Archive for March, 2008

Home & Away

Not a post in tribute to the Australian soap opera, but an announcement about London’s fifth Romanian Film Festival, running from Thursday 10 to Sunday 13 April.

As with its Polish counterpart, it’s been growing apace over the years, though this time it’s as much to do with a surge in quality as any population increase. It’s at the Curzon Mayfair, and the full programme is listed here.

Feature film screenings include Cristian Nemescu’s tragically posthumous California Dreamin’ (Nesfarsit, 2007), Mircea Daneliuc’s The Cruise (Croaziera, 1981), Cristian Mungiu’s first feature Occident (2002) and Nae Carafil’s The Rest is Silence (Restul e tacere, 2008) plus feature-length documentaries: Dana Ranga’s Story (2003), Alexandru Solomon’s Cold Waves (Război pe calea undelor, 2007) and Razvan Georgescu’s Testimony (2008) and lots of shorts.

Sadly, it’s slap bang in the middle of my annual family holiday, so I can’t go to any of them, but I wish it well. (All links are to the relevant pages on the official site)

Posted on 31st March 2008
Under: Romania, Cristian Mungiu | No Comments »


London’s sixth annual Polish Film Festiwal (sic) has just launched its website.

Given London’s already large and growing Polish population, the festival has grown to match, and now has several distinct sidebars including:

New Polish Cinema - several new features and shorts, including Stanislaw Mucha’s Hope (Nadzieja), which I recently reviewed for Sight & Sound - it’s a metaphysical thriller adapted from a script by Krzysztof Piesiewicz with more than a hint of Piesiewicz’ former collaborator Krzysztof Kieślowski’s work. Other new full-length features include Lejdis (d. Tomasz Konecki), Reserve (Reserwat, d. Łukasz Palkowski), Strawberry Wine (Wino truskawkowe, d. Dariusz Jabłoński), Tomorrow We Are Going to the Movies (Jutro idziemy do kina, d. Michał Kwieciński), Twists of Fate (Korowód, d. Jerzy Stuhr) plus a chance to see Ken Loach’s It’s A Free World on the big screen.

Andrzej Wajda Retrospective, starting with the British premiere of Katyń and a live Q&A with the man himself on April 22 - and he’s doing a book signing the following evening. The rest of the retrospective runs throughout May, and consists of thirteen titles - most of the major ones plus one or two oddities like the John Gielgud vehicle The Conductor. One thing the site doesn’t seem to mention, probably wisely, is that I’ll be giving an illustrated talk on Wajda on May 6th - and throughout April I’ll be revisiting his extensive back catalogue and writing it up here.

Jerzy Kawalerowicz Tribute - to mark the passing of one of Poland’s greatest directors, a rare chance to see three of his best-known films on the big screen: Night Train (Pociąg, 1959), Mother Joan of the Angels (Matka Joanna od aniołów, 1961) and Pharaoh (Faraon, 1966)

Andrzej Klimowski Poster Exhibition at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, in parallel with the launch of his new book, a graphic novelisation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic The Master and Margarita.

1,2,3… Avant-Gardes - three programmes of experimental films made in the 1970s.

Censorship as a Creative Force - already mentioned here.

The site also promises to host a trailer for the festival made by the Quay Brothers - I’ll post a link when it’s published.

Posted on 26th March 2008
Under: Poland, Andrzej Wajda, Jerzy Kawalerowicz | 2 Comments »

Electra My Love

Szerelmem, Elektra
Hungary, 1974, colour, 71 mins

  • Director: Miklós Jancsó
  • Screenplay: Gyula Hernádi, based on the play by László Gyurkó
  • Photography: János Kende
  • Production Design: Tamás Banovich
  • Costume Design: Zsuzsa Vicze
  • Editor: Zoltán Farkas
  • Sound: György Pintér
  • Music: Tamás Cseh
  • Cast: Mari Törőcsik (Elektra); György Cserhalmi (Oresztész); József Madaras (Aegisztosz); Mária Bajcsay (Kikiáltó); Lajos Balázsovits (Vezér); Gabi Jobba (Krisotemis); József Bige; Tamás Cseh; György Delianisz; Balázs Galkó; Tamás Jordán; Zsolt Körtvélyessy; János Lovas; Sándor Lovas; Csaba Oszkay; László Pelsöczy; János Raimann; Iván Szendrő; Tamás Szentjóby; Tomasz Takisz; Balázs Tardy; Frantisek Velecký; Gyöngyvér Vigh

There was always something inevitable about Miklós Jancsó’s Electra My Love (a literal translation of the Hungarian Szerelmem, Elektra, though it’s also known as Elektreia). In the films from The Confrontation (Fényes szelek, 1968) to Red Psalm (Még kér a nép, 1971), he had been refining an approach to film that could best be described as ritualised, his characters more akin to mythological archetypes than flesh-and-blood humans. And since Jancsó’s earlier work had more than their fair share of moments resembling Greek tragedy, what could be more natural than adapting an ancient Greek source?

In fact, Jancsó’s film was derived from László Gyurkó’s stage play, which offered a radical re-reading of the ancient Elektra myth. Jancsó in turn transports it to his beloved puszta, and while the film initially seems to be set in a timeless never-never land, by the end the costumes and music are recognisably Hungarian. It marks the most extreme refinement of his post-Confrontation style: there are just eight principal shots, each lasting an entire reel of film, with four additional fill-in shots making up a total only just scraping double figures.

As with Red Psalm, the narrative plays second fiddle to everything else, so it’s worth outlining in full - this is not the kind of film where spoilers matter. At a fifteenth-anniversary commemoration of her father Agamemnon’s death, Electra (Mari Törőcsik) is told by her younger sister Chrisothemis (Gabi Jobba) to put it behind her and move on. Electra indignantly replies that she must never forget the primary reason for her opposition to the tyrant Aegisthus (József Madaras). A mere woman, she cannot raise a hand against him herself, but she lives in hope that her exiled brother Orestes will return. Aegisthus plays various psychological games with her, in an attempt to convince her that Orestes is dead, but when he turns out to be alive, his appearance inspires the people to overthrow Aegisthus. After killing Aegisthus and his supporters, Orestes and Electra die and are resurrected, free to foment revolution elsewhere.

Jancsó’s hyperstylised approach sets the protagonists against a backdrop of not only the puszta but some five hundred extras. Their intricately plotted movements run through every scene, and the big set-pieces are closer to ritual theatre than cinema. Though there’s nothing quite as formally astonishing as the massacre towards the end of Red Psalm, the film is bursting with memorable images: the line of women wending their way round a spiral path around a mount studded with candles, Orestes running through a sea of prone bodies, the usurped Aegisthus treated as a plaything by being forced to balance on a large ball (which in turn encapsulates his own shaky hold on both power and, ultimately, life), the deliberately anachronistic (and clearly symbolic) red helicopter that descends like a firebird at the end to carry Electra and Orestes off, and seemingly endless lines of horses galloping across the screen from the opening to the closing seconds.

There are plenty of contemporary political allegories to be drawn. The frequent use of Hungarian folksong (performed onscreen) invites us to read the film as a portrait of Hungary under rulers as ruthless yet insecure as Aegisthus (apparently Gyurkó’s play was explicitly inspired by the Stalinist era. When Aegisthus proclaims a Feast of Truth, encouraging his subjects to offer direct criticism without fear of reprisal, they choose unstinting sycophancy - possibly aware that when Mao tried a similar tactic in the late 1950s, his assurances proved worthless. Aegisthus relies both on terror (his people are constantly surrounded by horsemen and whip-wielding thugs) and his subjects’ reluctance to take decisive action. However, he in turn feels powerless to discipline Electra, unless given a good excuse. When he is provided with one, such as her murder of the messenger bearing news of Orestes’ death, he takes the politically canny step of proclaiming that everyone is equal under the law, thus neatly hoisting Electra (who opens the film with a lament that without consistently-applied law, civilisation is impossible) with her own petard.

As in Red Psalm, János Kende’s camera is constantly zooming from long shot to close-up, though the overall pace is statelier, the compositions more measured, the complex blocking more precise, the movements more intricately choreographed. Dance is even more central to the film’s mode of expression than was the case earlier, and is often the primary means through which Electra communicates with her followers: the dialogue is not so much spoken as declaimed in a manner not unlike authentic Greek theatre. When Aegisthus is finally killed by Orestes, Béla Bartók’s pounding piano piece Allegro barbaro (the title of which Jancsó would later adopt for a 1978 film) implicitly proclaims the triumph of the people over the oppressor via its folksong roots.

In Red Psalm, revolution is seen as a sadly necessary corrective to centuries of exploitation by the ruling classes, with any violence to be deeply regretted. By contrast, Electra herself ends up a militant revolutionary, advocating bloody revenge as a legitimate end in itself, the people justified in expressing their hatred as hatred, if their ultimate aims are the creation of a wholly equal society. It’s an uncompromisingly absolutist vision that was hard to sustain even in 1974, and subsequent events (the journey from idealism to terrorism taken by the Red Brigades in Jancsó’s adopted Italy, ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, Bosnia and Iraq) have shown that it’s almost invariably unsustainable when applied in practice. Which may well be why Jancsó resorted to increasingly stylised treatments in the first place: practice was already sharply deviating from theory.

DVD Distribution: Facets (US), NTSC, no region code

Picture: Sadly typical for this label, this transfer clearly came from an analogue tape source (there’s at least one tell-tale drop-out, and it hasn’t been especially well tracked either), presumably originally created for a VHS release. Marked texturing to the image creates pronounced moiré effects in an extreme close-up of a woman’s white veil, and the lighting has been flattened to the point where the whole thing looks as though it was shot indoors, which was categorically not the case. Jancsó’s frequent recourse to smoke and fog also plays havoc with the encoding. However, the 1.33:1 aspect ratio does appear to be correct.

Sound: By contrast, the sound is fine, and almost certainly reflects the original mono track.

Subtitles: To start on a positive note, they’re idiomatic, typo-free, properly synchronised (by no means a given with this label), white, and appear to offer a full translation. On the other hand, they’re also permanently burned into the image - and, worse, they’re set against a translucent black background, presumably to ensure that they were clearly readable even in the VHS version.

Extras: A small stills gallery.


Posted on 20th March 2008
Under: Reviews, Hungary, Miklós Jancsó | No Comments »

Red Psalm

Még kér a nép
Hungary, 1971, colour, 84 mins

  • Director: Miklós Jancsó
  • Producer: József Bajusz
  • Screenplay: Gyula Hernádi
  • Photography: János Kende
  • Production Design: Tamás Banovich
  • Costume Design: Zsuzsa Vicze
  • Editor: Zoltán Farkas
  • Sound: György Pintér
  • Music: Tamás Cseh
  • Cast: József Madaras; Tibor Orbán; Tibor Molnár; Jácint Juhász; Gyöngyi Bürös; Andrea Drahota; Erzsi Cserhalmi; Márk Zala; Gyula Piróth; János Koltai; Gábor Kiss; György Cserhalmi; László Horváth; František Velecký; Betalan Solti; Lajos Balázsovits; Elemér Ragályi; András Bálint; István Bujtor; Péter Haumann; József Vándor; Tamás Szentjóby; György Pintér; István Szendrő; Lajos Fazekas; Mari Csomós; Ilona Gurnik; Éva Spányik; Tamás Cseh; Ágnes Lipták; Ferenc Sebő; Ferenc Pesovár; Ágnes Music; László Nagy; Lajos Farkas; Zsuzsa Fábri; Tünde Terényi; Péter Éri; Zoltán Nagy; Zsuzsa Ferdinándy; Géza Ferdinándy; Gáspár Ferdinándy; András Szigeti; Andrea Ajtony; András Ambrus; György Gonda; Frigyes Gödrös; Béla Halmos; Pál Hetényi; Levente Hídvégi; Pál Keresztes; Anna Koós; Erzsi Kopácsi; Miklós Kovács; István Kún; András Mészáros; László Pelsőczy; Tamás Pintér; György Reinitz; Azucena Rodriguez; Éva Szendrei; András Széll; István Szilárdy; Gyula Szombathy; Balázs Tardy; Sándor Vajó; Tamás Varga; Gyöngyvér Végh

Current DVD availability makes it easy to trace Miklós Jancsó’s career from his second feature Cantata (Oldás és kötes, 1963) to his sixth Silence and Cry (Csend és kiáltás, 1967) inclusive. But then there’s a hiatus, with The Confrontation (Fényes szelek, 1968) and the Italian-made La Pacifista (1970) available in Hungarian-only and Italian-only editions respectively, and Winter Sirocco (Sirokkó, 1969) and Agnus Dei (Égi bárány, 1970) not released at all. The end result, as far as someone forced to make a four-year leap from Silence and Cry to Red Psalm is concerned, is the impression of a substantial stylistic and thematic shift in Jancsó’s cinema. Although he had already dehumanised his protagonists to the point of abstraction, he’s now mythologising them, an approach that began with The Confrontation and reached its apogee both here and in Electra My Love (Szerelmem Elektra, 1973).

Red Psalm (whose Hungarian title, sourced from a poem by the nationalist Sándor Petőfi, translates as ‘And The People Still Ask’) has no introduction or scene-setting, though it’s easy enough to date it to the 19th century from the combination of costumes (the film is set in the timeless Hungarian puszta, Jancsó’s favourite location) and explicitly Marxist rhetoric. In fact, it’s set in 1890, and concerns a group of farm labourers who have decided to go on strike. The leather-jacketed bailiff initially attempts to bribe them with grain, petulantly burning it when they refuse. Appalled by his cavalier attitude both to the fruits of their labour and their future well-being (without the grain they will starve), they kill him, and the army is summoned to suppress a potential revolt. But when a young soldier refuses to open fire on the workers, he is shot by his colleagues, only to be resurrected by a young woman’s kiss. Various other attempts are made to negotiate with the strikers, from the landowner himself (who spontaneously dies after stating his position) to a priest, whose church is burned down with him inside it. Finally, after delivering an ultimatum, the army massacres the strikers. A young female survivor picks up a gun and starts picking off the soldiers one by one…

Reducing Red Psalm to its basic narrative outline, as I’ve just done, makes it sound like a crude piece of socialist agitprop, and its considerable musical content (its messages are as likely to be sung as declaimed) suggests affinities with the Marxist musicals of Grigori Alexandrov (Circus/Цирк, 1936) or Ivan Pyriev (Tractor Drivers/Трактористы, 1939; Cossacks of the Kuban River/Кубанские казаки, 1949). But those are altogether jollier affairs than Jancsó’s stark political parable, and far more straightforward in their construction and mise-en-scène. Once again, Jancsó is clearly fascinated by the mechanisms of power and oppression, both in theory and practice, and even when his film appears to be at its most deceptively bucolic, one can usually see evidence of a military presence in the background, and often a large-scale one.

Although Red Psalm unambiguously takes sides - something unusual for Jancsó - he never lets us forget that the revolution that the film advocates is perpetually under threat from the vested interests of the ruling classes (the capitalist landowners, the church, the military), who will not hesitate to resort to violence if their hegemony is called into question. And they’ll do it without a qualm, unlike the soul-searching strikers after they burn down a church in protest at the priest’s patronising sermon (he calls them his “misguided flock”). This leads to the despairing but logically inescapable conclusion that violent revolution is the only solution - though Jancsó sweetens the pill by staging the climactic confrontation in such a stylised manner (a young woman in a plain red shift mowing down swathes of soldiers despite being armed with a single pistol) that it’s more stirring than bleak.

Although Jancsó’s signature is instantly recognisable (it’s hard to imagine anyone else even trying to make a film like this, much less succeeding), there are several marked changes between Red Psalm and his 1963-67 output. He has abandoned the wide screen for the squarish Academy frame of his first films, and is now shooting in colour. While individual shots are as lengthy as ever (just twenty-eight in total, most running several minutes), their staging is different - I don’t recall him ever using a zoom lens in his black and white films, but it’s constantly in evidence here. Previously, the deep-focus shots would ensure that the surrounding landscapes remained as sharp as the people in the foreground, but here the depth of field is constantly changing: whenever Jancsó fills the frame with just one or two individuals, the background becomes blurred and foreshortened. The effect is of cutting to a close-up, albeit here within the same shot.

The film’s formal virtuosity is often so astonishing (Jancsó won a richly deserved Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival) that it’s easy to appreciate the film without sympathising with or even processing its underlying message. The frequent zooming and foreshortening accentuates the impression, already suggested by The Red and the White ( Csillagosok, katonák, 1967), that Jancsó is merely filming an existing event that would have happened without the presence of the cameras - we know there’s a vast amount happening just outside any given frame as we’ve already seen it in an earlier part of the relevant shot.

There are impressive individual set-pieces throughout, but perhaps most spectacular is the large-scale massacre towards the end, shot from a single camera position in the far distance, with soldiers and peasants singing and dancing together in apparent unison before the soldiers regroup into a circle around the peasants, trapping them in a human stockade (encircled by a number of men on horseback) before bringing out the rifles. There were apparently 1,500 people appearing on camera, and the choreographic logistics alone take the breath away. The unexpected background appearance of a steam locomotive pulling a train laden with hundreds of soldiers is equally startling (as no tracks have been visible up to then), but so too is the way that Jancsó will often move from distant observation to extreme close-up in the same shot, picking out details in a constantly swirling human panorama. János Kende’s ceaselessly circling camerawork, reputedly requiring more assistance than usual just to keep things in focus, is beyond praise.

While many of Jancsó’s previous films featured little or no music, Red Psalm is saturated with it, from the opening sequence in which the Marseillaise is sung with new lyrics that are more relevant to the situation at hand. Other songs range from traditional Hungarian folk tunes to Russian revolutionary ditties to, most surprisingly, ‘Charlie Is My Darling’ (in the more politicised American variant, whose protagonist is Johnny), all seamlessly sewn into the overall texture, singers, dancers and instrumentalists equally visible on screen. The men’s dances, their arms around each other’s shoulders, supplies a visual motif denoting brotherhood, solidarity and the importance of banding together, symbolically undermined towards the end when a guitarist stabs a singer in mid-delivery. There is no attempt at realism: a dead soldier is revived by a kiss, blood is initially shown but later replaced by symbolic red rosettes, and although three women (whom the critic Raymond Durgnat aptly called “the three graces”) strip naked and consort with hundreds of soldiers, there’s no hint of threat or violence: Jancsó seems far more interested in the contrast between their sun-kissed flesh and the pallid blue-grey of the soldier’s uniforms.

Red Psalm has inescapably dated: the early 1970s may have been the last time such overtly Marxist propaganda could be presented with a straight face outside east Asia, and it’s best viewed today as a historical parable on two levels, representing both the 1890s of its setting and the still flickering spirit of 1968 that clearly animated its creation. But, like Sergei Eisenstein’s not dissimilar Strike (Стачка, 1925) - Jancsó’s associative montages are no less intricate for being staged within the same shot - Red Psalm is such a formidable work of art on its own terms that it diffuses political criticism on those grounds alone. Even by Jancsó’s standards, it’s an extraordinary film, probably his most thoroughly thought-through achievement since The Round-Up (Szegénylegények, 1965), and certainly his most immediately intoxicating.

DVD Distribution: Clavis Films (France), PAL, no region code

Picture: Aside from reel change marks and very occasional spots, the source print is in almost immaculate condition, and the transfer is superb - crucially, the colours ring true, especially those all-important reds. Although it’s hard to tell from the constantly moving camera, the 1.33:1 aspect ratio appears to be correct.

Sound: Aside from mild background hiss (which is easy enough to ignore), the mono soundtrack is very acceptable and probably closely reflects the original materials.

Subtitles: As usual with this label’s Jancsó releases, optional French and English subtitles are provided. Plus points: most of the song lyrics are translated, which is more than usually essential in a film like this. Minus points: there are loads of typos (some rendering the lines borderline incomprehensible), they’re sometimes cut off at the sides, and on at least one occasion the French subtitle appears by mistake. Oddly, the DVD Beaver review claims (with supporting evidence) that the subtitles are white, but the oned on my copy are definitely bright yellow.

Extras: Comfortably Clavis’s most generous Jancsó package to date, this includes a (French-language) director’s biography and filmography, short excerpts from Clavis’ other Jancsó releases, and the complete ‘Hegyalja’ episode from the 1994 Message of Stones TV series - thankfully, a different one from that featured on Second Run’s discs.


Posted on 19th March 2008
Under: Hungary, 100 Classics, Miklós Jancsó | 2 Comments »

Silence and Cry

Csend és kiáltás
Hungary, 1967, black and white, 76 mins

  • Director: Miklós Jancsó
  • Producer: Lajos Kiss
  • Screenplay: Gyula Hernádi, Miklós Jancsó
  • Photography: János Kende
  • Production Design: Tamás Banovich
  • Costume Design: Zsuzsa Vicze
  • Editor: Zoltán Farkas
  • Sound: Zoltán Toldy
  • Cast: Mari Törőcsik (Teréz); József Madaras (Károly); Zoltán Latinovits (Kémeri); Andrea Drahota (Anna); András Kozák (István); István Bujtor (Kovács II); Ida Siménfalvy (Teréz’ mother); János Koltai (Peasant); Sándor Siménfalvy (Old peasant); Kornélia Sallay (Auntie Veronika); János Görbe (The shepherd); László Szabó (Detective); Philippe Haudiquet (Photographer); Mari Boga; Károly Eisler; Mária Goór Nagy; Ferenc Kamarás; Miklós Köllő; József Konrád; Zsolt Körtvélyessy; Ila Schütz; Sándor Szili; Tibor Talán; Sándor Vajó

Both made and set in the same year as The Red and the White (Csillagosok, katonák) - 1967 and 1919 respectively - Silence and Cry returns to the puszta - that great flat Hungarian plain stretching out to infinity - that Miklós Jancsó made such an indelible part of The Round-Up (Szegénylegények, 1965). Although much more of a chamber piece than its two immediate predecessors (there’s just one primary location, and only a handful of characters), it nonetheless pushes Jancsó’s fascination with landscape and long, sustained takes to new extremes, even to the point of replacing his regular cameraman Tamás Somló with János Kende, because the latter was more willing to attempt logistically complex 360-degree pans.

Unlike the spoken or written introductions to The Round-Up and The Red and the White, the only scene-setting here consists of a montage of photographs set to a monophonic melody played on an ancient piano that’s attempting (sarcastically?) to mimic a triumphal brass fanfare. The man featured in most of the photographs (though no indication of this is made in the actual film: Jancsó clearly assumes that a Hungarian audience would recognise him instantly) is Admiral Miklós Horthy, who had just triumphed over the pro-Bolshevik forces led by Béla Kun, setting in train a fascist regime that would remain in place for another two-and-a-half decades.

The opening scene, set on a sand dune, shows Kémeri - played by Zoltán Latinovits, the lead in Cantata (Oldás és kötés, 1963) - disposing of a Kun supporter in a manner not dissimilar to the out-of-the-blue executions in Jancsó’s two previous films, though in this case Kémeri does at least have the decency to dig a grave. He also has the decency to discipline Kanyasi, one of his underlings, for going too far in his treatment of female civilians, something that wouldn’t have happened in the far more dispassionate The Red and the White.

More significantly, he deliberately turns a blind eye to the film’s other male protagonist, fugitive Red soldier István (András Kozak, another familiar Jancsó face), even though he’s nominally in charge of local affairs - he even prevents a search of a haystack from going ahead, as he knows this will betray István’s whereabouts. The reason for this is never explained, though there are hints that the two previously knew each other when Kémeri makes a casual (and rebuffed) offer of a drink. On the other hand, it could be because Kémeri has a psychological need to assert himself over a younger, more attractive man - in a subsequent conversation with István, he emphasises how dependent he is on his goodwill, and that he could have him shot at any point. He also takes a perverse delight in piling regular humiliations on the farmer Károly (Jószef Madaras) for little apparent reason, often with the collaboration of his men.

Most of the film takes place in Károly’s farm on the puszta - it’s not unlike the one in the final scenes of Cantata. Károly’s wife Teréz is played by Mari Törőcsik, the iconic lead in Zoltán Fábri’s Merry-Go-Round (Körhinta, 1955) and, shortly after this film, Károly Makk’s Love (Szerelem, 1971). Her calm demeanour conceals a deadly secret: while openly sharing István’s favours between herself and her sister-in-law Anna (Andrea Drahota), she is slowly poisoning Károly and his mother. When István finds out, he is put in a moral quandary, since it would be impossible to report them to the police without revealing his identity and whereabouts.

But any fleeting impression that this film is a conventional domestic love-triangle melodrama is comprehensively undermined by Jancsó’s treatment. The takes are longer than ever (there are apparently fewer than forty shots in the entire film), the camera perpetually circling around his endlessly pacing characters, constantly reframing them against the landscape with its sparse outcrops of trees and haystacks and thatched white buildings. Dialogue is purely functional, gestures only occasionally revealing - since these are often carried out at a distance from the viewer, it’s not always easy to interpret them at first glance. (Teréz’s mask-like face is particularly inscrutable as she strolls calmly past a violent confrontation between István and her sister-in-law).

On the soundtrack, Jancsó’s characteristic birdsong can still be heard, but it’s often usurped by the harsher sounds of crows and cockerels, and also by a near-ubiquitous wind, which serves to chill even occasional romantic encounters to the marrow - though the word ‘romantic’ seems singularly inappropriate when applied to the scene where István is passed from Teréz to Anna, and finally neglected as the two find greater intimacy with each other. The fact that it takes place in the open air shows their essential contempt for Károly’s opinion.

So for all the apparently smaller, more human scale of this film, Silence and Cry is of a piece with its immediate predecessors in that it’s ultimately an exploration of hierarchies of power, whether national and wide-ranging (Horthy), local and circumscribed (Kémeri) or domestic and subversive (Teréz). These hierarchies are tacitly acknowledged even by their victims: Károly seems unconcerned about his fate, Teréz and Anna regard István’s threat to expose them with sphinx-like equanimity, and István himself accepts that with only one bullet in his gun at the end and several armed witnesses, shooting Kémeri will provide only the most fleeting satisfaction - though Jancsó extends this by means of an enigmatic closing freeze-frame. Incidentally, this is the third of four films to end with András Kozák looking directly at the camera, as if trying to communicate with an audience that he has ignored up to then.

Silence and Cry was the last of Jancsó’s black-and-white Scope films, marking the end of one of the most distinctive lines drawn by anyone in 1960s cinema. His next film, The Confrontation (Fényes szelek, 1968 - only available on an unsubtitled Hungarian DVD at the time of writing) would be his first in colour, and would mark the start of a new phase in his career.

DVD Distribution: Silence and Cry is distributed by 21st Century Dreamquest (US, NTSC), Clavis Films (France) and Mokép (Hungary) - the latter are both PAL, but the Mokép disc has no subtitles. This review is of the Clavis version.

Picture: Sadly, the image is almost as soft as the one on Second Run’s The Red and the White, and interiors tend to be swallowed up in shadow. While it’s impossible to be certain of this without reference to a Jancsó-approved 35mm print, the picture also seems on the dark side, and the non-anamorphic transfer doesn’t help matters. It’s a pity, because the source print is otherwise very clean, and appears to be framed correctly in the original CinemaScope.

Sound: The sound is on a par with Clavis’ Cantata, in that there’s continuous background hiss and occasional crackle, but it’s easy enough to tune out. However, it’s distinctly inferior to the virtually flawless soundtracks of Second Run’s The Round-Up and The Red and the White.

Subtitles: As usual with this label’s Jancsó releases, optional French and English subtitles are provided. The latter are yellow, and not 16:9 friendly, the latter a by-product of being kept outside the film frame. They generally do a decent job, though there are more typos (’Undoo your shirt’) than there were on Cantata, and on two occasions a French subtitle pops up by mistake. Another minor irritation is that two-line subtitles often translate dialogue uttered by two characters, without a visual indication of a change of speaker - though the translation as a whole seems thorough enough.

Extras: The only extras are a short Jancsó biography and filmography, both in French.


Posted on 18th March 2008
Under: Reviews, Hungary, Miklós Jancsó | No Comments »

The Red and the White

Csillagosok, katonák
Hungary/USSR, 1967, black and white, 90 mins

  • Director: Miklós Jancsó
  • Producers: Jenő Götz, András Németh, Kirill Sirjajev
  • Screenplay: Gyula Hernádi, Miklós Jancsó, Luca Karall, Valeri Karen, Giorgi Mdivani
  • Photography: Tamás Somló
  • Production Design: Anatoli Burdo, Boris Chebotaryov, Ferenc Kopp
  • Costume Design: Maya Abar-Baranovskaya, Gyula Várdai
  • Editor: Zoltán Farkas
  • Sound: Zoltán Toldy
  • Cast: József Madaras (Hungarian Commander); Tibor Molnár (András); András Kozák (Lászlo); Jácint Juhász (István); Anatoli Yabbarov (Captain Chelpanov); Sergei Nikonenko (Cossack Officer); Mikhail Kozakov (Nestor); Bolot Bejshenaliyev (Chingiz); Tatyana Konyukhova (Yelizaveta the Matron); Krystyna Mikolajewska (Olga); Viktor Avdyushko (Sailor); Gleb Strizhenov (Colonel); Nikita Mikhalkov (White Officer); Vladimir Prokofyev; Valentin Bryleyev; Vera Bykova; Ye. Yermolayeva; Vitali Konyayev; Valeri Glebov; Yevgeni Karelskikh; Pyotr Savin; Nikolai Sergeyev; Sándor Szili; Roman Khomyatov; Károly Eisler; Mika Ardova; Valentina Berezutskaya; Gabi Daniel; Yelena Kozelkova; Nikolai Parfyonov; Nina Shorina; Natalya Zheromskaya

Superficially, it’s easy to see why the Soviet Union thought that Miklós Jancsó would be the man to direct a Hungarian-Soviet co-production commemorating the October Revolution’s 50th anniversary. With My Way Home, made just eight years after the 1956 uprising, he’d portrayed a friendship between a Russian and a Hungarian. With The Round-Up he not only proved himself more than capable of handling large-scale set-pieces, but had also established himself as the most internationally reputable Hungarian director. And his proposed subject, the Hungarian revolutionaries who voluntarily backed the Bolsheviks, must have seemed like an ideal opportunity to commemorate Hungarian-Soviet relations.

In the event, though, the film’s Soviet co-producers were so disappointed with the end result that they banned its distribution in the USSR - and it’s not hard to see why. Firstly, Jancsó set the action in 1919, not 1917, a period of civil war and widespread confusion. Secondly, despite the film’s English title suggesting a clear delineation between Red (Bolshevik) and White (Tsarist) forces, in practice it is virtually impossible to distinguish between them. This was clearly intentional on Jancsó’s part, but it’s hardly the glorious endorsement of the Red side of the equation that his backers must have expected.

In fact, The Red and the White (whose Hungarian title translates literally as ‘Starry Soldiers’, or more colloquially as ‘Stars on their Caps’) is an entirely logical follow-up to The Round-Up in that it too offers a detached, clear-eyed presentation of the mechanics of oppressive power as applied in practice. The opening scenes echo those of both The Round-Up and My Way Home in that we see large numbers of people being repeatedly rounded up, stripped and summarily executed. The impression of anarchic chaos is established from the start by a map of eastern Europe with a bewildering profusion of arrows that presumably indicate troop movements. But with no context-setting or clarification other than the suggestion that Moscow is at the heart of events, it’s as mystifying as any of the film’s later battle scenes.

In a series of successive scenes, Hungarian supporters of the Red Army are rounded up by the Whites, interrogated and freed with the admonishment “This is our war”. Russians, by contrast, are summarily shot, often after being forced to run, the better to provide moving target practice. Groups of horsemen ride into the countryside, shooting at each other while rounding up partisans and innocent bystanders. The men are stripped of their weapons, while the women are stripped of their clothes and probably raped. All this is carried out so matter-of-factly that it’s almost as though the rural population has been collectively conditioned to have the same fatalistic reaction. Listen to the soundtrack divorced from the images, and all you’ll hear is birdsong (a characteristic Jancsó aural tic), barked Russian commands and occasional shots - but no cries or protests from the victims. Everyone seems to be going through the motions, with only occasional exceptions, such as the startling moment when a bare-chested Hungarian on foot successfully overpowers a White officer on horseback.

We eventually encounter another distinct group besides Red and White fighters when one of the Red escapees stumbles upon a field hospital and opportunistically lying on the ground amidst a group of bodies after having spotted that not all of them are dead. Shortly afterwards, the hospital’s nurses are rounded up by the Whites - but instead of the usual and expected humiliation and slaughter, they’re whisked off to a classically Russian silver-birch wood for an impromptu recreation of a ballroom dance, complete with live musicians playing a mournful waltz. This echoes the equally surprising appearance of the military band towards the end of The Round-Up, but the effect here is even more incongruously surreal: it’s as though the Whites (i.e. the more aristocratic side of the conflict) felt a deep-seated psychological need to try to recreate a more civilised (i.e. Tsarist) past with whatever paltry materials they had at their disposal. It also marks the point where Jancsó makes it clear that anyone in search of a conventional bit of revolutionary propaganda is wasting their time - was this the point where his Soviet backers shifted uneasily in their seats, or had they written the film off already?

And then it’s back to the war, with men and horses running for their lives as they’re buzzed by planes, though as soon as they leave, it’s business as usual: more rounding-up, singling-out and summary execution. Although people are frequently shot on camera at point-blank range, there is no blood: they merely fall down as though the rifles contained compressed air. This approach was near-universal in the days of the classic John Ford westerns that Jancsó acknowledges as one of his lifelong inspirations, but by 1967 it’s become stylised enough to be just as surreal as the “ballroom” scene. If I remember rightly, just one soldier seems to display any pain when he dies in close-up towards the end, though any emotional response is limited by the fact that we have little idea who he is - it seems purely coincidental that he happened to die right in front of the camera.

The psychological warfare, while not as chillingly sophisticated as in the more hermetic The Round-Up, is nonetheless ever-present. A huge crowd of white-shirted prisoners is herded into a square lined with arched colonnades, the Russians separated and freed, the Hungarians ordered to strip to the waist and given fifteen minutes to flee - straight into a dead end that was clearly created artificially for precisely this purpose. Having failed this blatantly rigged test, they are lined up and shot. Later, after a line of men has been vetting for courage under fire (by firing a gun into the air directly behind their heads to see if they flinch), a nurse is asked to pick the man she’d prefer to be shot by. People of both sexes are frequently ordered to remove their clothes - there’s considerably more nudity on display than there was in Jancsó’s earlier work, but it’s generally seen from a distance that’s not so much discreet as deliberately dehumanising.

Whereas The Round-Up threaded personal stories through the long-distance overview of intricate troop movements and military operations, this time round there’s very little to latch on to. Seasoned Jancsó viewers will doubtless recognise András Kozák (the Hungarian lead in My Way Home, a key supporting player in The Round-Up) as a Red who makes regular appearances throughout the film, including a final-shot close-up - but he’s just as archetypal as his anonymous colleagues. A romance between a soldier and a nurse is perfunctory enough to suggest that Jancsó is merely tossing his audience a generic bone, one of many pieces of evidence cited by Matt Johnson, in by far the most comprehensive analysis of the film that I’ve found online, in support of his thesis that The Red and the White can be read as a great anti-war satire that rivals Dr Strangelove in its skewed adoption and subversion of traditional war-movie clichés.

In terms of mise-en-scène, The Red and the White is as virtuosic as The Round-Up, with many set-pieces astounding in their scale and accomplishment - all the more so for coming across so casually, as though Jancsó had visited an actual ongoing conflict and merely decided to film the bits that best served his thesis about the confusion and pointlessness of war. Towards the end of the film, with minuscule stick figures being mown down in droves by even more minuscule opponents (almost certainly as near-invisible on the big screen as they are on a DVD), Jancsó seems to be anticipating the passionless mass slaughter of hi-tech modern warfare and computer games, the difference here being that no-one is bothering to keep score.

DVD Distribution: The Red and the White is available from Second Run (UK, PAL), Clavis (France, PAL) and Kino (US, NTSC) - I don’t think any releases are region coded, and all have English subtitles. This review is of the Second Run edition.

Picture: Comfortably the most disappointing of Second Run’s Jancsó releases, the anamorphic enhancement and correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio is scant compensation for a very soft image and interlaced transfer. The condition of the source print is similar to that of Second Run’s other Jancsós (i.e. very acceptable), so it’s hard to say if the problems derive from that or the transfer - though I get the impression that the other editions aren’t any better, suggesting a common source.

Sound: By contrast, the soundtrack is fine, and I’m quite happy to believe that it’s a perfect reflection of the 1967 mono original. Very faint hiss can be discerned if you turn the volume right up, but this has to be to uncomfortable levels to notice anything.

Subtitles: Typically for this label, the subtitles are white and optional, translating Hungarian and Russian dialogue alike. They’re less comprehensive than usual, but passages where prisoners are being herded by their captors are easy enough to work out from the context.

Extras: There are two extras, the first being the ‘Budapest’ episode of Jancsó’s 1994 television series Message of Stones (other episodes can be found on Second Run’s My Way Home and Clavis’ Red Psalm discs), the second being a booklet containing a long interview with Jancsó by Andrew James Horton that’s also available online - see links below.


Posted on 17th March 2008
Under: Reviews, Hungary, Soviet Union, Miklós Jancsó | 1 Comment »

Všechno nejlepší!

Had he not died in 1983, yesterday would have been the 86th birthday of the great Zdeněk Liška, unarguably the greatest of all Czech film-score composers, and someone who for my money ranks alongside the likes of Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone for his instantly recognisable blend of tireless innovation (both musically and sonically) and utter appropriateness to the task in hand.

Partly because he wrote almost exclusively for Czech film and theatre, and partly because the current copyright holder refuses to let his music be used in any context other than the original one (as the Quay Brothers found out the hard way when they initially edited their 2003 film The Phantom Museum to extracts from Liška’s back catalogue but found that this version was legally unreleasable), he’s nowhere near as well known as he should be, though Jan Švankmajer fans will certainly be familiar with his work: after they first worked together on the film Johanes doktor Faust (1958) and at the Laterna Magika theatre in the early 1960s, Liška scored the vast majority of Švankmajer’s films from 1966’s Punch and Judy (Rakvičkárna) to 1979’s The Castle of Otranto (Otrantský zámek).

These films alone provide a terrific showcase of Liška’s range, from the creaky theatre barrel-organ of Punch and Judy and Don Juan (Don Šajn, 1969), the percussive piano triplets that give The Flat (Byt, 1968) a sense of propulsive urgency, the eight-part dance suite that does at least as much as Švankmajer’s associative editing to bring the long-dead animal exhibits of Historia Naturae, Suita (1967) to uncanny life, the mournful jazz-tinged Jacques Prévert setting that replaced the original banned soundtrack of The Ossuary (Kostnice, 1970), the wordless vocal line with a hint of the nursery rhyme in Jabberwocky (Zvahlav aneb Šatičky Slaměného Huberta, 1971) and the brass fanfares of Leonardo’s Diary (Leonardův deník) and The Castle of Otranto. If you have the recent BFI edition of his complete shorts, there’s an option on disc one to play just the Liška-scored films - in fact, the whole “themed programmes” idea developed from this single ambition.

But Švankmajer’s work formed a tiny part of Liška’s hugely prolific output, and I’m very conscious that I’ve only just scratched the surface. Two of his more accessible scores are the gorgeous, swooning opulence of Juraj Herz’ The Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol, 1968) with its incense-tinged a cappella accompaniment to the ecstatic ramblings of the film’s demented protagonist, and the even more extraordinary score for František Vláčil’s masterpiece Marketa Lazarová, which sounds like an unholy collision between Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, medieval plainchant and the sonic innovations of American eccentric Harry Partch (like Partch, Liška built his own instruments when conventional ones failed to match the sounds in his head). And for Jindřich Polák’s sci-fi opus Icarus XB-1 (Ikarie XB-1, aka Voyage to the End of the Universe) he proved himself just as adept when it came to electronics, his score here having more than a hint of Juan Garcia Esquivel’s then-contemporaneous space-age bachelor pad albums.

But, as his IMDB filmography reveals, there’s much, much more, and one of the perennial pleasures of exploring 1960s and 1970s Czech cinema comes from the almost immediate realisation, usually well before the onscreen credit confirms it, that another Liška revelation is in prospect. And given the current inaccessibility of many of the titles, it’s a wellspring I’m unlikely to exhaust any time soon.

(Sadly, there’s very little information available online (or indeed elsewhere) about Liška in English, but a reasonably hefty Czech-language biography can be found here. Sadly, my own Czech has atrophied to the point where it doesn’t stretch much beyond ‘Happy Birthday’, the title of this post)

Posted on 17th March 2008
Under: Czechoslovakia | No Comments »

Jancsó in London

Last Friday evening I went to the Curzon Mayfair cinema in central London for an ultra-rare screening of Miklós Jancsó’s masterpiece The Round-Up (Szegénylegények, 1965) in the company of its director - who, it turned out, was watching the film for the first time in nearly thirty years.

As promised, it was indeed in 35mm, albeit in an old distribution print dating back to the film’s original UK release. That said, it really wasn’t too bad - predictable damage around reel changes, and plenty of surface blemishes, but the subtitles were very readable and the whole experience of seeing it on the big screen comprehensively trumped all of this. Annoyingly, the extreme right of the frame was slightly out of focus (exacerbated for me because that’s where I was sitting), but I suspect that was a projection problem as it continued throughout the film - in other words, it shouldn’t be replicated in Cambridge or Edinburgh next week.

The print’s main peculiarity was that it ditched the original illustrated prologue in favour of a piece of scrolling text that added rather more historical context. The original assumption was that this was common to all international versions, but Jancsó later said that he thought it was unique to the UK. Anyway, the Curzon very sensibly decided to screen the original prologue first (off the DVD), followed by the whole of the 35mm print, so that we got the best of both worlds.

The screening was as enthralling as I’d hoped. It was always obvious that this film desperately needed a huge screen, but actually being able to see it as Jancsó intended made a phenomenal difference. True, the DVD is in the correct aspect ratio (and those under thirty may not recall that this used to be the rarest of luxuries with small-screen transfers until the mid-1990s), but it obviously can’t begin to resolve the same level of detail, whether in the extreme close-ups of János Görbe’s shifty, sweating features (casting of faces is spot on throughout) or the panoramic shots with their intricate geometric configurations of hundreds of extras.

And then Jancsó ascended the stage with Tony Rayns (he’d previously introduced the film by telling a rambling anecdote about the reason he didn’t speak English), and my God that man’s a live wire. It’s impossible to believe that he turns 87 later this year, and I really felt sorry for the Curzon employee desperately trying to wind up the proceedings so that the 9pm screening could go ahead as scheduled - Jancsó was only just getting into his stride.

I didn’t take notes, so I’m paraphrasing from memory - but the subjects discussed included:

Primary influences on The Round-Up: Antonioni, Hitchcock (specifically his long-take experiment Rope) and John Ford - Jancsó grew up watching the latter’s Westerns.

How he was able to make extremely personal films on such a huge scale: Two main reasons - firstly, that his core production team consisted of close friends (at least twice, he emphasised how crucial their input was) and secondly, one of the few advantages of making films in a Communist country was that you could call up hundreds of extras, whereas in the West they’d all have to be individually contracted and paid (which is probably one reason why Jancsó has had so few Western imitators!) He ruefully acknowledged that these situations no longer exist anywhere except in China, but Tony Rayns corrected him on that one, saying that Zhang Yimou could have called up vast crowds a decade ago, but not now.

How he got his films made under a rigidly state-controlled production system: For me, this was the most interesting question, as Jancsó didn’t really know. One of his central theses in The Round-Up was that the oppressors win out in the end because they’re ultimately cleverer than the oppressed, and he said that the West had a tendency to underestimate the cunning of the various Communist regimes. In other words, it’s pretty inconceivable that someone in the ministry of culture wouldn’t have been well aware that there were things going on beneath the surface of Jancsó’s films, and yet they were allowed to be made and often exhibited as outstanding examples of national cinematography. He has no idea why, as these people are now dead and never wrote their memoirs.

Whether it was controversial depicting a friendship between a Hungarian and a Russian in My Way Home, made just eight years after 1956: Annoyingly, Jancsó wouldn’t answer this one, as he was convinced we hadn’t seen it - even though it’s been out on DVD in Britain for a few months.

Bringing up the explicitly erotic Private Vices, Public Virtues, whether Jancsó had a compulsion to challenge censors regardless of regime: Jancsó agreed, and said that he couldn’t behave in any other way (”and that is the problem”!)

There was also an unexpected contribution from a survivor of the 7/7 London bombings, who stood up to say how powerfully she’d been affected by the film and how important it was that such films, with their complex critiques of oppressive power relationships, continued to be made.

Full marks to both Curzon Cinemas and the Second Run team for pulling this off so triumphantly - though the real star of the evening (besides Jancsó) was Lászlo the interpreter, who did just about the smoothest and most professional job I think I’ve ever come across in these situations. To speed things up as much as possible, he quietly gave Jancsó a simultaneous translation of Tony Rayns’ questions, so he could start answering almost immediately, and then translated the response in an immensely engaging fashion that clearly suggested that he knew a fair bit about the subject already (the name suggests he’s Hungarian, but you’d never have guessed from his utterly idiomatic English accent).

Jancsó’s back in London today to discuss his bizarre 1999 black comedy The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest at 2pm at the Curzon Soho (details) - sadly, family commitments mean that I can’t go, but I’ll try to get a review of the DVD up in the next week or so. And there are two more Jancsó-attended screenings of The Round-Up on Monday at the Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge (details), and on Wednesday at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh (details). This really is an unmissable treat.

Posted on 16th March 2008
Under: Hungary, Miklós Jancsó | 1 Comment »

The Round-Up

Hungary, 1965, black and white, 87 mins

  • Director: Miklós Jancsó
  • Production Manager: István Daubner
  • Screenplay: Gyula Hernádi
  • Photography: Tamás Somló
  • Production Design: Tamás Banovich
  • Costume Design: Zsuzsa Vicze
  • Editor: Zoltán Farkas
  • Sound: Zoltán Toldy
  • Cast: János Görbe (János Gajdar); Zoltán Latinovits (Imre Veszelka, first militiaman); Tibor Molnár (Kabai senior); Gábor Agárdi (Torma); András Kozák (Kabai junior); Béla Barsi (third warden); József Madaras (man in Hungarian costume); János Koltai ( Béla Varju); István Avar (first interrogator); Lajos Öze (second interrogator); Rudolf Somogyvári; Attila Nagy; Zoltán Basilides; György Bárdy; Zsigmond Fülöp; László Csurka; Lõrinc G. Szabó; László György; József Horváth; László Horváth; Jácint Juhász; József Kautzky; József Konrád; Magda Schlehmann; Ida Siménfalvy; Sándor Siménfalvy; Gyula Szersén; Tibor Szilágyi; Endre Tallós; Géza Tordy; István Velenczei

It’s appropriate that Miklós Jancsó took inspiration for more than one film (Cantata, 1963; Allegro Barbaro, 1979) from the work of his great compatriot Béla Bartók, as in many ways he was attempting to achieve the same with Hungarian cinema as Bartók did with Hungarian music. Though both artists had a conventional training and spent long apprenticeships developing their craft in a way that wouldn’t frighten the horses (an apt metaphor in Jancsó’s case), they also had a strong sense that their work needed something not only distinctive but distinctively Hungarian before it could achieve full flower.

In Bartók’s case, the breakthrough was the discovery of folk music - the real thing, not the ersatz version diluted for the tourist trade. In Jancsó’s, it was the realisation that the great Hungarian puszta, those flat plains seemingly stretching out to infinity, could be as expressive a part of his film language as any of his human protagonists. This developing interest was already clear in Cantata (Oldás és kötés, 1963) and especially My Way Home (Így jöttem, 1964), but they are mere conceptual sketches compared with his breakthrough in The Round-Up, as remarkable in his artistic development as the Eroica symphony was in Beethoven’s, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in Picasso’s and The Waste Land in T.S. Eliot’s.

The film’s original title Szegénylegények translates as ‘the hopeless ones’ (its French title is Les Sans-espoir), and if that doesn’t already set a suitably grim and despairing tone, this is reinforced by the opening montage. Using simple illustrations and a deceptively informative voiceover (the original UK release print replaced this with a rather more detailed text scroll), Jancsó sets the scene in the late 1860s, the round-up of the English title involving the last holdouts from the 1848 Kossuth rebellion whom, one assumes, have been eking out a basic existence on the puszta ever since. But even here, images of buildings and landscapes are rapidly usurped by mechanisms of torture and oppression, made all the more unsettling for being presented as though they were items in a hardware catalogue. By the time we’re told that Count Gedeon Raday, the commissar ultimately responsible for the operation, “wasn’t particular about his methods”, that has already become abundantly clear, and one braces oneself for the worst.

What one gets, though, is a series of shots of such formal magnificence that they seem at first glance to work against the grim, oppressive, quasi-Kafkaesque scenario. Using every inch of the wide CinemaScope screen (a pan-and-scan version of this film would be criminal vandalism), Jancsó’s images recall Sergio Leone’s in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West - though Leone hadn’t reached anything like this level by 1965.

Groups of horsemen thunder past either side of the camera to join their companions on the horizon, creating a startling three-dimensional effect, and throughout the film Jancsó is careful to compose for every plane - the far distance is as likely to feature people and horses in intricate geometrical arrangements as the foreground. The film often has more in common with dance than cinema: a group of hooded prisoners shuffles around in a circle, soldiers form two parallel lines to repeatedly whip a naked girl, black-clad old women bring white bundles of provisions that are laid out in a perfectly straight line. Jancsó often shoots from a high vantage point, as if to emphasise the massive scale of his canvas, and in the many sequences featuring literally hundreds of people, one can only marvel at how long they must have taken to set up. The soundtrack is clearly post-dubbed, as Jancsó liked to give directions during his long takes, aping his silent-movie forebears of four or five decades earlier.

Five years earlier, Alfred Hitchcock had taken the then virtually unprecedented decision to kill off his female lead partway through Psycho (1960). In The Round-Up Jancsó does this with such regularity that it’s impossible to latch onto any single individual, despite the presence of recognisable actors such as Zoltán Latinovits and András Kozák, the leads in his two previous films. It rapidly becomes clear that every character, without exception, is a pawn in an exceptionally complex game of three-dimensional chess whose board lacks squares and whose rules change from minute to minute.

But, make no mistake, there are rules, and they’re certainly not arbitrary at the time they’re applied. No-one is immune from authority, not even those designated as authority figures (entire troops can be replaced at a moment’s notice), and a fatal bullet could hit at any moment, its origins an eternal mystery. The authorities’ main purpose is to track down the (real-life) bandit Sándor Rósza but, to continue the Hitchcock parallels, he’s the film’s McGuffin in two senses: he’s both a cipher used to entrap his former associates, and a convenient narrative hook on which to hang the material that Jancsó is really interested in, an almost forensic study of the psychological techniques used to disorientate and ultimately break prisoners into betraying their comrades.

This atmosphere of uncertainty (the film’s timescale is impossible to establish: it could be hours, weeks, months or years) means that a singled-out prisoner never knows whether he’ll end up dead or given an unexpected military promotion - and, if the latter, whether this is all part of the same macabre game and shouldn’t be taken at face value. The appearance of a full-scale military band just as a triple execution seems about to take place is both incongruously amusing and a wry comment on the ritualised nature of power: the unseen authorities seem to view the entire round-up as least in part as a gigantic Gesamtkunstwerk, a piece of conceptual art whose aesthetic impact outweighs the fact that it involves real human sacrifices.

Although The Round-Up can certainly be reduced to an 87-minute parade of torture and killing, by the same token My Way Home becomes a wartime buddy movie, and anyone who’s seen that film will recognise the absurdity. What’s remarkable about The Round-Up is the way Jancsó’s style so perfectly matches the substance, so that every manipulation and atrocity becomes a comment on similar practices within a far wider political context. There was a widespread assumption on the film’s original release in 1966 that Jancsó had constructed an allegory of Hungary ten years earlier, when the Hungarian authorities did some post-rebellion rounding-up of their own.

This certainly stands up to scrutiny, but so too does a reading of the film as a representation of Bosnia, Rwanda or Iraq, which Jancsó obviously couldn’t have intended - and he clearly didn’t have September 11 in mind when staging the extraordinary sequence in which desperate prisoners fling themselves off the stockade to their deaths, or Guantánamo Bay (and Abu Ghraib) in the rigidly-defined groups of hooded prisoners who have no idea of their fate. But that’s one of the defining characteristics of a truly great work of art: it constantly reinvents itself for a new generation, and despite being over forty years old at the time of writing, Jancsó’s masterpiece has dated hardly at all.

DVD Distribution: The Round-Up is released by Second Run (UK) and Clavis Films (France), both offering PAL transfers with no region code and optional English subtitles. This review is of the Second Run disc.

Picture: Not as good as either Clavis’ Cantata or Second Run’s My Way Home, but for the most part very acceptable, this anamorphic transfer does at least get the basics right in that it’s sourced from a very clean-looking print and is framed in the correct CinemaScope aspect ratio. The image is certainly a lot sharper than Second Run’s disappointing The Red and the White, and less contrasty than their Marketa Lazarová, though there’s still a tendency for people to get lost in the shadows during the few night-time sequences. The transfer’s biggest problem is highlighted by the main title, which has telltale edge-enhancement haloes, and while nothing in the film itself is quite that blatant, there’s a fair amount of evidence of digital manipulation of a less than perfect source. But I must stress that the film is generally towards the upper end of the Second Run quality scale, and it’s certainly the best version currently out on DVD - the Clavis edition being apparently extremely dark and with yellow subtitles.

Sound: A marked improvement on both Clavis’ disappointing Cantata and Second Run’s better but still slightly distorted My Way Home, this soundtrack is to all intents and purposes flawless, perfectly reproducing the mono original. (And it’s only when one listens closely to it that one realises just how busy it is - there’s virtually no music, but a near constant accompaniment of birdsong, tramping feet and distant cries).

Subtitles: Although initial rumours that Second Run was authoring the disc so that the subtitles would appear outside the frame turned out to be untrue, there’s nothing wrong with them otherwise: they’re white, properly synchronised, typo-free and optional. The only disappointment is that the folksong that opens the film (to the tune of ‘Deutschland über alles’) has not been translated.

Extras: As usual for this label, there are two extras, both excellent. The real treat is a new 20-minute interview with Jancsó, who is in amazing physical and mental shape for someone in his mid-eighties (he would probably have been 86 when this was shot), and gives a delightfully candid and chatty self-portrait - the fact that it was filmed by his sons probably encouraged him to let his hair down. There’s one particularly delicious moment when he keeps breaking into fits of giggles as he tries to deliver a particular philosophical point - a more po-faced editor would have taken this out, but I’m glad it was left in. The other extra is a 16-page booklet showcasing a fine essay on Jancsó and the film by John Cunningham, author of the definitive English-language study Hungarian Cinema: From The Coffee-House to the Multiplex (2004).


Posted on 14th March 2008
Under: Reviews, Hungary, 100 Classics, Miklós Jancsó | 3 Comments »

My Way Home

Így jöttem
Hungary, 1964, black and white, 102 mins

  • Director: Miklós Jancsó
  • Production Manager: József Győrffy
  • Screenplay: Gyula Hernádi, Imre Vadász
  • Photography: Tamás Somló
  • Editor: Zoltán Farkas
  • Sound: Zoltán Toldy
  • Music: Bálint Sárosi
  • Cast: András Kozák (Jóska); Sergei Nikonyenko (Kolya); János Görbe (fugitive); Sándor Siménfalvy, László Csurka; Vilmos Izsóf; Judit Meszléry; Endre Tallós; József Madaras; Zoltán Gera; Lajos Tándor; Lajos Őze; Árpád Gyenge; János Koltai; Béla Barsi; Bertalan Solti; Tibor Molnár; Ilona Kállai; Ida Siménfalvy; János Körmendi; Tibor Szilágyi; Katalin Gyöngyössy; Ferenc Dávid Kiss; Péter Karikás; Ernő Szénási; Sándor Csikós; János Krasznai; János Harkányi; Gyula Szersén; Mari Csomós; Ferenc Horváth; László Horváth; Tibor Haraszin; Sztanyiszlav Szokolov, Ivan Szklanszkij, Jurij Bodovszkij

Miklós Jancsó’s third feature My Way Home is a key transitional work in his career. Although still not quite past the embryonic stage, his mature style is now clearly visible, and he’s already managed to ditch the Antonioni influence that cast a long shadow over its predecessor Cantata (Oldás és kötés, 1963). For the first time, we have un film de Miklós Jancsó, owing nothing to and unimaginable in the hands of anybody else.

Indeed, the first ten minutes offers the earliest example of what we now know to be quintessential Jancsó. In 1945, at the end of World War II (an assumption), a motley group of Hungarian partisans (another educated guess) gingerly traverses a rural landscape that grows increasingly treacherous once they lose the cover of the trees. A biplane causes them to scatter, and the seventeen-year-old Jóska is swiftly captured by Hungarian Fascists (presumably). They are captured in turn by mounted Cossacks, who shoot everyone but Jóska. For the first time, we are confronted with what would become one of the key themes of Jancsó’s cinema: that every relationship involves the expression and exertion of power over somebody else, and the ultimate arbiter of that power might change at any moment. Nationality provides no advance indication of treatment: in many ways, Jóska’s fellow countrymen treat him just as badly as the Russians, if not worse.

Jóska is then incarcerated in a Russian-run labour camp, whose Hungarian inmates are systematically shaved, stripped and assessed for health problems. During a swimming session, a prisoner attempts to swim under a security fence while the others generate distracting splashes, but the barbed wire stretches all the way to the bottom. A motley troupe of musicians (mostly violinists) plays Russian folk standards, ostensibly to lighten the mood but actually a pervasive aural reminder of who’s boss. Jóska joins a water-fetching detail, one of whose members attempts to make a run for it, but he is swiftly recaptured. Jóska is then arbitrarily released - again - and ordered to return home, but becomes a prisoner once again when he runs into an almost equally young Russian soldier named Kolya.

This is where My Way Home differs from Jancsó’s subsequent work. Although he is already starting to see humanity in terms of large groups of people to be corralled and herded like the equally plentiful cattle that dots the landscape, the relationship between Jóska and Kolya is very much central to the narrative. It’s not exactly a buddy movie - they have no language in common, and there are plenty of misunderstandings along the way, starting with a near-fatal incident in a minefield - but it begins to develop along similar lines.

Eventually, thanks to some spontaneous horseplay by a river (where Kolya shoots frogs for fun and tentatively lets Jóska join in) and a ruined building surrounded by crumbling statues, they discover that they have enough shared values at base to conquer the language barrier. They certainly show each other more human warmth than they get from an environment that’s otherwise full of sudden and unpredictable dangers - biplanes buzz them at random, they’re surrounded by groups of unidentifiable horsemen, passing military units force them to strip for compulsory disinfection of their clothing, and they’re attacked by Hungarian POWs. (A group of women bathing in a nearby reservoir is treated with equal lack of respect, though they do at least escape the proverbial fate worse than death, unlike their successors in The Round-Up).

This being a Jancsó film, the mutually supportive situation that Jóska and Kolya create for themselves against a backdrop of chaos and confusion doesn’t last. It’s clear from relatively early on that Kolya has something wrong with him, and he gradually reveals that his obsessively structured exercise routine has more to do with alleviating the symptoms of a bullet wound than a need to keep in shape. Once he’s gone, Jóska is once again on his own, stranded in a Hungary that he no longer recognises and which doesn’t seem to want him. It’s a powerfully bleak ending reminiscent of Imre Kertész’s (yet to be written) novel Fateless, filmed by Lajos Koltai in 2005.

Though there were hints of it in the final third of Cantata, My Way Home is where Jancsó’s visually and conceptually intricate, instantly recognisable style first unfurled itself. The language barrier means that much of the film is effectively wordless, with Jóska and Kolya’s relationship with their immediate environment expressing just as much as their own actions. Tamás Somló’s camera is much more mobile than it was in the earlier film, tracking and panning round the protagonists and constantly reframing them against the surrounding landscape.

Though both András Kozák and Sergei Nikonenko give appealing performances, we’re not given the same insight into their psyches that we were granted with Zoltán Latinovits’s troubled protagonist in Cantata - there are no self-diagnostic speeches or anguished bouts of introspection, nor even the most basic biographical or contextual information. Indeed, by the end of the film we know little more about Jóska than we did at the start, which makes him an effective surrogate for the viewer. We might as well enjoy this while it lasts, because no such identification is possible in Jancsó’s extraordinary The Round-Up, his next feature and the one that catapulted him to international fame.

DVD Distribution: My Way Home is available in Britain and France, on the Second Run and Clavis labels. Both are PAL and not region coded. This review is of the Second Run DVD.

Picture: Continuing the general rule that the older the Jancsó film, the better the DVD transfer, this is comfortably the best of Second Run’s three releases to date, with a sharp anamorphic image sourced from a print in excellent physical condition. The framing is 16:9, which looks broadly correct, though I was unable to establish the theatrical aspect ratio. But there’s no obvious sign of cropping, and Jancsó often uses the entire width of the frame.

Sound: The sound is perfectly competent for an early 1960s mono film, and is a distinct cut above that on Clavis’ edition of Cantata, with none of the hiss, crackle and distortion that marred that release. If I’m being picky, there was a tiny amount of electronic artefacting at the top end, but this is only really discernible through headphones.

Subtitles: The subtitles are white, optional and seemingly thorough, translating dialogue in Hungarian, Russian and German alike. However, the various folksongs that pepper the soundtrack are left untranslated.

Extras: There are two extras, the Máramaros episode of Jancsó’s 1994 television series Message of Stones, and a 16-page booklet that reprints a 1969 Sight & Sound article on Jancsó by Penelope Houston.


Posted on 13th March 2008
Under: Reviews, Hungary, Miklós Jancsó | No Comments »

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