tell Jóska, and chronically it throws him into spasms of pain. Subtly, with minimal dialog, Jancsó makes us see the boy keeping a lid on his terror; Kolya knows the wound might kill him. Ever more protective of the weakened Kolya, Jóska gradually forgets he’s a captive, even when neither Kolya nor the Russian army is able to hold him. He stays on to tend to his buddy.

But the middle of the picture is a summer’s idyll. Shirtless, the two boys just mess around in the open air, shooting frogs, destroying property (a row of fragile statues at an abandoned villa) — fun stuff like that. Once, spying a group of women soldiers bathing naked, they chase one nude girl far into the hills. But whereas the chase is a strange spectacle with menacing overtones — an eventual rape, of course — the girl escapes and you realize neither boy would’ve had it in him to resort to sexual violence. But here we are, at this early juncture in Jancsó’s career, and already the symbolic freight of naked flesh fascinates him.

In My Way Home, it’s the boys’ naked torsos that carry the director’s overarching theme of vulnerability and defenselessness. In one scene, both of them disrobe in order to have their clothes laundered in a portable boiler. Chuckling at Kolya’s modesty, the Russian launderer gives them handkerchiefs to cover their genitals. While the clothes boil, Jóska, handkerchief in place, reclines languorously nude on the grass, throwing a few seconds of homoeroticism into the mix. Without clothes, without uniforms, the two young men aren’t the occupier and the occupied; they’re just a couple of skinny kids.

In the end, Jóska gets dressed — in a Russian uniform. At first it’s for pragmatic reasons; he dons the occupier’s symbol of power in order to commandeer a doctor to save his ailing friend. Then, when he’s alone and truly on his way home, and the uniform is no longer useful and actually rather dangerous to be seen in, Jóska doesn’t discard it. Thinking him a Russian, a group of Hungarians feel they have permission to beat him up, and Jóska experiences the ironic reversal of power that Jancsó will take, as a theme, to ever-grimmer conclusions in later films.

After the beating, Jancsó ends the film on a close-up of Jóska’s damaged face. As the credits rolled, I felt the strong conviction that Jóska had retained the uniform, not out of cluelessness but in solidarity with his doomed friend. Unlike the victims of Jancsó’s next three films, Kolya is not a cipher, and Jóska, who has learned a larger truth, seeks to honor him.

* * *

Amongst the three discs, My Way Home proves by far the best transfer, with fine, detailed resolution and a gorgeous gray scale. The Round-Up is nearly as good, but The Red and the White, in comparison, comes off as a little soft, but still with a lovely retention of the values of its black-and-white photography.

Special features include, on The Red and the White and My Way Home respectively, two films from Jancsó’s documentary series featuring contemporary Jewish lifestyle in Hungary: Message of StonesBudapest and Message of StonesMáramaros. The Round-Up has the aforementioned newly filmed interview with the director, and My Way Home, in its booklet, reprints a 1969 Sight and Sound article on Jancsó by Penelope Houston. Coming as it did so soon after the release of these films in the West, Houston’s piece feels remarkably fresh and clearheaded today. All film writing should be as good as this.

These works, so darkly magnificent and visually resplendent, are a gift to the world, not mere regional curiosities. Newly created Jancsó fans — like me — now turn their lonely eyes to Second Run, hoping for more releases from the Hungarian master’s long resume.

Please … and thank you.

Note: All films in Hungarian with removable English subtitles; black and white; mono sound; PAL format. The Red and the White – Hungary-USSR/1967/87 minutes/OAR 16:9/2.35:1; My Way Home – Hungary/1964/98 minutes/OAR 16.9/1.78:1; The Round-Up – Hungary/1965/87 minutes/OAR 16:9/2.35:1.

  1. This phrase, describing Jancsó’s films, appears on page 12 of Penelope Houston’s reprinted essay “The Horizontal Man,” included by Second Run in the booklet accompanying My Way Home. []
  2. Available in Region 1 from DreamQuest Films and in Region 2 from Clavis Films. []
  3. Booklet insert, My Way Home, p.11. []
  4. The original Hungarian title, Szegénylegények, translates as The Hopeless Ones. []