DVD Review: The Confrontation by Miklós Jancsó

 Confrontation Watching Miklós Jancsó’s The Confrontation (Fényes szelek, 1968) one can’t help but think of famous US melodramas about troubled youth and the struggle against hypocrisy such as Rebel Without a Cause or West Side Story. In his first foray into colour film, Jancsó proves himself as much a master of a striking palette – costuming his actors in symbolic red, for example – as he had demonstrated himself capable of building tension through a careful choreography of individuals such as in The Round Up or The Red and the White. Rather than the personal traumas of such US classics, with their focus on racial, familial or romantic power struggles, The Confrontation uses music and dance to muse upon and dissect the political ideology of students, in the wake of newly founded Communist rule in 1947 Hungary. Clearly reflecting the events of the time – student riots in Paris – Jancsó’s vitality as a director is perfectly attuned to balancing weighty, philosophical dialogue and the inner squabbles of the student group, with striking visual flair.

At the start we see a group of students stop military cars on the road in a pacifist demonstration, blocking their way and lying on the ground when provoked to move on. Gradually some of the soldiers join them in dancing, but their actions are watched at all times by the police officer, Kozma (András Kozak, of The Red and the White) who’s offering of advice or criticism seems to provide the audience perspective as the actions of the group escalate. Entering a monastery in order to challenge the pupils there regarding their ideas of democracy, free education and the use of power; the leader, Laci (Lajos Balázsovics) becoThe-Confrontation-33820_5mes challenged himself when another of the group, Jutka (Andrea Drahota) deems his non-violent negotiation and debate-based tactics too weak to accomplish their goals of imposing Marxist teachings.

Using somewhat underhanded tactics to topple him from leadership – she claims a majority decision has been made but no evidence is shown to back up her pronouncement – Jutka then proposes more aggressive modes of persuasion. The notion of the group as terrorists hangs over the action of the film – and is demonstrable by their humiliation of non-conforming pupils via tactics that veer dangerously close to those of Nazi concentration camp officers. That hair-shaving doesn’t take place, but vandalism does; ultimately becomes controversial enough for Jutka’s power play to be disciplined thus proving that within political parties, the consensus regarding objectives – such as imposing Marxist ideology – is subject to the same internal (and essential) diversionary ethical debates regarding methodology.

Typical of Jancsó, the action is shot using long, fluid takes; camera movement following individual conversations, then slowly zooming out to focus on the group singing, then pausing on specific confrontations. It’s gorgeously rendered and choreographed, the brightly dressed students contrasted with those of the monastery in their grey uniforms enhancing the way the film uses musical genre conventions and their expectation of melodramatic subject matter to incongruous effect. Accompanying this fantastic restoration by Second Run DVD is a detailed and fascinating essay about Jancsó’s career by author Graham Petrie, which provides insight to the great director’s political and aesthetic filmmaking trajectory.

Béla recommends…

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.