Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

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Miklos Jancso's Egi barany (Agnus Dei, 1970) HUNGARY
The aura
of history

The depiction of the year 1919 in the films of Miklós Jancsó

Jancsó's films are frequently set in obscure moments of the past, such as 1919, suggesting a degree in European history is needed to understand their context. Andrew James Horton argues that Jancsó is really not that interested in the past at all and merely uses it as a backdrop for timeless and mythic struggles.

Miklós Jancsó is commonly perceived, particularly when considering his films made in the 1960s and 1970s, to be a director who is interested in the power dynamics of revolutions and popular uprisings. This may be so, but it is interesting to note that Jancsó has been conspicuous in avoiding the most obvious choices of subject matter for his films. Although he worked on a Soviet-Hungarian co-production that was supposed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917, the resulting feature, Csillagosok, katonák (The Red and the White, 1967), was set two years later in the Russian Civil War. He worked with French co-producers but has never made a film about the French Revolution or its aftermath (unlike that fellow central European portrayer of historical oppression, Andrzej Wajda). And despite having an intense interest in Hungarian history, he never shot a direct representation of the 1956 uprising, possibly the deepest scar in the Magyar historical psyche.[1]

Instead, Jancsó has focused more on marginal and inauspicious moments of the past. The variety of periods he has chosen to represent is considerable and includes Greek mythology, Roman antiquity, the reign of Attila the Hun, mediaeval times, 19th-century peasant rebellions, the period between the two world wars and the dawn of the Israeli state, as well as the contemporary settings that have dominated his films since the mid-1980s.

András Kozák in the closing
moments of Csillagosok, katonák
The range is, perhaps naturally enough, skewed towards more recent history, but the most represented period from the past is the year 1919, which is the backdrop to three Jancsó films: Csillagosok, katonák shows Hungarian volunteers fighting on the side of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War, Csend és kiáltás (Silence and Cry, 1968) is set in the aftermath of Hungary's short-lived Communist government of 1919 and Égi bárány (Agnus Dei, 1970) depicts the dying days of the same regime.[2]

With the whole sweep of history and all its power struggles to choose from as subject matter, why did Jancsó return to this specific year three times? The question is particularly pointed given that Jancsó's use of historical period is often incidental and there is usually little effort to expand on background to the era being represented. This has given Jancsó a reputation of being a difficult film-maker, perhaps because in a historical film lack of "filling-in" on such details usually indicates that the director expects his audience to be totally familiar with the historical background. For Jancsó, as it will become clearer in the course of this article, this lack of filling-in merely indicates that the director thinks it is broadly speaking irrelevant and he would rather we turned our attention to more general themes within the action.

Although I understand why Jancsó might want us to forget the historical background, this point is obviously lost on many viewers, particularly non-Hungarians, who see these films and find them dense and historically impenetrable. I will, therefore, do exactly what Jancsó would like us not to do—pay particular attention to the historical background—in order that we can, in a relaxed and confident way, do what he would like us to do. In examining the context of 1919, I also hope to shed light on why the year interested Jancsó so much.

Troubled times

The history books tell us that the First World War ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. For Russia, the end had come rather sooner, in March 1918, with the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Even before that, the country had been in a situation of "no war, no peace," Trotsky's maxim to describe Russia's unilateral withdrawal from hostilities. However, tension and even conflict continued across central and eastern Europe into the early 1920s.

The Russian civil war raged from 1918 to 1921 and the Russo-Polish war from 1919 to 1921 with the Poles taking Kiev before being beaten back to Warsaw and then recapturing a great deal of their losses. Germany also kept an active army in its Baltic lands (contrary to the peace agreement) and continued to use it to fight off border incursions from the Russians (the reason that none of the Great Powers objected to this contravention of the armistice conditions). Poland meanwhile invaded Lithuania and took Vilnius, and the Polish-Lithuanian border wasn't settled until 1922.

Czechoslovakia took advantage of Poland's involvement on its eastern front to invade and take the town of Teschen, while Poland also lost territory when Silesia was partitioned following a series of uprisings. The newly formed Kingdom of Serb, Croats and Slovenes (soon to become Yugoslavia) also caused numerous border disputes with its new neighbours, including Bulgaria, Italy, Austria and Hungary. Hungary itself lost territory to Austria after a popular uprising which led to a plebiscite. Some Slovak parts of Czechoslovakia were occupied by Hungary from November 1918 until January 1919, and the country was reinvaded in the spring of 1919, when Béla Kun's short-lived Communist government tried to regain territories the Hungarians had lost. Romania, who had gained land from Hungary, was clearly worried by this attempt to reclaim pre-war borders, and invaded the country. They held Budapest until the Kun government collapsed and Hungary's expansionist aims vanished (at least from the immediate agenda) with the devastating Treaty of Trianon of 1920, which confirmed the country's territorial losses.

Aside from warring between armies, there were numerous border incursions across the region, political terrorism was rife and the whole continent was littered with soldiers trying to make their way home (in the context of the Second World War, this theme was illustrated in Jancsó's Így jöttem / My Way Home, 1964). A lack of food and a surplus of arms didn't help stabilise the situation.

The chaos was aggravated by the fact that most countries in the region suffered from an infrastructural dysfunctionality. Poland, for example, was made up of the off-cuttings of three different empires and had to merge different currencies and legal and taxation systems, problems that Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia also had to contend with. Transportation was also a problem, as many of the links reflected the borders of the old empires. Thus Poland and Romania had two different gauges of track in use throughout their rail networks (having inherited land from Russia), and Czechoslovakia did not have a train line that ran within its borders that went from Prague to Slovakia—most routes in the Czech part of the country headed to Vienna, just as train lines in Transylvania headed for Budapest not Bucharest and so on.

Trading patterns were also disrupted. Slovak loggers, for instance, could no longer send wood to Hungary because of high import duties—yet most Slovak rivers, the main form of transport for timber, flowed into the country. Hungary lost access to the sea (absurdly, the regent of this now land-locked country, Miklós Horthy, was an admiral). And this is not to mention the dislocation of ethnic groups—particularly the Hungarians—from their homeland as the borders of central and eastern Europe were redrawn.

After the horrors of war, the "peace" that prevailed must have seemed like cold comfort. Indeed, Trotsky's triumphant maxim of "no war, no peace" could also serve as an ironic description of central and eastern Europe from 1918 and into the early 1920s.

Arguably, peace never took root at all, and the unresolved problems of the First World War simmered until they boiled over in 1939. That, however, is another story.

Contrasting colours

The films Csillagosok, katonák, Csend és kiáltás and Égi bárány are thus all set in times of extreme chaos and social trauma. This is directly reflected in the films' plots, their narrative structure and stylistic elements, which has led many viewers to have problems with them. Particularly, Graham Petrie considers Égi bárány to be "probably the most obscure and enigmatic of Jancsó's films," and Csillagosok, katonák has gained widespread notoriety for the demands it places on the viewer in keeping track of the story.[3]

Plot-based descriptions of the films, short of a scene-by-scene description of the action, are of necessity somewhat vague and generalised. Characters in Jancsó films are often unnamed, and there is frequently no attempt to define one person as the central character through whom we see the story. As such, there is little or no overall narrative arc of personal experience or development.

Miklos Janco's Csillagosok katonak (The Red and the White, 1967)
Dramatic use of widescreen composition
Csillagosok, katonák is the most visually mathematical and perhaps the coldest of the three. It is also the most famous of them. The action takes place in Ukraine on the frontline of the Russian Civil War, where the Tsarist "Whites" and battling the Bolshevik "Reds," the latter assisted by international irregulars, including Hungarians. There is little for the casual viewer to distinguish the two sides (although the Whites generally have less shabby uniforms).

The first focus of attention is around an abandoned monastery which a Red insurgent (András Kozák) escapes to following a riverside skirmish. The Reds have just captured the building, and they strip White prisoners of their uniforms and then release them topless. The Whites then retake the building and the Tsarist officers play cruel games with the lives of the men they capture, but some are able to get away. Following these men, the focus then switches to a hospital by a river, which the Whites take over in their hunt for escapees. The Whites are again brutal to Reds they capture, but also amongst themselves (a White caught sexually assaulting a woman is shot on the spot) and to the nurses.

Miklos Janco's Csillagosok katonak (The Red and the White, 1967)
Ritual humiliation in Csillagosok, katonák
In fact, the nurses are subjected to one of the most bizarre forms of humiliation in any Jancsó film. They are rounded up from the hospital—presumably fearing, as the viewer does, that they will be shot or raped—and taken into a forest, where they are forced to put on elegant clothes and dance with each other to waltzes while the officers watch on. The nurses are then allowed to return to the hospital unharmed.

The hospital is then recaptured by Reds, who shoot Whites who will not switch side and a nurse who helped the Whites find enemies in the encampment. The Hungarian irregulars are rounded up into a platoon, which shortly after leaving is surrounded by Whites and marches to its death in one of the most visually striking sections of the film. The final image, equally memorable, is a (rare) close-up of András Kozák, who has arrived too late with his troops to save his comrades, holding a sword up in front of his face in memory of the dead.

Jancsó's approach in depicting war in Csillagosok, katonák can be outlined in the following scheme, which is a summary of one adopted by Matt Johnson:[4]

  • war as predetermined ritual in which characters accept their fate;
  • a lack of "rules of the game";
  • an inversion of war film conventions (important actions—particularly those leading to reversals of power—occurring off-screen, birdsong on the sound track);
  • deliberate confusion as to who is on whose side to the extent that one wonders if sides even matter;
  • characters have their own internal logic for their actions, but we are not privy to it (ie a lack of psychologising)
  • denial of the individual in a mass process (as there are no recognisable characters);
  • victory leading to senseless humiliation (due to an absence of larger military goals);
  • denial of the meaningfulness of victory.

Johnson considers Csillagosok, katonák to be an absurdist comedy (although he admits it is "humourless") and concludes, drawing on observations by Graham Petrie, that the film is a more powerful anti-war statement than most films in the genre (which mimic the stylistic and narrative conventions of heroic war films) precisely because of the factors that lead some people to find the film difficult—its dehumanised feel and confusing nature.

We are not the revolution

Csend és kiáltás is the clearest and easiest of the three films to follow in narrative terms. Perhaps because this film is one of Jancsó's more conventional films with respect to story, it has been marginalised in overviews of Jancsó's career and especially relative to Szegénylegények (The Round-up, 1965) and Csillagosok, katonák, despite the fact that the three films are sometimes considered as a forming a "trilogy" together. Nevertheless, the film is an absorbing one and it looks forward to works such as Égi bárány, Szerelmem, Elektra (Electreia, 1974) and Szörnyek évadja (Season of Monsters, 1986) in that it focuses on a dual of individual personalities.

In visual style, the film looks forward, too. This was the first film with Janós Kende as cinematographer (he was an assistant on Csillagosok, katonák), and a distinct aesthetic of choreographed camera movements appears in its nascent form. Despite this, the film falls between two stools in terms of its cinematography, having neither the hard geometric austerity of Szegénylegények or Csillagosok, katonák or the lush, balletic bravado of later Jancsó films, such as Égi bárány and Szerelmem, Elektra (which were shot in colour). Doubtlessly, this has not helped the film's reputation either.

The film starts after the victory of Horthy over Kun's Red forces, represented by a montage of photos depicting the triumphant Horthy and his men. The White Terror is obviously in progress as shown in the film's establishing scenes, in which a Red, after an amiable conversation with his guard, is shot in the back when he is sent on a spurious mission up a (visually striking) sand dune to collect a branch.

The two main protagonists are István, a Red who is hiding in a farm (played by András Kozák), and a local commander (Zoltán Latinovits). The commander knows about István's past, but seems to ignore it, and actively protects him when the haywain he is hiding in is stopped to be searched. The reasons for this are unclear: it may be that the two knew each other in earlier days, which is hinted at, or it may be that the commander simply wants to keep István alive in case he needs to solve a crime by framing him. The power relationship between István and the commander is highlighted by his nominal host Károly (nominal, as it seems it is Károly's wife and sister, who have a sideline in "entertaining" the desires of men, are the real people sanctioning István's stay). Károly (played by József Madaras, in an unusually timid role) is humiliated by the commander, made to stand in his Sunday best in his own courtyard for no useful purpose, and framed for murder. He is also humiliated by the affection between his wife and sister with István.

The closing shot to Csend és kiáltás
The ultimate standoff occurs between István and the commander. István discovers that Károly's wife and sister are poisoning Károly and his mother and goes to report it. However, to report a crime he must register his identity, thus revealing his status as outlaw. The commander takes him out to the sand dune seen at the start of the film to shoot him, but changes his mind and decides it would be best if the guilty man shot himself. István, perhaps on a whim, decides to use the one bullet given to him on the commander (whose body we hear fall off-screen after the shot). The film ends with István's static image, dwarfed by the sand dune behind him. He has retreated a few hesitant steps since he fired that shot, making it like some anti-thesis of Joseph Beuy's dynamic 1972 lithograph We are the Revolution, in which the artist strides dynamically and purposefully towards us.

Although Csend és kiáltás can be broadly aligned with Csillagosok, katonák in its condemnation of brutality and its incisive analysis of the nature of power politics, Johnson's scheme of analysis is only partially applicable here, and this reflects the development of Jancsó's ideas:

  • consolidation of peace (rather than war itself) is presented as a ritual;
  • there are "rules of the game," but they are absurdist and unfair;
  • sides are now clearly defined;
  • there is recognition of the individual (ie named characters), which is depicted as a victim in a mass process;
  • genre conventions (although, perhaps, the genre here is that of the western) are observed in the highlighting of the "hero" in the final scene. They are, however, used ironically to capture ambivalent values rather than positive ones.

The only factors that remain constant are, perhaps, the lack of psychologising in the characters and the denial of the meaningfulness of victory, expressed in the hesitant István frozen as if forever in the final frame, sentenced to an absurdist hell in which he is trapped in the consequences of his own rebellion. Clearly, István has "won" over the commander, but it is a Pyrrhic victory, given he only had a single bullet and the other soldiers there will undoubtedly overpower him.

Begging for mercy

After Csend és kiáltás, Jancsó made first Fényes szelek (The Confrontation, 1968) set in 1947 and his first film in colour (and one that can almost be considered a musical). Then came Sirokkó (Winter Wind, 1969), a Hungarian-French co-production about the rituals and internal intrigues of a terrorist group. His next film was Égi bárány, which returns to the year 1919 again. The title refers to the part of the Catholic mass that is introduced by the words Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis (Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us).[5] More than the "Lamb of God" part, the film focusses on the "have mercy on us"—this plaintive supplication to an omnipotent force to whom we should passively bow down and who may or may not save us. The film is a chilling world of men who play god, and in this sense Johnson's analysis of Csillagosok, katonák serves equally well here, too.

Miklos Jancso's Egi barany (Agnus Dei, 1970)
József Madaras (centre) as Father Varga
Égi bárány, like Csend és kiáltás, focusses on a small group of characters, particularly two men: a White officer, played by the Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski, and Father Varga, a popular and hysterical priest, played with enormous gusto by József Madaras. As in Csillagosok, katonák, the Reds and the Whites take turns to oppress, torture or execute each other, although the Whites clearly are gaining the upper hand overall and halfway through the film it is announced that Horthy has taken power. But the battle of wills is not particularly between the two ideologies, as it was in Csillagosok, katonák, but between the two men. Since Varga and Olbrychski's violin-playing White officer are ostensibly on the same side, the power struggle of individuals becomes the dominant theme (although the battle between Reds and Whites is more apparent in the early portions of the film).

Stylistically, it looks forward to Még kér a nép (Red Psalm, 1971) in that the film's motifs, such as naked women, horses, uniformed soldiers, candles, smoke and music and song, are now so stylised that their use is by no stretch of the imagination realist and they reach the point of overt symbolism. This is accentuated by the cinematography, which is highly stylised with highly ornate camera movements dancing around the actors, who themselves are constantly moving in arcs and circles. The images are light and sunny, adding an incongruity to the film's realism (and constituting yet another subversion of genre conventions).

The mood of the film is particularly captured by the film's enigmatic finale. Olbrychski starts to make love to a naked woman, who lies down submissively for him. Suddenly, a train arrives and he stands up leaving his violin on the woman's body. After climbing on and off the train, the character casually shoots Father Varga and then jumps back on to the moving train.

It's an enigmatic and disquieting killing. In some ways, it recalls the ending of Csend és kiáltás in that the opposition between the individuals can only be resolved, in a rather meaningless way, through death. In other aspects, it recalls Csillagosok, katonák in that the final mood is one of reflective calm after the hideous atrocities.

Examining these recurring motifs, rather than trying to "recount" the plot in a linear way, is the best method to describe the film. For this, the scheme to emphasise the mythic form of the film devised by Péter Józsa is worth examining at length.[6] The following is a paraphrasing of his summary of the film's motifs:

  1. The Reds under the power of the counter-revolution
    A motif seen twice, the second time in a more emphatic form.
  2. The ideological stylisation of the counter-revolution
    Evident in the sermons of Father Varga, which are so emotional they give him an epileptic fit
  3. Conflicts within the Church
    This is particularly apparent between Father Márk, who is sympathetic to the Reds, and Father Varga, who later murders him. Father Varga also argues with two other clergymen.
  4. Punitive action by the Whites
    Includes the shooting of active soldiers, prisoners, girls associated with the Reds, Father Márk, two commissars and, while other victims are being burned to death in mass graves, the members of an enemy camp.
  5. The horse (and cart) as a symbol of power
    This is seen first with a group of Reds, but after the victory of the counter-revolution images of Whites on horseback dominate until the symbolic figure of Satan (ie Daniel Olbrychski's violin-playing character) takes power.
  6. Naked girls and death
    In the second shot, a naked girl, who has been bathing, leads her horse out of the water. A young girl is undressed and a gory description of torture read to her (by an attractive older girl), although nothing more seems to happen to her. A Red girl is stripped by the Whites and shot. Satan, playing the violin, leads a group of compliant naked youngsters into a pit, where burning fires are pushed over them.
  7. Symbolically naked women and Satan
    A songful feast starts with the arrival of a half-naked girl of loose morals. This girl lies on the ground, and Satan kneels beside her and plays the violin (see top illustration). Near the end of the film, a naked girl lies in the corn and Satan, after starting to make love to her, puts the violin on her body. As Ivana Brachtlová notes, the violin being placed on the body is a symbol of Satan's sexual union with the girls.
  8. The sword as symbol of power
    A sword is passed around during the whole film, signalling power changes. Through most of the film it switches between a priest and a White officer, but at the end the sword is handed to Satan.
  9. Sacrilege
    Firstly, under the Reds, when Father Márk pulls down the a string of flowers from the cross to emphasise that Christ is no longer a god of love but a god of revenge. Secondly, under the Whites, the violinist bayonets a church banner, revealing himself as Satan.
  10. Satan's kiss, the violin, death
    The violinist kisses a girl who has been shot dead. He later plays the violin as he leads naked youths into a mass grave. At the end of the film, he kisses and shoots Father Varga.

Miklos Jancso's Egi barany (Agnus Dei, 1970)
Day of Judgement: Father Varga blesses a White
by touching a sword on his head
As can be seen from this scheme above, the film has an apocalyptic feel to it. There is a very literal sense of judging occurring on screen, with court martials and kangeroo courts taking place. But there also is a more general feel that this is a scene from the Last Judgement.[7] Except that what Hieronymous Bosch did with monstrous mutant demons, Jancsó achieves (in an equally hallucinogenic manner) just by looking at man himself when exposed to the total dislocation of the social fabric and the utter destruction of the collective id. (The time of Bosch is invoked when the description of torture is read out to the naked girl.)

Here 1919 becomes the horrific and pure embodiment of the "no war, no peace" status of much of Europe at that time, as outlined above. The year, announced by a single sombre over-title that expands out to fill the screen at the beginning of the film, is a stylised and archetypal character in its own right.

Miklos Jancso's Egi barany (Agnus Dei, 1970) Miklos Jancso's Egi barany (Agnus Dei, 1970)
The past as an archetype

The three films have elements in common and elements that distinguish them from each other. Looking at the three together, it is clear that, although there are differences in the themes and aims of the film, there are some common points in Jancsó's approach to evoking the period:

  • The struggles of the characters are mythic ones, presented in an anti-heroic (tragic) manner.
  • Interestingly in this respect, Jancsó has stated that he admires the westerns of John Ford,[8] in 1961 he made a short film called Indián történet (Indian Story)that depicts a massacre of Redskins and Sight and Sound in 1969, after drawing attention to Indián történet, notes that "it isn't only the prison corrals, lonely homesteads, laconic dialogues and cavalry cloaks of Jancsó's films that suggest an affinity with the [w]estern."[9] Indeed, many scenes from Jancsó films, such as the close of Csend és kiáltás and the many scenes in Csillagosok, katonák and Égi bárány that employ horses, adopt the visual appearance of westerns. Jancsó has clearly eschewed the triumph-over-adversity side to early westerns and, like Sergio Leone would also do in the 1960s, has turned them into tragedies and, in Jancsó's case, moral tales about the power. Jancsó in 1974 would turn more directly to myth by adapting the stage play Szerelmem, Elektra (Electreia), itself based on Greek mythology.

Miklos Jancso's Egi barany (Agnus Dei, 1970)
Égi bárány: East or west?
  • The historical period is subordinate to the realisation of these struggles as myths
  • Historical detail is used to advance the dramatic intensity ("realism") of scenes, but does not have an impact on the plot.
  • The exception is, perhaps, the announcement in Égi bárány that Horthy has taken control of the country, but although this has an effect on the action the historical event is itself marginalised and could still be considered to have mythic dimensions, as do the—unexplained—photos of Horthy's victory marches at the beginning of Csend és kiáltás.

    Aside from these two cases, historical detail manifests itself through accuracy in depicting the uniforms and songs of the period—but not, in these three films, through specific historical events. In the 1970s, it would become clear that this sort of "realism" was a means not an end for Jancsó, as the director started to incorporate anachronistic elements (such as the helicopter in Szerelmem, Elektra), narrative devices that deliberately undercut realism (including characters being resurrected) and historically real people presented as thinly disguised alter-egos (as in Magyar rapszósdia / Hungarian rapszódia, 1978).

  • The year 1919 itself is used as an archetype.
  • Again, comparison with the genre of the western is instructive here. If we, say, watch a western that starts with a title indicating what year the action happens in it is highly unlikely that the director will be wanting us to consider the politico-historical background to the year. It is obviously merely being presented to conjure up certain broad associations that are connected with the period. Such associations are more likely to be archetypes than direct historical references. Jancsó uses 1919 similarly. This occurs most dramatically in Égi bárány.

    Jancsó is, thus, uninterested by the "mere recital of events" but instead seeks to explore their "aura."[10] His use of 1919 obviously to some extent comes from it being a year that had a major impact on the period he grew up in. It also likely that his "metaphysics of chaos" (to quote Gábor Gelencsér) is best expressed when dealing with an era that embodies that very attribute. The year 1919, with all its dislocation, is a perfect power vacuum for opposing forces to clash in their most elemental form—the ideal backdrop for the his mythic tales of tragedy and apocalypse to take place, just as the Wild West in the 19th century was the ideal backdrop for the mythology of westerns.

    Jancsó has repeatedly referred to 1919 as a "a very special period" in history in that he finds it a rare and pure example of the clash between two fundamental forces: the oppressors and the oppressed.[11] In reality, Jancsó's films are more complicated, as oppressors and oppressed often exchange places, but statements such as these would seem to back up this reading of 1919 as mythic setting.

Presenting auras to a foreign audience

Westerners have often responded to Jancsó's films by assuming they do not have the historical background to approach them properly. This has led to one English-language version of Csillagosok, katonák carrying an introduction explaining the historical background to the Russian Civil War, something that did not exist in the Hungarian original. But really, in Jancsó's scheme of things, this unnecessarily complicates the issue. The title "1919" at the start of Égi bárány screams at us to be taken as a mythic backdrop for a power struggle of apocalyptic proportions. The year is a ground zero from which power bases must be rebuilt (or are being rebuilt, as in the case of Csend és kiáltás) from scratch.

Perhaps, Csillagosok, katonák's distributors in the West would have found that audiences would have engaged more with the film if in Britain, for example, the introductory spiel was simply replaced with the large, bold inter-title "England, 1642" (despite the obvious contradiction between it and the action)? Or if US audiences had been presented with "Virginia, 1862" as an explanation for the background to the action. Or maybe it would have been more effective at conveying the director's attitude to history if foreign audiences had seen the title "Mycenae, several thousand years BC." Had this been done, would critics have been less inclined to see the films as "mechanical" and plotless" and instead been more attune to the epic and archetypal nature of the works?

Whoever came up with the English-language title for the film certainly seemed to be working along the lines of bracing the audience for a mythic battle between opposing social forces by spurning the film's literal title ("Star-spangled caps", taken, like several Jancsó film titles, from a song) and instead adopting "The Red and the White." Yet despite this rather imaginative (but probably politically motivated) re-titling, the general reception of Jancsó is that his films are "about history" in a way that westerns or Greek myths are not.

This could be one reason why Jancsó felt comfortable changing from historical features to contemporary dramas after nearly 30 years of working in the genre. Maybe, he felt that working in the present was the best way to rid the audience of the notion that historical baggage came with his films. Perhaps, another contributory factor was the inability of contemporary audiences to detect the "aura" and impact of history, an inability that in his most recent films he has scathingly mocked.

Whatever the reason, it is clear that Jancsó did more than make films "about history." And this should certainly influence how we approach his works.

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.


1. That 1956 was a taboo subject for film-makers during the period of Communism might at first glance seem to be a plausible explanation on the last point. Yet the topic was broached before 1989 in films by Márta Mészáros (Jancsó's wife from 1960 to 1973), Károly Makk, Pál Sándor, Péter Gothár and others, and Jancsó clearly had the clout to be able to make—and get distributed—films that rubbed the Hungarian authorities up the wrong way. Critics have famously read Jancsó's films as allegories of 1956, particularly Szegénylegények (The Round-up, 1965), but nevertheless the director's avoidance of this most obviously revolutionary event is notable.return to text

2. The period was also briefly represented in Magyar rapszódia (Hungarian Rhapsody, 1978) as part of Jancsó's stylised and fictionalised biopic of the Hungarian politician and Second World War martyr Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinsky, but this film will not be considered in detail here.return to text

3. Graham Petrie, "Introducing Miklós Jancsó," Hungary in Focus at the Riverside Studies: The Cinema of Miklós Jancsó (London: The Hungarian Cultural Centre, 2003), pp 4-9. .return to text

4. Matt Johnson, "Pardoxical Phase," The University of Texas, Austin website, accessed 28 Jan 2003.return to text

5. Perhaps it was the evocative nature and religious overtones of this film's title that inspired the use of "Red Psalm" as the English-language name of Még kér a nép (which literally translates as "The people still demand more").return to text

6. Péter Józsa, "Gondolatok as Égi bárányól," Valósag, September 1971, quoted in Ingrid Brachtlová Miklós Jancsó (Prague: Československý filmový ustav, 1990), p 110-111.return to text

7. This might seem a strange reference point for an extreme leftist and atheist, but it should be remembered that Jancsó went to a Cistercian school and has maintained a life-long interest in Jewish culture. Biblical imagery would, thus, not just be very familiar to him but also a frame of reference that is close to his way of thinking, aside from the anti-clerical under-tone that adopting religious material allows him.return to text

8. Andrew James Horton, "This silly profession," Kinoeye, vol 3, no 3, 17 February 2003.return to text

9. Penelope Houston, "The Horizontal Man," Sight and Sound, summer 1969, reproduced on the Jancsó CD-ROM (Budapest: Inforg, 2000).return to text

10. Bryan Burns, World Cinema: Hungary (Trowbridge, UK: Flicks Books, 1996) p 55.return to text

11. Horton, op cit.return to text

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