Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 3 
17 Feb
2003

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Miklos Jancso's Szegenylegenyek (The Round-up, 1965) EDITORIAL
Miklós who?
A round-up of Miklós Jancsó's career

Jancsó is a giant of world cinema, yet his works are rarely seen and much of his oeuvre languishes in total obscurity. Andrew James Horton introduces Kinoeye's special focus on Jancsó with an overview of the director's stylistic and thematic development.


Miklós Jancsó suffers an unusual fate in film history. His name is frequently mentioned in film history books, he is a recognised giant of Hungarian, European and world cinema and his unique visual style and complex studies of power and the relationship between history and the individual have been feted. The trouble is that, despite the above, outside his native Hungary surprisingly few people have seen—or can even tell you the name of—any of his films.

Among those who have experienced Jancsó's work, his reputation chiefly rests on a very small body of films made within six years of each other—Szegénylegények (The Round-up, 1965), Csillagosok, katonák (The Red and the White, 1967) and Még kér a nép (Red Psalm, 1971)—despite the fact that his career in film stretches across more than five decades and covers over 25 features and innumerable documentaries. Even in Hungary large portions of his oeuvre have been ignored (although this is starting to change).

Miklos Jancso's Igy jottem (My Way Home, 1964)
Igy jöttem: András Kozák on his way home
Jancsó's career in film began in the early 1950s when, as a committed Stalinist and recent graduate of the Budapest Film and Theatre Academy, he made newsreels. As the decade progressed, he moved on to documentary films, and he made his first feature, A harangok Rómában mentek (The Bells Have Gone to Rome) in 1958, although he now dismisses it as "dreadful." After this disappointing start in features, things improved with Oldas és kötés (Cantata, 1962) and Igy jöttem (My Way Home, 1964), which was based on the director's own experiences as a PoW. But it was his fourth feature, Szegénylegények, which showed at Cannes in 1966, that established his international reputation.

In his most famous works from the 1960s and 70s, such as Szegénylegények, Jancsó used events from Hungarian history and worked them into incisive portraits of the nature of power and its abuse. In terms of his cinematic language, he created (with first Tamás Somló and then János Kende as cinematographers) a distinctive visual style with stunning use of widescreen composition and zoom lenses, long takes with elaborately choreographed camera movements and a backdrop of the open skies and seemingly infinite space of the Hungarian puszta (plain).

Miklos Jancso's Egi barany (Agnus Dei, 1970)
József Madaras in top tyrannical
form in Égi bárány
Recurrent motifs include water, horses, nudity, uniforms, humiliation, ritualistic sadism met with passive compliance and, later, candles and fire. Narratively, these films are composed of sparse dialogue, unravel elliptically and made no attempt to identify with their protagonists (who are frequently unnamed). Character archetypes (or in Eisensteinian terminlogy, typage) are instead used to define the protagonists, something aided by Jancsó's recurring use of a small band of actors: including András Kozák (often playing the director's alter-ego), József Madaras (the tyrant), Lajos Balászovits (the well-meaning idealist), Tamás Cseh (the Shakespearean minstrel) and György Csehelmi (the artistocratic liberator).[1]

Despite strong elements of realism in his historical recreations, these films were largely interpreted in Aesopian terms as parables about repression in contemporary Hungary. Jancsó, though, remains to this day committed to Marxist ideals, even though his early allegience to the Party had evaporated long before he made films like Szegénylegények,[2] and in the post-Communist world the broader aspects of his investigations into power tend to be emphasised.

Miklos Jancso's Fenyes szelet (The Confrontation, 1968)
Jancsó bursting into colour
film with Fényes szelek
Csend és kiáltas (Silence and Cry, 1968) introduced the theme of two opposing personalities in conflict, a trope that would recur several times in his oeuvre. With Fényes szelek (The Confrontation, 1968), he introduced colour photography and gave dance and popular song a prominent role, an important feature of his work that continues to this day (in many films bolstered by the director's own background as a former student of ethnography). Égi bárány (Agnus Dei, 1970) showed strong evidence that the director was accentuating the symbolic dimensions to his films, something confirmed the following year with La tecnica ed il rito (Technique and Rite, 1971) and then Még kér a nép, the first of many films in which characters die and come to life again.

In the 1970s, Jancsó divided his time between Italy and Hungary. Although the Hungarian works received a largely favourable reception, his Italian films—which still examined the past and continued to analyse power but moved away from Hungarian settings—failed to gain widespread critical support. Vizi privati, pubbliche virtú (Private Vices, Public Virtues, 1975) even caused outrage for being "pornographic."

In the mid-1980s, he totally abandoned historical themes and the puszta and switched to contemporary urban locations—specifically Budapest. Thematically dense, stylised, symbol-laden, ironic and self-referential, these films also failed to win over international critics, who accused Jancsó of simply shuffling his favoured visual tropes (and actors) around in a self-indulgant manner while failing to add any substance. Nevertheless, these films did introduce new items into Jancsó's visual vocabulary: Volkswagens replaced horses, candles developed into pyrotechnics and television screens (showing past, present or future action) added a whole new dimension to his spatial and narrative architecture.

Miklos Jancso's Jezus Krisztus horoszkopja (Jesus Christ's Horoscope, 1988)
Candles and TVs: Old symbols mixing with new
The initial critical derision and apathy that met his non-Hungarian work of the 1970s and almost all his features of the 80s is now starting to melt, and the films made in this period are increasingly seen as compelling expansions of the philosophic themes and cinematic language that interested Jancsó in the 1960s and as valid masterpieces in their own right—something that is reflected in this special focus. His 1980s works especially have been reassessed, and films such as A zsarnok szíve, avagy Boccaccio Magyarországon (The Tyrant's Heart, 1981), Jézus Krisztus horoszkópja (Jesus Christ's Horoscope, 1988) and Kék Duna keringő (Blue Danube Waltz, 1991) are now seen by some critics (although not all) as among his finest and most involving works.

Interest in the director's career was particularly revitalised when, after a seven-year hiatus from making features, Jancsó found a new, young audience in Hungary with his Nekem lámpást adott kezembe as Úr Pesten (The Lord's Lantern in Budapest, 1998). The film moved away from the director's traditional depictions of power struggles and instead mocked the detachment of contemporary Hungary from its own history, culture and reality through clownish but rather dim grave-diggers, Pepe and Kapa. This may not be his most formally innovative film, but its sense of energy made it seem more like an irreverent debut rather than a late work by a 77-year-old director. The creative burst continued and Nekem lámpást... was to become the first of a series of films featuring Pepe and Kapa (currently there are four; a fifth is in preparation by the now octogenarian director).

Miklos Jancso's Nekem lámpást adott kezembe as Ur Pesten (The Lord's Lantern in Budapest, 1998)
Scriptwriter Gyula Hernádi and Jancsó
playing themselves in
Nekem lámpást adott kezembe as Úr Pesten
This new youth appeal has enabled Jancsó to become something of a Warhol-style icon, instantly recognisable with his white hair and pipe from his appearances in his recent films, in which he styles himself as "Miki bácsi" (Uncle Miki). Furthermore, his role in promoting young Hungarian film has given him added exposure: in Szabolcs Hajdu's debut Macerás ügyek (Sticky Matters, 2000) he plays himself as elder statesman of film-making while in the animated linking sequences to the omnibus film Jölt egy busz... (A Bus Came..., 2003) he adpots a cheeky chappy persona winking out at the viewer before we see him having a Parkinsonian fit, showing his self-deprecating side.

Perhaps as a result of this popular success, the serious literature in Hungarian on Jancsó has increased dramatically in recent years. Filmkultura, an online film journal, has devoted an issue to the director, while Metropolis a more weighty print periodical found its focus on Jancsó generated so much new and revealing analysis that it had to devote the following issue to the director as well. Outside Hungary, a retrospective in London is currently taking place, two more are being planned for 2004 in the UK (Edinburgh and Cambridge) to coincide with a "Hungarian cultural year" there and seasons of his films in New York and Canada are also in the early stages of planning.

Miklos Jancso's Meg ker a nep (Red Psalm, 1971)
Még kér a nép: Universal point of reference
This special two-part focus (part II of which will appear on 3 March 2003) attempts to raise awareness of the director overall and to partially correct previous imbalances. Thus, although this focus will examine certain works in isolation, there are no individual studies of his most famous works, such as Szegénylegények and Még kér a nép. However, their undeniable importance of these films is testified to by the fact that they are omnipresent as reference points throughout the two issues of this special focus, appearing both in articles that cover Jancsó's career thematically and in those that discuss specific later films.

Although this Kinoeye special focus will bring much new material, both in terms of volume and perspective, to English-language literature on Jancsó, it is inevitably incomplete. There is no article of Jancsó's early work in newsreels and documentaries. Key works from the 1960s, such as Igy jöttem (My Way Home, 1964) and Fényes szelek (The Confrontation, 1968) are not analysed here. It would generally be constructive if more writing existed on his Italian period. His work in theatre remains completely undiscussed. Thus, this special focus is just an introduction to the work of Hungary's greatest living director.

Andrew James Horton

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Also of interest
About the author

Andrew James HortonAndrew James Horton is Editor-in-Chief of Kinoeye and was the founding Culture Editor of Central Europe Review, on whose advisory board he now sits. He also writes on central European culture for other journals, is Associate Editor of Moveast and has edited the e-book The Celluloid Tinderbox.

Footnotes

1. This is a summary of a scheme outlined by Tibor Hirsch on the CD-ROM Jancsó (Budapest: Inforg, 2000).return to text

2. Jancsó has stated in an interview that his faith in the Stalinist Rákosi regime was shattered in 1949 with the show trial and execution of László Rajk, the former minister of the interior, for conspiring with the Church, the CIA and Titoist Yugoslavia (which had split from Stalinism) to otherthrow the Hungarian government. Jancsó ceased to be a member of the Communist Party in 1956.return to text

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