Hungary / USSR, 1967
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 17 January 2007
Source Second Run DVD
Take a look through back issues of Sight & Sound from the late sixties and early seventies and you’ll be struck by the level of critical attention and veneration given to Miklós Jancsó, someone who has since dropped off the international critical radar. Something of a forgotten figure nowadays, little of his work since the early eighties seems to have had much exposure. Certainly, the last “contemporary” Jancsó film I ever saw was Hungarian Rhapsody, since when he’s made more than ten further feature films.
In this context it’s hard to determine how Jancsó has developed as a filmmaker, although it is disconcerting to read on imbd.com that A Mohácsi Vész from 2004 (with no English title to it) is billed as the “fifth and final adventure of Kapa & Pepe” or to learn that Jancsó’s signature long-take style seems now to be abandoned for one of more conventional editing. Regardless of the status of the later work, it still remains true that, for all his current neglect, the Jancsó of the sixties and seventies – of such films as The Round-Up, Silence and Cry, Red Psalm, and Elektreia – is one of the great European directors, and The Red and the White is an absolute masterpiece.
The Red and the White was a Hungarian-Soviet co-production, made to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Shot on the Puszta, the flat Hungarian plains that Jancsó made a central feature of his films, it’s set around the Volga River in Ukraine in 1919 at the time of the Civil War that followed the Revolution, fought between the Soviet supporters (the Reds) and the anti-Revolution czarists (the Whites). The focus of the film is on the Hungarian volunteers that fought on the side of the Soviets.
In fact, this historical background is anything but clear from the film itself. The English-subtitled version opens with a quick text backgrounder on this historical setting, but the original film had none of this—only a very unclear map criss-crossed with arrows going in every direction. Then comes the film’s first scene, a long slow cavalry charge down a country road into the camera, followed by a fade-out, leaving completely unresolved who these horsemen are, or what side they’re fighting on.
Initially, sorting out Reds from Whites is a confusing process, although after a while they do become easier to distinguish—certainly the uniforms of the White officers seem more tailored, a tighter, neater fit, and the White officers carry themselves with a certain aristocratic bearing. Being a black-and-white film, there is of course no colour differentiations between the two sides, but in any case any concern along these lines or even a concern about historical details is beside the point. Jancsó is not interested in providing a conventional morale-boosting historical epic. Indeed, his failure to do so, and the ambiguous tone to the final result, were no doubt the reasons for the Soviets banning the film. Instead, Jancsó offers in The Red and the White a far more generalised, even mythic commentary on the nature and ultimately the meaninglessness of war.
In this sense, the confusion we may have in distinguishing one side from another is precisely the point. Throughout the film we are witness to the ever-shifting balance of power between the sides, in a constant and repeated cyclical process whereby the defeated become victors and victors the defeated. This process is emphasised through the parallels between the two sides, the way both of them perform essentially the same rituals of symbolic humiliation and vengeance on the defeated soldiers.
In the broad, epic strokes of Jancsó’s portrayal of this conflict, there is little in the way of characters offering some kind of audience identification. True, there are certain characters that the story either focuses for some time on or allows to slip in and out of the flow of narrative – a middle-aged Hungarian, a Cossack ensign, a young nurse, another Hungarian later in the story – but as quickly as they enter the story, they will leave it again, with their deaths occurring off-screen or at a cold distance. The one character that in a sense ties the whole film together, appearing in the first scene and the last, but never really assuming a central role, is the Hungarian played by András Kovák, a familiar figure from many of Jancsó’s films of the sixties. Certainly he’s given the key statement in the film of Jancsó’s humanism: “A man can fight and still be human.”
There are two main settings for this military struggle between the two sides, a Russian Orthodox monastery and a riverside hospital staffed exclusively by nurses. After a brief scene of White officers in an open car threatening death to the Bolsheviks, we see the Reds in control of the monastery (it seems to be the same locale, but how the Reds gained control is never made clear) and we witness the first example of the victory ritual that runs repeatedly through the film.
Here, the captured Whites are forced to strip jackets and shirts from their bodies and run off, their semi-naked state underlining their defeat and their vulnerability. But this act of ritualised degradation elicits a protest from the ranks of the Reds as a Hungarian soldier symbolically hands back his rifle, and such acts of individual protest (giving support to Kovák’s aim to fight “but still be human”) recur throughout the film: a White soldier who with clear deliberation refuses to aim properly during an execution of prisoners; the White officer who stops the rape by the Cossack ensign of a peasant woman; another Hungarian, who disgustedly stops the Reds’ execution of their own soldiers for “cowardice.”
But soon enough control of this monastery changes hands, the process of which Jancsó shows in a characteristically oblique fashion. The camera follows a Red officer up into the bell tower, with the Whites’ arrival only revealed as the Red starts a symbolic stripping and the White officers appear from behind the camera. This time, the stripping ritual that the Red prisoners are now subjected to is even crueller and more sadistic. There’s a randomness at play here too, where one White officer picks Kovák out as part of a small group selected for immediate execution and then another officer sends him away again. The rest of the prisoners are made to play a brutal game where they’re given fifteen minutes’ grace to escape on foot before they’re hunted down by cavalrymen.
The assertion of brute force and cruel power and control comes through in the contrast between the prisoners in their semi-naked vulnerability and the pursuing Whites in their tight-fitting military uniforms. The naked or semi-naked figure is a trope used repeatedly by Jancsó in his films to represent the victims of oppression and to register a protest against such oppression, and the nurses at the riverside hospital are another clear example of this.
The hospital is at first a neutral territory, with the nurses treating the injured from either side. The nurses themselves, dressed only in white slips as they retrieve the dead bodies from the river, represent a kind of feminine principle that Jancsó sets in opposition to the male principle of military violence. The customary associations of white—purity and innocence—are conjoined with the vulnerability expressed through their flimsy clothing and the traditional nurturing role of the nurse. This is something recognised by the Whites themselves in a bizarre incident after they take control of the hospital, when they select a number of nurses and take them away in a carriage, dressing them up and getting them to waltz together in the forest, before allowing them to return again. It’s a recognition of the forces of femininity and culture, grace and art, which the forces of war have almost entirely – but not quite – displaced.
The parallels between White and Red are drawn again in the scenes at the hospital, where first one side and then the other gain military control of the site, each time separating the men and executing those from the losing side. Greater screen time is given to the Whites’ cruelties (this is a feature of the film as a whole), with a specially resonant sequence at the riverside as a nurse, the lover of one of the Hungarian escapees – a narrative which Jancsó characteristically treats in the sketchiest way possible – is first made by the Whites to strip and go into the water, and then be pulled by her now-captured lover up out of the water and onto the jetty situated in middle distance within this shot. Here she stands and then crouches, completely naked, as her lover himself is first led to the foreground and then back to the jetty to be killed in the water. Again, the contrasts in states of dress and undress – here the uniformed soldiers on the one hand, the semi-naked Hungarian escapee and the naked nurse on the other – underline the relationships of power and violence that are at issue throughout the film.
I’ve spoken so far of what’s central to The Red and the White thematically, the cycles of violence and the repeated and inevitable shifts in status between victors and defeated, between those who exert power and oppression and those who suffer from it. Yet Jancsó’s true greatness in these films of the sixties and seventies doesn’t lie here but in the visual style, characterised by long takes and a moving camera, that he developed. Of all the masters of this style, including Ophuls, Mizoguchi, and Angelopoulos, no one has ever taken it to the level Jancsó achieved. I’m sure this is because his narratives refuse to explore the psychology of his characters, so that the movement of figures back and forth across the frame becomes the core to his cinematic world and his camera style develops to respond to, withdraw from and analyse that movement. In The Red and the White scenes are shot almost exclusively outdoors, and the sideways, forward and backwards camera movements are carefully and exquisitely choreographed in relation to a very precise structuring of space between foreground, medium-distance and background. If the style of The Red and the White has not yet reached the level of abstraction of Elektreia (only 9 or 12 shots, depending on the source—I’ve never bothered counting myself), it also avoids the latter’s slightly sterile aestheticism; everything works here precisely right, the style is in absolute concord with the subject at hand.
Yet for all the parallels that Jancsó draws between the Reds and the Whites, the sense that he gives that power shifts between the two sides almost to the point of senselessness, in the end he still makes clear what side he is on. The Whites are portrayed as crueller, more brutal and sadistic, and even if our sympathies are muddied – in the final section of the film, the off-screen execution of the nurse ordered by the initially sympathetic Hungarian officer is judged by the film as clearly wrong – nevertheless the Reds are accorded a romantic nobility never granted the Whites.
At the end of the film that same Hungarian officer realises his hopeless situation and he and his men remove their jackets to march, all in white shirts, downhill towards the lines of White soldiers in the distance. The camera holds on this distant image until a birdsong suddenly, lyrically comes up on the soundtrack before the whole line of white-clad Reds falls to the ground on the plain below. It’s then left to András Kovák, the film’s almost-hero, to offer his own tribute as he subsequently searches among the fallen bodies in the long grass, before turning to the camera. Here he faces us, with upturned sword and the blasts of mournful trumpet on the soundtrack, to provide a heartfelt tribute. Jancsó doesn’t show it, but we can be sure that the inevitable cycle of violence will now begin again.