With their flamboyant adoption and advancements on some of the most modernist formal tropes of the era, the 60s films of Hungarian filmmaker Miklós Janscó have often come up against accusations of being more concerned with geometries than geopolitics, of being triumphs of design over directive. You could argue that their ostensibly socialist ideology—Janscó joined the Communist party in 1945 and would eventually work under the auspices of the Soviet film industry—was compromised by techniques and aesthetics inspired by the decadent West as celebrated in the Italian, French and American cinemas. For those inclined to read every artistic choice as a political statement—a habit once quite fashionable, lest we forget—Janscó’s work exhibited a troubling schism of form and content.
But from the perspective of one not even born when Janscó’s most renown films came out, only vaguely familiar with the history they invoke, and open to whatever sort of reading, Janscó’s mise en scène—the audaciously long takes and fluid camerawork; the casts of characters whose allegiances are so often impossible to determine, something the regular shedding of clothing only enhances; the willfully cryptic narratives in which opposing forces become indistinguishable across a vast, featureless landscape—constitutes a powerful political gesture in itself. Violence self-perpetuates. The surrender and assumption of power are exchanged until power itself becomes meaningless. Ideology is reduced to pageantry. (Did I mention Janscó was once a law student?) I can’t think of a body of films with a bolder statement on the futility of war and malleability of national or political identities.
It functions all the better for its dearth of exposition or psychology, for our inability to identify with and comprehend characters, something that only grows as you work through these films where the same actors keep reappearing in different roles. There’s a compelling theatricality to these films, not only in their use of a stock company but, in Red Psalm (1971) especially, the sense that everything is staged as a sort of atheist Passion play. Unless you really know your Hungarian history—and, one suspects, even then—to enter into Janscó’s world is to feel like you should really be understanding everything while understanding almost nothing. Janscó drops us into the midst of a struggle without orienting us. What’s on display is “pure” war, or rather the peripheralities of war, the negotiations and executions. All of which is something most of us could stand to consider more carefully as our world slips ever deeper into a global chasm of conflicts whose meanings are never uncontestable.
The best way to get a sense of how all this works is to see these films in a condensed period, something our friends at Metro Cinema are granting Edmonton filmlovers next week with The Films of Miklós Janscó. The selected quartet begins with Janscó’s breakthrough The Round Up (66), which unfolds in a prison camp following the collapse of Lajos Kossuth’s 1848 revolt against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A man is accused of murder and the military use him to finger other insurgents they wish to condemn. What follows is a sequence of betrayals and a dismantling of alliances while the circumstances of the supposed murders become increasingly inconsequential. Brutality becomes an end in itself.
The Round Up introduced some of Janscó’s key themes, but the formal distinctions I’ve been describing don’t come into full fruition until The Red and the White (67), shot in the USSR and intended to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution. But the story takes place two years later, with the Communists fighting the White Guard for a hilly plain along the Volga. Territorial lines shift, but any greater purpose for the struggle remains obscure, as does anything resembling heroics. It is the antithesis of a propaganda film. The Soviets were not pleased, while the film was celebrated in the US. Silence and Cry (68), probably the rarest film in this series, revisits the same historical moment, but on a comparatively intimate scale, with a former Red soldier taking refuge on a Hungarian farm regarded as suspect by local authorities. There are moments of what appear to be tenderness and communion, the performances engrossing and nuanced, but everything finally capitulates to the dictates of individual survival. The result is chillingly poetic.
Having seen it just recently, the Palme d’Or-winning Red Psalm—shot in gorgeously saturated colour and, rather surprisingly, with a 1:37 aspect ratio—has become a new personal favourite of mine, though admittedly, hypnotic, erotic, dream-like and seemingly endless—but in a good way!—it may the even more confusing than any of its predecessors. Folkloric and more than a little enraptured with the hippie culture of the time, it centers on a turn-of-the-century uprising of landless agricultural workers, who sing, play music, dance and act out rituals of triumph and slaughter. The camera weaves across faces or hangs back to watch soldiers encircle and open fire upon a ring of peasants. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like it, though, as with the preceding three films, it makes clear that without Janscó the work of Theo Angelopoulos and Béla Tarr would be inconceivable.