Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 3 
17 Feb

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Miklos Jancso's Kovek uzenete (Message of Stones, 1994) HUNGARY
The rooster
is crowing

"Jewish themes" in the films of Miklós Jancsó

Jancsó's recurring interest in Jewish culture is one aspect of his work that has consistently been overlooked by most critics—including Hungarian ones. György Báron reflects on the director's hitherto unrecognised obsession.[*]

"Jewish themes"? Let's put the term in quotes, because what would count as a "theme"? The Hungarian-themed Szegénylegények (The Round Up, 1965)? The Russian (Soviet) Csillagosok katonák (Red and the White, 1967)? The Italian La Pacifista (1970)? If we discuss detention camps, is that a "Jewish theme"? Or what about the love of two Israeli citizens? And are these films actually about what—per se—their theme is?

In the oeuvre of Miklós Jancsó, films with a so-called "Jewish theme" (regardless of what we mean by this) play a major role, from the three-part Jelenlét ( Presence) that he began in 1965 and finished in 1985, through to the half dozen pieces of the Kövek üzenete (Message of Stones) series that he made at the beginning of the 1990s, L'Aube (The Dawn, 1985) taking place in Palestine, and two new documentaries with the titles Elmondták-e? (Have You Been Told?, 1995) and Zsoltár (Psalm, 1996). Throughout a hundred-odd years of film history, no other significant film director has made so many documentaries with an almost monomaniacal attachment to the same theme.

Why is it, then, that this conspicuous body of work in the Jancsó oeuvre is surrounded by a wall of cautious silence? Is it because of the "theme"? Is it about the usual restraint, confused looking aside? Or do we feel that Jancsó is being an unauthorised tourist in the area? Is the undeniable inconsistency in the quality of these works the reason for the bashful silence? Would it be embarrassing to applaud the "good intentions" of this great director?

The first part of the Jelenlét series, to my mind, is immeasurably heavier and deeper than the second and third one. From the Kövek üzenete series, the Máramaros or the Moldavia travelogue is probably weaker and more superficial than the one about Budapest. The structural form of Zsoltár is more delicate and fragile than Elmondták-e?, another Holocaust story and one shot on the same location. But if the work is uneven, why is it that we don't at least mention the worthy parts of this section of Jancsó's work?

Even after watching it many times, L'Aube seems to be a masterpiece. Could it have been that there was so much excellence in the previous decades of Hungarian cinema that L'Aube did not stand out? Have there been so many noble gestures, that Hungarian critics didn't even notice in the confusion of the 1996 Hungarian Film Week that for an entire hour Miklós Jancsó told his children in his own words the impossible-to-tell tale of the Holocaust?

I don't know the answers, if there are any, to these questions. There aren't even answers to much more important questions. Jancsó hasn't found the answers to his (more important) questions either. He questions. Well and not so well, but he does. Because he knows that you can't not be questioning. The narrator of Elmondták-e? and Elisha the protagonist of L'Aube, the Holocaust-survivor / Jewish terrorist, both ask questions. In the end these two different films arrive at the same questions. Namely (and appropriately, considering the weight of the issues): what should we do? What should we do when they murder us or when we break the commandments to murder? In short: what should we do?

This age-old question is raised by the 20th-century fate of Europe's Jews. Perhaps, this is what draws Jancsó again and again to this theme. Perhaps, it is his folklorist-anthropologist commitment to bringing endangered cultures to the surface. Perhaps, it is the opposition of the compassionate leftist artist to the demon of the barbaric national right movements that, in different forms, use racism and anti-Semitism as their only common language. Perhaps, it is the recognition of Theodore Adorno's famous paradox about the barbarity of writing poetry after Auschwitz, a sentiment also expressed by János Pilinszky as Auschwitz being the "black sun" that trans-illuminates and re-arranges events.[1]

This article is not trying to make up for the decades of negligence of Hungarian film critics, to scale, classify and analyse these works of Jancsó, the Kövek üzenete and Jelenlét series mourning the near-extinct central and eastern European Jewish life and culture, Elmondták-e? and Zsoltár on the Holocaust and L'Aube grappling with eternal metaphysical questions. What follows here are merely a few fragments and subjective reflections.

The train

In the 1965 black-and-white Jelenlét, two elderly men enter the ruined synagogue of Olaszliszka. The building—or more precisely what is left of it—is polluted and abandoned. The wind rushes through the broken windowpanes, scattering the pages of holy books all around. Languid rays of afternoon sun sift in and the dust that's been kicked up sparkles in the light. The clattering of a train is heard, getting louder. The closing image of the film is a line of wagons speeding away while the two men pray inside.

The train advances on the closing image of the 1978 Olaszliszka episode as well. The synagogue is still abandoned, in ruins, a little boy is playing in the sunshine, this time two younger men put the praying shawl on their shoulders. The train begins its third visit of 1986 to Olaszliszka as well, and ends with the images of hope, a host of children singing, prayer in the tent, the cutting of barches (a Jewish cake made for Passover) and dipping it into honey.

A freight train begins the episode of Kövek üzenete shot in Sub-Carpathia. The camera pans in on wrecks of abandoned trains, from where it continues on to the streets of Munkács to the empty synagogue and cemetery. The train rolls on slowly in the background while we see the Tokaj and Máramaros cemeteries. The train—the train of death—appears often in the viewpoint of the camera that goes around infinitely at a Holocaust exhibition.

In the context of the fate of Jews in the 20th century, the train has become a metaphor for the journey of death. Wagon, rails, ramp—sinister words, that is how they appear in Pilinszky's poems, and similarly a black aura saturates them in the personal mythology of Holocaust survivors and their children.

With Jancsó the train motif is just discreetly quoted. Discreetly, but not incidentally: it appears too many times at emphatic points. When it comes into view we don't necessarily have to think about those wagons. A train's range of meaning is very wide (Gergely Bikácsi has written a clever study about the train's role in film). It could mean modernity, contrasting the walls of temples and cemeteries, the past versus the present world, or travelling, longing to go away, what—in György Petri's words—departs from here.[2] And it could mean to be corralled, resulting in dramatic situations, as most film-makers use it, most frequently probably Hitchcock. (Presumably, it is a coincidence that "The Drummer," the dynamic jazz music that is heard over the amateur footage of the entraining in Zsoltár, is the same as that in Young and Innocent, one of Hitchcock's early films: at the sound of this tune, the lurking killer is revealed.)

The train appears in many films, but in none of them does it have direct connection to the story. The wagons pass by in the background. These can be viewed merely as wagons speeding away. However, their meaning can be expanded, considering the matter in hand is the Jewish fate and, within that, destruction and loss. Jancsó doesn't interpret, he shows. The metaphorical meaning is created by the relationship between the viewer and the image. At first sight, Jerusalem railway station is no different than other railway stations in the world. However, residents of the city say that sometimes inhabitants of Jerusalem go to the platforms to observe "the monument of the terminal." A place of arrival only. Here where no roads lead on, where all rail tracks run to. Where the sealed cattle-wagons will roll in to someday, doors will open and ancestors and relatives will get off, just like in Andrzej Wajda's Korczak (1990)-the passengers of the child-transport did, heading to Auschwitz.

The temple

In Jancsó's films, the house of prayer is mostly empty, desolated and decrepit. (It only fills up in the third episode of Jelenlét and in the Budapest chapter of Kövek üzenete with people, with dance, with hope—but this will come up later.) The desolated temple is the setting and the metaphor for the decay of the central European Jewish culture written about so sensitively by Eli Wiesel. While the camera is gazing at these barren settings, we are faced with the shocking scale of the perdition. In 1940, 900,000 Jews lived in Romania; today there are just 17,000. In Iaşi, there are 700 left today out of 50,000 and most of them are elderly. In Hegyalja, 14 Jews are left out of 18,000, and from the 112,000 that lived in Sub-Carpathia there are only four to five thousand. Close to half of the inhabitants of Munkács used to be Jewish, there were 14 functioning synagogues; you'd be lucky to find as many as seven hundred Jews living in the city today.

The walls of some of the temples are still standing, but there aren't ten men to put the prayer shawl on their shoulders.

The metaphor for the destroyed temple is the Western Wall in Jerusalem. In comparison to the area defined by the Wall, why does any other temple, however much its architectural mastery, appear misguided? Perhaps because it tries to manifest infinity by locking the infinite space in. It takes the space away, just to extend it artificially with the instruments, expediency and tricks of architecture: with slender towers reaching to the sky, massive naves and aisles, secret hollows, the ambiguity of the sombre infiltrating light. It abolishes the residing majesty in nature, attempting to recreate it by man's inchoate means.

Even the ingenious Michelangelo couldn't resolve this subsequent paradox of temple architecture, although without doubt he got the furthest—at least within my domain of knowledge, the sphere of European culture—in recognising and solving the problem. If he had gone any further, instead of building he would have had to destroy, breaking the strength of the massive walls and doing the same as whoever destroyed this ancient temple. In doing that, he would have created the only really majestic, transcendental temple—the one that doesn't actually exist, or, more precisely, from which only one wall exists. And even that wall doesn't function as a wall anymore: it doesn't confine any space; it is surrounded by infinity; it is a reminder only, recalling the tradition.

We might think that only exceptional grace could create such a perfect space and meaningful aura. But somewhere in Hungary stands a bare, old temple wall—alone, functionless. In the third episode of Jelenlét we can see this wall. It's not the wall of the Temple, it's only of an old, disused synagogue. But the space—it is the same. And every temple is part of that same one temple.

The cemetery

In Jancsó's films the decaying, overgrown cemeteries don't remind us of death. Only a functioning cemetery is associated with death. These neglected grave mounds are tangible evidence of the once blooming Jewish life and culture. Jancsó's cemeteries are not the monuments of passing away (discounting, of course, that every cemetery is), but of the depredation and the devastation.

The synagogue is empty: most of the Jews remaining in this area are those resting in graves. Above them the world has transformed and Jewish life practically vanished. Nobody looks after the graves. Functioning cemeteries are symbols of the continuation of cultures building on each other. Next to the pain of death there is the consolation of revival: fresh funerals, groomed graves or visitors reminiscing in the graveyard.

Decaying Jewish cemeteries are symbols of the forceful end of this continuation. Death affiliates with the present: these abandoned cemeteries affiliate solely with the past. Death, in the twentieth century Jewish mythology is not linked to the cemetery. It is connected to the wagons, to not getting back, turning into smoke, the fire of crematoriums, the burning victim. The mercy of individual death has been changed into the horror of mass death. It's not the individual that comes to nothing (which is natural), but the culture (which is unnatural). In Jancsó's films, the cemeteries commemorate this loss.

The dawn

What death is to birth and revival, keeping vigil is to dawning, darkness is to light and night is to dawn. Jancsó's films explore the irreplaceable loss arising when this dialectical pulsation of opposites ceases. Death becomes one with perdition, the continuity of life stops, cultures die, memory fades away. The director would like to believe and to make us believe that all this is not happening, because it couldn't be. He knows, in film he is the creator. He cannot recant what happened, but he can give voice and image to what he hopes.

He brings a host of children to the abandoned temple in the Bodrogköz region, to celebrate together with rabbi and scholar Tamás Raj, to reopen the seemingly dead synagogue with their presence. In Tokaj, children from abroad dance in the synagogue to klezmermusic. A group of happy children appear singing in Budapest's Hősök tere (Heroes' Square), at the celebration of a school on Wesselényi utca and, at the end of the film, at a private family ceremony. In Budapest—unparalleled in the region—quite a number of Jewish congregations were able to continue the tradition that hope—as the last resort—could hang on: perhaps not everything disappears without a trace.

Daniel Gryllus sings "The Rooster is Crowing" in the Budapest episode, and Márta Sebestyén sings the same song at a Holocaust exhibition to curious children who are listening to Jancsó telling them a tale. "Once upon a time," he begins the ugly tale, "there was a Hungary that welcomed everyone and where everyone was equal." Then he goes on telling the story, while questioning: "What would you do if you were standing next to your undressed mother and father and you heard a rifle being cocked?" "What would you have put in the 10-kilogram package?" Senkifölde (Why Wasn't He There?, 1993), the beautiful film by András Jeles, comes to mind, where a child getting ready for deportation stuffs her favourite doll in her bag. To copy the adults around her, she has sewn a yellow star onto the doll's dress. After Jancsó's question, the camera shows belongings that are left from such packages. In Pilinszky's poems, common objects carry such weight: talc, plaster, a roll of thread.

In L'Aube, there is an instrumental version of "The Rooster is Crowing." This time, the crowing, and with it the dawn, have a more complex meaning than in the documentaries. This is the dawn of murder. The moment of breaking the law. The acceptance of the rules of the world, stepping from being victims to becoming murderers. The hero who has escaped from the camps has no other choice. He has to kill to prevent his enemies from killing. To kill to establish a homeland for the Jews. Not the final homeland that will be brought by the Messiah, but a simple, worldly home.

These worldly homelands are born in blood. He breaks the law and becomes a killer. Does the goal exempt homicide? Does the past, the Holocaust, the millions of burning victims? "Even the people of the law had to cease believing in the principles of life for what they had taken as martyrdom for thousands of years," says Jancsó, and as I understand not with reconciliation, but with deep sorrow. This is apparent from the words of his hero, Elisha: "I killed, I killed Elisha," he declares after the murder.

At this moment, the sun rises above the sea. The dawn that has been talked about on that visionary night has come, when in search for a solution to the moral dilemma, the past, the exterminated father has been conjured, a lot has been said. In this film, Jancsó passes with such ease through the ephemeral boundaries of past, present, future, reality and memory in a way that has only been possible for the greatest practioners of modern cinema art. Compared to his later works, the austere discipline that he composed this piece with is noticeable. L'Aube is a sombre, obstinate and resolute work of art. Its every image and word lead in the same direction. Every point is an Archimedean point.

In comparison with the director's other works, there are noticeably more close-ups and shots set in confined spaces. The elaborate camera movements don't resemble the ethereal and frequently inert dances that the critics condemned in Jancsó's later films. There are a couple of virtuoso sequence shots that could be shown in film schools as examples of a bravura that is difficult to surpass, the signature of a sovereign artist who sometimes squanders his talent lavishly. One example is when they talk about the murder in the dim room, while the camera circles around the table lit by changing light. Another is the scene where the camera follows a bouncing ball in the city on the seashore, feet to feet. "A significant masterpiece about life and death," Gábor Gelencsér wrote about the film in Filmkultúra in 1991. He was right, even though, compared to its significance, L'Aube has been stifled in an undeserved indifference.

"The Rooster is Crowing" is heard at the end of the film, and not only meaning that the sun has risen and that a new dawn is breaking, but also that something has been terminated. What happened is unforgettable and irreversible. Somebody has killed and somebody has died. A new day comes, with new hopes and new threats. The hero of L'Aube steps out into the sunshine, leaving his victim behind.

Editor's note: Since this article was written, Jancsó's latest film Kelj fel komám, ne aludjál! (Wake up Mate, Don't Sleep!, 2003) has premiered. The film relies heavily on "Jewish themes," depicting the World War II round-up of Jews in a multi-layered timescape that overlaps with contemporary life without escaping the setting of the war. During the film, Jancsó himself dies and the main protagonists, Pepe and Kapo, discuss whether he should be buried in the Jewish cemetery, despite the fact that he isn't Jewish.

György Báron

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This article was translated with the generous support of the Magyar Filmunió (Hungarian Film Union)

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About the author

György Báron is Professor of Film History at the Academy of Theatre and Film, Budapest, a film critic and film-aesthetetian and Senior Cultural Editor of Hungarian Radio and staff-critic of the Hungarian weekly Élet és Irodalom.

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* A version of this article orginally appeared in Hungarian under the title "Szól a kakas már...: Jancsó Miklós "zsidó tárgyú" filmjei," Szombat, September 1996.return to text

1. János Pilinszky (1921-1981) was one of the best and most influential Hungarian poets of the postwar period. He was Catholic and put the New Testament and the Holocaust into the centre of his oeuvre. His books have been published in English in an excellent translation by the great English poet, Ted Hughes.return to text

2. György Petri (1943-2001) the best, most influential and most popular Hungarian poet of the end of the last century. During Communism, some of his poems were banned and published in samizdat editions.return to text

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