Whilst working for Edinburgh International Film Festival 2011, I had the pleasure of meeting Béla Tarr (actually ‘pleasure’ is perhaps too weak – compared to the other film related events in my life last year meeting Tarr was probably the high point). Tarr was at the festival for his own film, the incredible Turin Horse, but he was also there to introduce a selection of films he had chosen as a guest curator. One of the enigmatic directors’ selection was The Round Up (Szegénylegények, 1965) by fellow Hungarian filmmaker, Miklós Jancsó. I watched as Tarr described how highly he regarded Jancsó, and said very simply that his films were wonderful and everyone should see them. This humble introduction was all I was able to see of the screening however as my work held my attention elsewhere. Fortunately Second Run DVD re-released The Round Up in their box set The Miklós Jancsó Collection alongside My Way Home (így jöttem, 1964) and The Red and the White (Csillagosok, katonák, 1967) so Tarr’s recommendation hasn’t withered into to the ether of hundreds of other films that I intend to see and then never get around to…
My verdict, having now seen these three beautiful films is much the same as Tarrs’ – that everyone should see them. There is a lot I could say about Jancsó’s framing of the Hungarian landscape, the despair and portrayal of absent morality – but this might not be adequate enough to persuade you to watch them (but of course I’ll try anyway).
My Way Home follows the misadventures of a teenage Hungarian attempting to escape the oppressive regime of the Russian military. Falling in and out of freedom, our protagonist eventually ends up in the care of another young man tasked with farming dairy for the army in an area of land surrounded by mines. Despite their language barrier, a sense of compassion grows between the two, wrought out of their mutual captivity on the farm. My Way Home introduces Jancsó’s thematic preoccupations whilst presenting a sometime charming portrayal of unlikely friendship.
The Round Up, however offers an entirely bleak perspective on humanity as prisoners of the Austrian occupation in Hungary in the mid-nineteenth century are arbitrarily treated with an almost total lack of dignity. The round up of the title refers to the collection of suspected members of a gang of resistance fighter’s lead by Sándor Rózsa, who are thought to be in the prison. Peeling individuals away from the group – the soldiers promise leniency if a prisoner can name someone who has killed more than they, hoping it will reveal allegiances and eventually the gang itself. Jancsó handles the movement of characters like a slow dance or chess game, each moved here, there, backward and forward around the prison. This drawn out game of sorts establishes the films tension but through lack of a use of close up, denies any emotional investment giving an overall mood of negativity. It is due to the masterful way that Jancsó directs that the film made such an impact in terms of innovation on its first release.The Red and the White is demonstrable most overtly of Jancsó as a political filmmaker. Detailing the fighting between the Hungarian volunteers who supported the ‘Red’ revolutionaries against the ‘White’ counter- revolutionaries, the film displays the wider implications of decisions made by the powerful over the weak, and how unstable and that power can be.
These three films will stay with me; their images are hard to shake – for their tragedy, beauty, even for the occasional moments of humour but mostly for the unique and stunning vision of director Miklós Jancsó.
Jancsós’ theme throughout these first extraordinary films is the fragility of humanity in the face of war, trauma and poverty. With such grand and serious ideas being dealt with – these are not beautiful films in a simple aesthetic way – they are beautifully about the human condition.