Hungary and Poland, to a large degree, have parallel and interlocking histories. Krzysztof Rucinski looks at how the two film masters of these nations have presented the past and themes of oppression in their early masterpieces.
A parallel history of two nations
"Pole, Hungarian: dear kin / Both, to saber and to drink!" claims an old bilingual proverb that encapsulates in a mere ten words whole centuries of mutual feelings and shared historical experience that have tied these two central European nations in an unoficial but everlasting union. Indeed, one is bound to look in vain for other examples of two nations/states that have covered their respective historical trajectories on the geo-political map of the modern world in as similar way and at as similar pace as have done Hungary and Poland.
The parallel history of Hungary and Poland, with all its basic similarities and few striking differences, is an important canvas for the artstic expression of the two countries' most important directors, Miklós Jancsó and Andrzej Wajda, and this can be seen in two pairs of their respective masterpieces: Jancsó's Szegénylegények (The Round-up, 1965) and Csillagosok, katonák (The Red and the White, 1967) and Wajda's Kana³ (1956) and Popió³ i diament (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958). Before looking at the films, however, let us examine the history itself.
Hungary and Poland emerged as relatively strong and centralized kingdoms in the10th century and gained international recognition by adopting Christianity. During the late Middle Ages, as the buffer of the Holy Roman Empire against the pagan East and South, both expanded their territories, but also at times suffered Mongol raids and the threat of Turkish invasion.
The Renaissance saw Hungary and Poland merged in a powerful political union under the great Jagiellonian dynasty who, for almost two centuries, successfully ruled the largest kingdom in Europe, stretching from the Baltic in the north to the Black Sea in the south and comprised of Slav, Hungarian, Romanian, Moldavian, Germanic and Muslim nations living in political stability, economic affluence and religious tolerance. When the dynasty died out, the kingdom, developed a system of elective monarchy. Historical irony demanded that the last great Polish king was a Hungarian prince Stefan (István) Batory.
The 17th century, however, brought only chaos and destruction to this part of Europe. Weakened by a misguided war against Russia, repeated peasant uprisings in Ukraine, Turkish encroachment into the West and the Swedish "deluge" of 1655 to 56, Poland became marginalised. Hungary fared even worse, and was first swallowed by the Ottoman Turks and then "salvaged" by Austria and ruled by powerful Habsburg dynasty. By the end of the 18th century, both countries had disappeared from the political map of Europe: Hungary as a small province within the boundaries of the multi-ethnic Austrian kingdom, and Poland partitioned in three consecutive thrusts among Russia, Prussia and Austria.
During the dark age of the 1800s, both nations trod similar paths of disillusion and despair. Napoleonic wars brought much hope and even more destruction, but no solution at all. Several national uprisings were exstinguished with bloody and cruel prosecutions that terrorized their inhabitants. Both countries went through the bitter experience of being given mock independence as a result of political pressures beyond their control. The 1848 revolts of the "Spring of Peoples" gave more futile hope but ended in tragedy. They also created the legend of the last common Polish-Hungarian hero: General Józef Bem, a Polish patriot who fled the Warsaw Uprising of 1831 when it was quashed by Tsarist Russia and became an important leaders in Lajos Kossuth's insurrection in 1848 Budapest.
The previous hundred years have been another demonstration of historical parallelism in its extreme. At the end of the First World War, the Treaty of Versaille brought Poland and Hungary back into the family of independent nations. They were both involved in military conflict to settle their borders, both saw ethnically based nationalism grow in the 1920s and the Second World War left them both destroyed and weak again. Stalin included both in the Soviet Bloc in 1948, and the year 1956 saw more bloody revolts, in Poznañ for Poland and in Budapest for Hungary. However, a relatively stable period of modest economic prosperity followed. Both were freed from Communism in 1989 and will accede to the EU in the same year.
Let us not forget about some important differences, though. First was an attempt to make Hungary a soviet republic in 1919, under the leadership of Béla Kun. Hungary was the first country to follow Russia into Communism without her direct assistance, and although the republic survived less than a year, it gave birth to a powerful martyrology of mythical dimensions. This was especially potent given that thousands of young Hungarian communists were fighting alongside the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War of 1918 to1921.
Poland, on the other hand, found herself on the other side of the battlefield. After some 150 years of Russian control and direct occupation, the anti-Soviet feelings ran deep in all echelons of Polish society and, tempted by the difficult situation of the young USSR in 1921, Poland engaged in an aggressive revindicatory war that ended in a truce blessed by both sides after a brief sequence of unnecessary atrocities.
The second important difference is that the Second World War was for the two countries an altogether different experience. Germany's treacherous overnight invasion of Poland (on 1 September 1939) started, and set the tone for, the whole intercontinental conflict to come. The 1943 rebellion in the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw ended in the near total annihilation of the Polish Jewish population (already doomed under Nazis' Final Solution policy), the while the Warsaw Uprising of 1945 led to mass deportations to death camps and the complete destruction of Warsaw by German punitive squadrons. In the meantime, the regent of Hungary, Miklós Horthy, reluctantly collaborated with the Nazis until they lost patience with Hungary's semi-independence and invaded in 1944. Hungary, therefore, emerged as a country occupied by the Soviets but barely scarred and ready for smooth adaptation to the new geo-political order.
In effect, the five years of World War II were for the Poles the source of tragic national experience punctuated by romantic evocations of failed military uprisings, and as such they constitute a recurring theme in modern literature, fine arts and cinema. Hungarians, on the other hand, have not developed any particular mythology concerning this period, and deal with it with an understandable mixture of discomfort and opacity.
The centrifugal axis of historical reference
One of the basic problems that confronts the audience of historical films of relatively unknown and small countries is the issue of comprehensibility and the level of the viewer's understanding of their socio-political context. The very idea of being a known or important as a nation is at best a relative concept and at the worst a racist one based on subjectivity and geo-centrism. These questions, however, venture beyond the scope of the present work. Suffice to say that neither Hungary nor Poland belong to the most "important" or decision-making states and that many historical events that Jancsó and Wajda's films deal with are no more than some vague incidents on the fringe of serious political turmoils sweeping across the European continent.
What the four masterpieces under consideration have in common is their specifically conceived subject matter that chooses an isolated aspect of an already local incident within some larger international conflict as the background, the starting point of their particular narrative. It's interesting to observe that through this conscious isolating of the minor, unimportant, anecdotal and parochial, by removing the narrative from the well-known historical point of reference not by one but two levels (from international to local, and then from local to incidental), all four films achieve an interesting synthesis of extreme realism and symbolic abstraction. How does this system of thematical distancing work in the cases of particular films? Let's start with historical contextualization of the four films in question.
Andrzej Wajda started his filmmaking career as a director "obsessed" with the mission of retelling—and rethinking—his nation's war experience. Five out of his first six films, which were made between 1955 and 1962, are set during the Second World War, and collectively make up an extensive coverage of the all its major periods, from the September Campaign of 1939 to VE-Day on 8 May 1945.
Not made or envisioned as an unified historical chronicle, Wajda's first three films, Pokolenie (Generation, 1955), Kana³ and Popió³ i diament take a personal and investigative look at the recent past. Lotna (1959) and Samson (1961) which followed (interupted by Niewinni czarodieje / Innocent Sorcorers, 1960) were less successful. However, these films were immediately heralded as milestones of the Polish National School and established a high standard for the decades to come while securing Wajda's position as the most important Polish filmmaker of the youngest generation (he was 28 at the time of making his feature debut).
The main historical refrence in the background of Kana³ (1956) is, therefore, World War II. It's the late summer in 1944, the Soviet army have pushed the Germans back into Polish teritory, liberated the eastern part of Poland up to the right bank of Vistula (Wis³a) river and have already established a provisory Communist government in the city of Lublin. On the western front, the allied offensive progresses eastwards in bloody battles, liberating France and Northern Italy. The Americans are getting the upper hand in their fight with Japan over the Pacific.
However, there is no mention of any of these crucial developments, as the film focuses entirely on the local Polish issue, the Warsaw Uprising of grim consequences that—although mythologized in Polish lore and kept as taboo topic until the death of Stalin in 1953—didn't change the course of events and was, in fact, a gravely miscalculated and unnecessary sacrifice. The first stage of displacement, from international to local is thus a smooth one, a simple narrowing or zoom-in on one of many individual conflicts of the war, self-explanatory for Polish audiences and easy to localize by any interested foreigner. The second stage, the move to a fringe of the event, is more interesting, as it chooses such a narrative angle that both Western and Polish viewers were taken by surprise.
Instead of recounting the 63 days of the heroic fight in a predictable epic fashion (which would produce an empathetic as well as educational effect in the audience), Wajda obscures his story by deciding to show only the end of the Uprising, its 56th day, and follows a group of Polish fighters who, surrounded by the closing ring of German tanks and troops, decide to descend into the city's sewers in a feeble hope that they can walk under the enemy and reach some larger division still fighting in another part of Warsaw. More than half of the film concentrates on this infernal voyage through the sewer (kana³ in Polish means sewer and canal and can also be used to indicate a hopless situation or some serious trouble). The group disintegrates in the nightmarish subterranean locations. There's no escape, no redemption and no gratfication for the viewer expecting a national epic of heroic dimensions.
Kana³'s lateral narrative displacement was so complete that—as the first film ever to touch upon a subject only recently removed from the blacklist of Stalinist censorship—the film was seriously criticized if not rejected altogether as an unjust and extremely ugly vision of the event. It was not until Kana³ was awarded the Silver Palm at Cannes festival in 1957 that Polish critics started to rethink their positions on it, and, influenced by their Western peers, noticed its universal and existential values.
Popió³ i diament (1958), Andrzej Wajda's next film, and only the third in his prolific career, is once more set against the background of the crucial events of World War II. The war in Europe is just being won; it's the beginning of May 1945; the Soviet sweeping offensive has conquered Berlin; Adolf Hitler has already committed suicide. Again, using all this as a mere historical refrence, the film doesn't tell the story of the triumphal end of the war. On the contrary, distanciating itself from the most exciting element—the capitulation of Berlin—it places its narrative action some six hundred kilometers behind the frontline, in a small quiet town in eastern Poland that was liberated almost a year earlier and which is already living a new life, healing their physical and psychological wounds, making political choices, facing a new reality and questioning their own role in the future of the reastablished state.
As in the case of Kana³ this relatively clear isolation of the local site from the broad historical background is made more complex by a particularly oblique choice of narrative incident, triggered, this time, by a clearly defined individual protagonist. Wajda is once more interested in exploring the complexity of national rebirth rather than composing a song of praise for the new order to come. Maciek, a young militant in the officially disbanded underground Home Army, which is faithful to the old Polish government exiled in London, considers giving up the arms and adapting to civilian life. He's evidently one of the survivors of Warsaw Uprising, who himself went through the sewers of the burning city. He then joined a partisan group in the forest, and as a Polish patriot opposes the new government installed by the Soviets less than a year earlier.
His last mission is to assassinate Szczuka, an old Communist committed to the task of inforcing new laws and organizing local government structures in town. We follow Maciek and his friend over the course of one day and night. The film opens with their failed attempt for Szczuka's life, in which two innocent workers are murdered by mistake, and thus the mood is set for the story to follow. The fighters hesitate then agree to correct their mistake with another attempt at killing Szczuka.
At night, Maciek meets a girl at his hotel, makes love to her and possibly falls in love with her as he senses the attraction of possible new life. He even make the acquaintance with Szczuka, who is staying in the room next door. But finally, he executes the man, against a background of fireworks that announce and celebrate the end of the war. The intensity of this new killing—with the dying victim falling into Maciek's own arms—alienates him from his new-found love of life and forces him to run away to join the anti-communist fight. However, he's spotted by the soldiers and shot, only to find his own grotesque and unnecessary death in wasteland of garbage. By dialectically opposing and then unifying the two men in life and death, the old one promoting the new and the young one holding on to the old values, Wajda sketched a complex essay on the issues of national identity and ideological conflict while using the historical reference of victory as the closing point of the film and a narratively vital visual metaphor.
If Wajda's films, set mainly within the political framework of the World War II, make basic contextualisation a relatively easy task even for not particularly learned audience, the historical narratives of Miklós Jancsó's choose much more vague points of reference, if only because—moved further back into the past—they require from the viewer at least an aquaintance with less spectacular geo-political conflicts that took place on the outskirts of the European continent. This is why Jancsó (or at least his production or distribution companies) felt obliged to introduce both films discussed here with a brief note outlining their historical background. Nevertheless, the distanciating structure sketched for the Polish films still applies.
In case of Szegénylegények (1965), the global (or, more precisely, continental) event which triggers the narrative is the Springtime of Peoples of 1848, a mass international revolutionary movement of more nationalist than class-conscious nature that shook the whole Europe from Russia to France and gave several small nations the hope for or in some cases a tangible (if short-lived) freedom from the oppressive forces of the few powerful empires. One should remember, however, that the Spring of 1848 saw also numerous peasant revolts as well as violent protests of the international proletariat, a rapidly emerging social class of exploited urban labourers, and this was this year that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published their seminal Communist Manifesto. There is not one Hungarian film of Miklós Jancsó that retreats chronologically beyond this date,[*] and many themes undertaken in his future works focus on the peasant and revolutionary movements whose ideological background may be traced back directly to the turmoil of 1848 and its socio-political repercussions.
Understanding this, the local referent seem obvious. Riding the revolutionary wave, the Hungarians fought against the Habsburg Austria and in no time achieved some serious concessions. Under the leadership of Lajos Kossuth, a well-educated cosmopolitan liberal, they reformed Hungary into an independent and progressive state and planed to introduce radical reforms, with the thorny issue of land among them. The speed of the changes caused the defeat of the revolution, since powerful landowners determined to keep the feudal status quo turned against the republic. Encouraged by the backlash, Austria reclaimed Hungary as her property and started a new war, this time supported by Russia, another reactionary power of gigantic proportions.
Hungary was reconquered in less than one year; Kossuth forced to emigrate to England;and what followed were almost two decades of reprisals, persecutions and pacifications. The remnants of the Hungarian army, divided into small groups and dispersed mostly among the peasant populations, continued sporadic hit-and-run attacks against the Austrian troops, but often degenerated into highway robbers. In 1867, the Habsburg empire restructured into a symbolic political union with Hungary with Emperor Franz Joseph I as absolutist ruler of both.
All these historical events could possibly make a fascinating and patriotic epic (and, sure enough, many have been produced since the end of World War II), but Jancsó rejects all these opportunities altogether by moving his narrative incident to the fringe that is as morbid and discomforting for the Hungarian viewer as the young heroes' descent into the sewers must have been for Polish audiences. Jancsó ignores the heroic and triumphant moments of the temporary liberation, and chooses the grim aftermath of the republic's prolonged agony. He pushes the temporary setting of Szegénylegények well into the 1860s, and localizes it entirely within the confines of a detention camp where the Hungarian military, in colaboration with the Austrian authorities, sieve through the hundreds of detainees in order to find a small group of rebels whose identities remain unknown. The film traces a slow but methodical fulfillment of the Machiavellian intrigue set to work by the opressors through which the prisoners turn to blackmail, betrayal, hatred and murder within their own group before inadvertently revealing their faces and sealing their fate.
Szegénylegények, the director's fourth feature, was the starting point for Jancsó's international career.The film was successful domestically and internationally, but was perceived in rather different terms in these two contexts. Hungarian viewers largely saw the film firstly in its specific historical context and secondly as an allegory of the quashing of the 1956 Uprising. Western critics, distanced from the historical context to the level of abstraction, saw over the specific historical perspective of the local audience, and have tended to see the film more as a philosophical treatise on the universal human condition and the mechanisms of power and opression than as the narrative of one tangible moment from the history of the Hungarian nation.
Csillagosok, katonák (1967), Jancsó's next film is the one that fits into the narrative displacement rule (global-local-incidental axis) less rigorously than the other three, the main difference being that its action develops in the steppes of southeastern Ukraine rather than Hungary, and thus the local stage of the equation becomes more abstract and figurative than usual. Still, the film is a Soviet-Hungarian coproduction and, since its collective hero is an international revolutionary brigade, the general pattern seems to be kept intact.
Again, the international events serving as the film's historical reference are the final stages of the Russian Civil War of 1918 to 21 during which the reactionary Russian forces ("the Whites" from the colour of the army uniforms and banners) in coallition with the British and French divisions were trying to put down the Russian Revolution of 1917, which took several years to consolidate its power base across the whole of the country. The Red (Communist) forces had the—more than welcome—help of the international revolutionaries, mostly German, Austrian and Hungarian troops, who hoped for the support of victorious Soviet Republic in creation and securing the international recognition of their own Marxist states.
The local reference in this film, therefore, is the Hungary of 1919, another utopian egalitarian republic which, as was mentioned earlier, had its moment of hope and glory under the leadership of Béla Kun. The opacity of this element is two-fold: First, the action of the film takes place abroad, in a virtual no man's land, somewhere between Russia, Moldavia, Romania, Hungary and Ukraine; secondly, the date is specified as 1919, so—taking into account the short life of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, overthrown with international blessing by the ascending right-wing admiral Miklós Horthy within one year—one cannot be sure what is the Hungarian soldiers' relation to their own revolution: are they about to fight it, have just won it or is it already lost forever, thus explaining their suicidal determination?
The third, incidental, level of Csillagosok, katonák will be then the never-ending exchange of senseless atrocities, sudden takeovers and ritual executions right there in the nameless steppes of eastern Europe. It's a story without heroism, told in such a formal discipline and detached beauty that the film was immediately recognized as a masterpiece for its ingenious extrapolation of the abstract from the realistic, of the universal from the particular.
As the four films presented above are the topic of more detailed formal and thematic analysis which follows, and the understanding of their specific historical backrounds and referents will be taken for granted, the above scheme is presented below as a simplified chart for convinient reference. The films are put in the chronological sequence of their narrative time frames, which makes Jancsó's titles precede those of Wajda.
Popió³ i diament
1848, the "Spring of Peoples"
Mass independence movements in Europe
Soviet Revolution (1917)
Russian Civil War (1918-21)
World War II (1939-45)
Decisive stages of war
World War II (1939-45)
VE Day (8 May 1945)
Hungarian Republic (1848)
Defeat and chaos in the aftermath (1850s-60s)
Béla Kun's Hungarian soviet republic (1919)
in liberated Poland
Consolidation of Communist power
Persecution of rebels in a detention camp (1868)
Civil War attrocities on the SE front, involving Hungarian troops
Evacuation of a rebel group through the city's sewers
Assassination of a Communist leader by a Home Army fighter
What seems worth stressing again is the fact that all four films, unanimously considered to be among Jancsó and Wajda's historical masterpieces, are set on the far edge of important international events and focus on the local (ie Hungarian and Polish respectively) variants or extentions of the global conflicts. Morover, within the local contex, the incident is not approached frontally, by its most spectacular and—historically—important aspect, but obliquely, in the vague areas of its demise, dissolution or aftermath.
This construction, a conscious decentralization of the historical reference, probes the viewer's capabilities of accepting the personal vision of the artist who does not conform to the traditional methods of dealing with serious but often petrified national themes. It evidently succeeded in the case of Jancsó and Wajda, but their films' original qualities are based on the complex interplay of several formal and thematic elements that differ from film to film and are applied differently by both artists. What follows is a comparative analysis of two pairs of Miklós Jancsó and Andrzej Wajda's films. The matching is somewhat arbitrary, but still justified by the main thematic concerns that fit in with broader discussions of the directors' works.
The centripetal descent into death
(Kana³, 1957, and Szegénylegények, 1965)
1. Narrative structure and character formation
There is a whole tradition of existential interpretation of Jancsó and Wajda's films. The partial effect of their thematic centrifugality is that the best historical films of both directors refuse to function as epic narratives, becoming detailed but detached behavioural studies of people placed in extreme situations. Among numerous matrices proposed as framworks for content analysis, often different in the respective cases of Wajda and Jancsó, there is one that seems to come back often enough in relation to both filmmakers. Under the theme "the individual against history" numerous writers have described the archetypes of the directors' heroes, men framed into historical plots beyond their control who still make "free" choices, reclaim their dignity or even basic sense of humanity—since their narrative function seems often similar to that of a hunted animal—through opting to die for the cause that already has been doomed.
Both Kana³ and Szegénylegények are films of entrapment and pesimistic inevitability (the Hungarian title Szegénylegények translates literally as "the hopeless ones"; the colloquial meaning of kana³ has already been mentioned) as the heroes descend reluctantly but steadily into the fateful death trap set up for them by history. This parallel process lends itself as a good comparative material. Similarities are abundant.
First, both films present us with a collective hero, composed mostly of men, none of whom is foregrounded in the sense of sceen time or narrative importance given. There is, though, a nominal military ranking explicit among insurgents of Kana³, which is vaguely suggested among Jancsó's prisoners, but brutally imposed in their relation to the oppressors in Szegénylegények.
Second, the groups are isolated and imprisoned, the Polish fighters in the city sewers, the Hungarian rebels in the fort on the Great Plain (puszta), similarly rounded up by the methodical and consistent enemy forces, against whom they have no equivalent power. The imprisonment has also another, almost abstract dimension, represented by the puszta and Warsaw in flames. Released from the sewers or from behind the walls of the prison, the collective heroes of the two films would remain hopelessly entrapped in their geo-political reality with no place to hide, to go and nothing to strive for.
Third, the rounding up takes the form of a cruel and unequal game in which one side is inevitably losing, divided and confused, kept in (figurative and literal) darkness by the cunning winner who pulls the strings, sets up the trap and waits patiently for the fatal mistake of the other side. The chased ones seem to go in chaotic circles, through, again literal, curves of the underground tunnels that confuse the troops into the endless repetitive treking in Kana³ and even more graphic circular routines of chained prisoners within the rectangular inner yard, an obsessive ritualistic motif of Szegénylegények.
In spite of these three parallel themes that constitute the basic modus operandi of their narratives, the films' structure and character formation is drastically different. Whereas Jancsó's vision is consistent and homogenously bleak, as the film opens with an individual execution and ends with a mass one, Wajda divides Kana³ into two clearly discernible parts of almost equal duration. Although its crucial development starts with the insurgents' decision to enter the sewers in hope of crossing the tightening German lines, the first half of the film unfolds on the ground among the ruins of the city where a group of Polish fighters heroically defend their base against the decisive German attack. This long introductory part has several simultaneous functions of a structural, aesthetic and narrative nature.
Above all, it clarifies the strategic situation, evident for the Polish viewer right from its initial image: Warsaw in ruins and flames. We witness the last days of the Uprising, and we know it must end in tragedy. Still, the fighters don't give up, there are some heroic deeds, hopeful plans, optimistic youthful chit-chat and some black humour. The ground action part gives the viewer something he expects, elements of a national epic (let us not forget this is the first film dealing with the topic), and holding back the shock of the later descent into the sewers, as if to lull the viewer into a false sense of security. At the same time, all the principal characters are introduced in little snippets of action and conversation in this part, and the double function of it is to build up basic psychology of the protagonists, differeniate among them and create some emotional links with the audience, as well as to set up the pace and method of the narrative, which right from the beginning will oscillate among the characters through constant cross-cutting (or parallel editing) of bits of action that happen simultaneously.
Nothing like that can be found in Szegénylegények. Its construction is homogenous in mood and style, absolutely linear in the sense of chronology, episodic in its treatment of the protagonists. Whereas Wajda follows the classical rule of action / war cinema which is to isolate a group of people in a dynamic event, endow them with psychologically valid identities and let them share the experience with the audience by switching between their points of view, Jancsó develops his own narrative method that reduces the possibilities of identification and doesn't allow for any psychological enrichment of the characters.
They don't suplement each other or the enfolding drama like those of Kana³ do, they simply replace one another with their sequence-long episodes and disappear abruptly after their brief narrative function is fulfilled (by death, with no exception). There is not one cut in Szegénylegények that would suggest a temporal parallel, not even one "while..." or "in the meantime..." that fill up the second part of Kana³ when the three small groups of divided insurgents cross or do not cross their routes in the underground maze. Jancsó makes us follow the development of the oppressors' machiavellian schemes at a steady pace and with the emotional detachment of a behavioural psychologist presenting the subject of his research to a scientific panel.
Dialogues don't help the viewer in getting to know or in empathizing with the victims; they consist mostly of commands and monotonous interrogations that explain the charges, punishment and the aspect of expected collaboration if the accused wants to survive; there is no insight into the psyche of the prisoners, any drives or motivations beyond the immediacy of the survival instinct. Nothing further from the tender hopes of Korab in Kana³, Daisy's unconsumated love, Smukly's alcoholic debauchery or Madry's sense of responsibility for his group when he realizes they were left on their own in the sewers by the cowardly cunnings of Kula.
2. Mise-en-scène and camera movement
Kana³'s two-part narrative structure extends its implication into the aesthetic level. The ground sequence, with its relatively open space around and in the fighters' headquarters is filmed mostly in long shots when it follows the military actions, in medium shots if it deals with conversations inside. It is filmed entirely on location among some ruins on the outskirts of the city and the mise-en-scène is designed simply and realistically with the sun-lit spaces of the half-burned appartment buildings that enhance the outdoor, semi-documentary feel of the image. The soundtrack is composed of chaotic tapestry of guns, shouting and tanks, except for the archive shots of the opening credits, which are accompanied by the pathos-filled sounds of modernist music by Krzysztof Penderecki.
The long-take aesthetic dominates and the camera frequently tracks and pans around the urban ruins, but Wajda doesn't hesitate to insert isolated close-ups of faces and details quite frequently in order to enhance dramatic expressiveness of the plot. Many dialogues are shot in one take using two or three shots that keep interlocutors in one frame, and the cutting is motivated only by characters' movements. On the other hand, the shot / reverse shot technique is used intensively in the scene of the German attack when the images of the insurgents are contrasted with these of the approaching enemy in the consistent shot ratio of 1:1. This sequence lasts seven minutes and contains 38 shots (numbers 39 to 76 in the film).
The aesthetics of the moderate (length-wise) sequence-shot, with many rehearsals before shooting a small number (ideally one) of takes, a working method was often practically imposed on the young central and east European directors in the 1940s and 50s, as their budgets were low and imported film stock very expensive. The look of Kana³, as Wajda's second feature, could have been influenced by this factor. The introductory long take of the film (the fifth shot after four shots of documentary footage of Germans destroying Warsaw for the credits), however, is by no means an accidental effect.
In the four minutes fifteen seconds of its uninterrupted duration, the shot presents all the dramatis personeae with the help of the voice-over and the lateral tracking of the camera, which slowly follows the group in their run to the left along the trench and fences. The shot is so strikingly "Jancsó-esque" in its composition based on the elegant interraction of camera movement with the irregular displacement of the soldiers that the two directors' affinity in their respective stylistic developments comes to the foreground immediately (although it must be recognised that Wajda's film's precedes Jancsó's by almost a decade).
Still, Kana³ has more than 230 shots altogether, and Popió³ i diament over 300. A simple comparison to less than 160 shots of Szegénylegények and barely over 90 of Csillagosok, katonák (the films are of basically the same length) makes it evident the fact that the directors' future careers were not completely parallel in this particular respect.
The second part of Kana³ takes the sudden but logical turn in its visual aspect that corresponds to the exigencies of the radically changed mood and locale. The actual descent into the sewers take place in shot number 115 which divides the film into actual halves of similar editing pace with almost identical time length and the number of shots. Shot number 116 is a compositional replica of number 5 with its lateral tracking to the left along the soldiers stumbling in the wet darkness of the sewer, this shot, however, lasts only a minute. Tracking along the actors becomes a dominant, if not exclusive, camera movement, since from now on the insurgents are on the constant move and the limited space organizes their displacement in a very consistent linear pattern.
They are very quickly divided into three groups (in fact, they get separated as soon as they enter the sewer), and this fact allows for some diversity of shot composition based mostly on the number of people in each group and some particular dramatic or emotional implications of their respective journeys. The sewers are evidently built as an elaborate set in a studio and the simple technical demands of the filmmaking process turn the underground corridors into an impressive and quite surrealistic space. The sewers are wider than they were in reality and are extensively lit from sources located low over the surface of the water they carry to create an intense emotional effect with the expressionist shadows on the walls as well dramaticially highlighting the faces of the brooding people.
This design is well balanced, and its abstract beauty serves the metaphorical comment upon the experience of the group: it's like Dante's Inferno (which is actually quoted by a character named "Artist"), a description of Hell and human suffering in the perfectly chiseled verses of the poet. The soundtrack is now very different, subtle fragments of violin and piano compositions alternate with ocarina notes played by Artist against the constant sounds of dripping water and movements of the bodies in thick dirty mud. Once in a while, a distant scream of an individual pushed into madness by the imposing labirynth of the sewers destroys the intimacy of quiet conversations resonating in the tunnels with the oneiric reverb. All this creates an emotionally loaded atmosphere of enhanced intensity and suspense.
Compared to the mise-en-scène of Kana³, the visual design of Szegénylegények seems virtually ascetic. Rough but animated lanscapes of the ruins around and within the insurgent's headquarters (filled with some bourgeois furniture and a grand piano in the middle of one room), irrational, dreamlike corridors of the city sewers have nothing to do with the controlled minimalist look of the prison on the Hungarian puszta. Bare walls of the inner yards are no different from those of the attached cottage used by the officials as both their quarters and the interrogation rooms. A black, cross-shaped gallows is being its only adornment, the impeccable whiteness of all the walls conveys the nihilistic feeling of emptiness and destruction. It also reinforces the sense of order and methodology associated with the oppressors. And the flat, never-ending puszta without any demarcation point, any chracteristic of its own besides its overwhelming vastness, is the most impenetrable, ultimate force of imprisonment.
There are a number of shots in the film that use and perfectly demonstrate the opressive quality of the Hungarian landscape. Shot number13, for example, is the last one in the opening sequence of the film and contains the only dialogue with an unidentified prisoner who up to this point seems to be the main character of the evolving story. He's taken away from the fort to the interrogation building and the shot is filmed by the motionless (a subtle track forward and then backward brackets its one minutes and twenty second) camera placed inside the room. An officer chats with the prisoner at the open door, the backround being the vast pusta, and we learn from the conversation that the detained man used to be involved in smuggling Kossuth's revolutionary materials from abroad several years before. After half a minute of talking, the officer says "You can go now," and the man starts walking toward the horizon. We watch his diminishing figure for some 25 seconds before a rifle fires off-screen and the man falls dead on the ground.
This and other such shots may be structurally simple, but they are of utter importance as they convey the oppressive character of the flat landscape and, as in other Jancsó films, the puszta functions as a symbol of Hungary's historically disastrous geo-political position, her paradoxical quality of being simultaneously open and enclosed, vulnerable and repressive. Such shots connect the landscape to death and utter uselessness of human action.
Despite their ascetism, the framing of all the shots is meticulously composed, making full use of the geometrical quality of the prison buildings. Lines of the walls often run diagonally across the screen or create the effect of multiple framing of strictly geometrical connotations: a diamond of the yard with its rectangular wall, a symmetrically located arc of an open gate inscribed in it with a strong dark line of its silhouette, the arc itself cut in half by the line of the horizon. And, within this composition, the incessant circular movement of marching prisoners, dark figures of horsemen in far background, all counterpointed by the subtle tracking of camera, slow diagonal or lateral, still far from the sophisticated exuberance of Jancsó's later films.
The film's few crane shots are of spectacular elegance, some lifting the camera over the walls and thus combining the literal claustrophobia of the inner-yard geometry with the metaphorical entrapment of the landscape. Almost every shot becomes a metaphor in its own right.
The chessboard of violence
(Popió³ i diament, 1958; Csillagosok, katonák,1967)
1.Explicit difference of structure and style
If Kana³ and Szegénylegények share several aspects of their narrative and stylistic conceptualization, the directors' consecutive films seem to be diametrically different. Whereas Wajda turned into more traditional form of storytelling based on a solid literary source (a novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski) and focused on the experience and evolution of an individual protagonist, Jancsó chose a challenging path of exploring and elaborating his own experimentation and alienating rather than invitating the unexpecting viewer's participation.
Nevertheless, both films mark a pivotal moment in the careers of their respective directors, the point of reaching artistic maturity and gaining permanent international critical acclaim. Because of their diverging aesthetic concerns and the relative complexity of comparing the differences, I will use the basic categories used in analysing Kana³ and Szegénylegények to explore the formal and thematic development of the two films.
As was said earlier, Popió³ i diament tells the story of Maciek Chelmicki, its principal character, and several other people that cross his path during one particular pleasant late spring day. Wajda repeats here the time frame pattern he used in the narrative of Kana³. Both films start at noon one day and end at dawn next morning. Both follow the heroes through their day and night as they struggle for survival, as much physical as symbolic, to prove they were right in their cause against the larger forces of history. In contrast to Kana³, the war in Europe is now over in Popió³ i diament —the date is 8 May 1945. This information is given through a narrative hint (rather than the introductory voice-over in Kana³), with news of the Germany's capitulation announced through a loud-speaker system in the town's main square in one of the early scenes.
Throughout Popió³ i diament we see the world as Maciek sees it, there are many examples of point-of-view shots and the camera stays with him for the most of the film. Not all the time, though, as the rich narrative introduces several interesting subplots, like the tragicomic rise and fall of a two-faced opportunist Drewnowski, or Szczuka's personal search for his estranged son who proves to fight—like Maciek—for the old Poland. The other characters, especially Maciek's partisan friend Andrzej and Maciek's lover, the hotel barmaid Krystyna, are very richly developed and impeccably acted as are some minor but colorful types which represent various social strata of the provincial town. It is interesting to see how this apparently limited hierarchical structure of importance works against the egalitarian group structure in Kana³ which—with all its individual differenciation—seems, in comparison, slightly underwritten and somehow too homogenous.
As we already know, Miklós Jancsó's concept of character and narrative structure is altogether different. Szegénylegények denies the audience any access to the psychology and more profound existential values of any of the protagonists. Still, the characters that come and go (or die) in episodic spurts of unequal length, are identifiable by name and recognizable by face, by their individual actions motivated by the imminent threat of death as well as their function ("suspect," "victim") within the film's narrative.
In Csillagosok, katonák, however, there is almost total erasure of the identifiable individual character while still telling a recountable story. It's a story that is very suspensful at times and quite involving throughout, even if what we are presented is nothing more specific than a chessboard war fought by faceless pawns. Obviously, there is consistency and a set of rules to this game as well as protagonists with particular goals and personal characteristics. The problem is that it's practically impossible to figure them out during one single viewing of the film.
Jancso's complex storyline, and the total lack of interest in helping out the viewer with organizing his usual loyalties and empathies, makes it necessary to see the film at least twice to sort out the characters and understand the sequence of apparently senseless atrocities. In the mass of short lived heroes there is one—a young man we know only as "Hungarian" (played by András Kozák)—who leads the film from its opening until its last scene. However, the predominance of long and medium shots of human figures lost in the landscape, their visual similarity caused by the omnipresence of white shirts or half-naked bodies and virtual lack of psychology-enhancing close-ups, makes any sense of identification impossible.
The time-frame of Jancsó's films is also much more ambiguous. Szegénylegények offers a few narrative hints to the passing of time, such as night-time searches and two separate visits of women who bring food for the prisoners, as well as one very suggestive fade-out/fade-in transition between shots 25 and 26 that indicates passing of a long period, possibly the representation of a night have elapsed. Csillagosok, katonák rejects all similar narrative orientation as we do not see any nightfall on screen and nothing within the story suggests the accelerated passing of time. On the other hand, some abrupt spatial jump-cuts, like the airplane attack sequence (shots 51 to 63), could be interpreted as possible significant ellipses, naturally expectable in a war film of such a rare intensity of action. These details, however, seem to be beyond Jancsó's concern as his real interest lies in the detached anlysis of human behaviour in an abstracted but immediate violent historical moment.
The stylistic development of Popió³ i diament and Csillagosok, katonák is strictly connected to their enhanced—even if in opposite directions—conceptualization of the function and treatment of a film character. Wajda definitely reduces the average length of shots while raising their total number and often relies heavily on shot / reverse shot sequences, especially in the conversations of Maciek and Krystyna over the counter of the hotel bar. Stark realism and poetic surrealism that characterised the "overground" and underground parts of Kana³ respectivly, give way to a specific middle-ground mise-en-scène of the next film. The overall design of Popió³ i diament is realistic with the hotel and its several interior divisions (from men's toilet to the banquet room) as the film's main locale, but the light is used to intensify the emotional effect of many scenes and it creates—with the use of some carefully selected props—several unforgettable compositions of intense metaphorical or purely religious symbolism that became Wajda's trademark in the years (and films) to come.
It's not by chance that the film's first image is a cross on the top of a country road chapel. The camera tilts down to reveal close-up of Maciek and then Andrzej who rest in the grass and talk about a man that must be killed at some distance from the building. It's a deep-focus composition, so we see in the background a little girl who tries to open the door of the church. She aproaches the men and ask them for help. The take is long and its movement slow. It's a serene sunny day in the Polish countryside with the horrors of war seemingly far removed.
Suddenly, a third men shouts that the car is coming and what follows is a two-minute long sequence of bloody assassination of the two men in the military gaz (the Soviet jeep). Two shots are particularly suggestive compositions: the ninth, in which the bleeding head of a driver forms the bottom end of a diagonal line with that of the figure of crucified Christ on the church wall on the top, and the cold assassin's face of Andrzej entering in the middle, all three spatially layered into depth by the use of the wide-angle lenses. The second dramatic shot comes after Maciek, who chases a wounded passenger to the church door, fires two short series into the man's body (shot 13). The back of the man's coat catches on fire, and he falls down into the open chapel in front of the figure of a saint surrounded by burning candles.
It is the opening sequence of the film, and it instantly presents the dichotomy of its main issues—faith and reason, innocence and guilt, death and rebirth—in a powerful and purely visual way. There is many more shots of strong and contrasted imagery. The long-take of one minute twenty seconds takes place when Maciek and Krystyna visit the ruins of a church and talk about their prospects. Their small figures approaching from the background are physically dominated by the statue of Jesus hanging upside down in the extreme foreground (a deep-focus composition with chiaroscuro lighting) and within the same shot the boy moves right and places himself in front of two open coffins, only to be confronted with the bodies of the two innocent workers he murdered earlier that day.
Also worthy of mention is the death of Szczuka, set against fireworks in the night sky, a polonaise (a Polish traditional dance with patriotic and ceremonial connotations) at the end of the debauched official town-hall banquet and a mysterious white horse in front of the hotel. Szczuka's demise is also contrasted with Maciek' own death in two images: his wound bleeding through a white sheet he's wrapped himself in while hiding from the soldiers and his prolonged agony in the garbage dump, actually, the closing shot of the film. The camera movements are less visible here than in Kana³, and often used for pragmatic rather then stylistic reasons. Nevertheless, Popió³ i diament still abounds in instances of meticulously arranged longer takes (though never reaching two minute mark) with subtle but assured camera movements.
Csillagosok, katonák's first narrative shot (actually the fourth in the film, as the previous three, intercut with the titles, seem to have an introductory, allegorical function) establishes the pace, style and mood of the film. We see two men engaged in a skirmish on a river bank, one in front of the camera, the other further in the background. They move back and forth chaotically, shooting off-screen once in a while, the camera tracking with their movement in a slow but consistent pursuit. It is an extreme deep-focus composition, but in the first minute of the shot, the viewer's attention concentrates on the character in the foreground. They approach the river in an evident attempt to cross it. The man in the background gets to the other side, the closer one hesitates and retreats from the water into the bushes on the slope of the bank.
The camera leaves him off-screen, thus automatically changing the axis of the composition from lateral into the depth of the vision field. The running man seems to come back in panic, it takes a few seconds before a group of riders appears in the distance, approaching the river from the other side. From behind the camera another horseman appears. The rounded soldier is forced back into the water. A cossack on a horse insults him, investigates (we learn the captive is Hungarian) then shoots him casually and all speed away unaware of the presence of another man hiding in the bushes. The survivor gets out and runs in the opposite direction, in fact, back into the zone he initially came from. Throughout the whole scene, the camera moves slowly to the right and to the left while discreetely adjusting itself to the characters' position.
This shot lasts three minutes and ten seconds and perfectly demonstrates the tactics Jancsó employs throughout the film, although it's not before the second half (ie after the plane attack sequence) that this composition really dominates. All the basic ingredients of Jancsó's long take are here: the camera moving with subtlety and grace along a simple trajectory of tracks, usualy a straight line of approximately ten meters, sometimes ended with a curve, but the effect may also be achieved by a swift pan or a crane-forward combined with the lateral tracking.
The most important, however, is the camera's positioning in the pro-filmic space that gives priority to the composition in (often extreme) depth with the specific use of the landscape or elements of environment that enhance the effect of "in-frame editing." Shot number 44 is a perfect example. During its four minutes and twenty seconds (it is the longest take of the film), the camera's strategic placement right behind the side wall of the small field hospital makes its minimal movents especially effective. The shot smoothly changes its depth, from the medium deep-focus on the left end of the camera tracks (in the back of the hut with bushes and other buildings closing the space at some distance), to flat composition of the hospital wall in the middle, to the extreme depth of the open view at the right end of the tracks (the river and the steppe in front of the hospital).
The camera moves just a few meters to the right to follow the action, stops for a while, continues, retreats, stops and moves to the extreme left, therefore producing several diverse tableaux without interrupting the take by cutting. In addition, there are some apparently chaotic (but often circular) movements of people within the frame, sudden appearances of new characters from behind the camera, intense use of off-screen space and the postponement or denial of narrative information (through the total lack of reaction shots the viewer is left behind the character's awareness of the situation). Still, it must be remembered that the two films discussed in this paper are just the first phase in Miklós Jancsó's development of the unique cinematic style that finds its full expression in several of his subsequent work, most notably Sirokkó (Winter Wind, 1969), Még kér a nép (Red Psalm, 1971) and Szerelmem, Eletra (Elektreia, 1974).
2. Implicit unity of meaning
If Popió³ i diament doesn't seem to have any particular affinity with the style and structure of Csillagosok, katonák, one must look somewhere else to fnd values and ideas which unify these two historical films. On the superficial narrative level, they apparently don't have much in common. They are set in different geo-political situations and different issues are their primary concerns.
There is, however, one striking similarity within the structural composition of both narratives which allows for the extrapolation of some interesting conclusions through comparison rather than differenciation: the extreme polarization of the films' group and individual protagonists. The dichotomy is of such dimensions (stressed by both narrative and stylistic techniques) that in its ultimate effect, the opposing forces seem to melt in their respective conviction and become more like a mirror reflection than clearly defined adversaries.
Again, the chess metaphor seems useful. As the game of war is abstracted into a ritualistic exchange of thrusts and simplified into a strict code of possible movements, it seems to work perfectly as the implicit framework for the deeds and motivations of the active agents of the films' respective narratives. This polarization is also present in Wajda's title (taken from a verse by Cyprian Kamil Norwid) and the English-language translation of Jancsó's film (the original title translates literally as "Star-spangled caps").
The "ashes and diamonds" of Wajda's film are dificult to identify as—contrary to the colours in Jancsó's film—they carry strong value notions that make the film's message is complex and ambiguous. While Jancsó is not concerned with the political and historical judgment of the fighting sides, Wajda leaves the question open as the clear-cut answer could obviously be only a distorted simplification. "Who are we, then?," asks Krystyna, after reading the poem on the wall of the burned-out church. "You—surely a diamond," answers Maciek, and his response stays in full agreement with his romantic infatuation, but points at the same time to the real issue raised by the film. Both partisans, Maciek and Andrzej are diamonds since they are "the flower of the Polish youth" of the generation born in the early 1920s (as depicted in Wajda's feature debut) who sacrified their best years fighting for the Poland of their childhood memories. They are ashes too, however, as their Poland is a lost cause at this particular historical moment and both are going to die with the dream that is only timber and not fire anymore, one on-screen at the end of the narrative, the other inevitably, as he's going to the forest to replace a rebel commander who died in battle.
This profound internal conflict of all protagonists of Popió³ i diament is best encapsulated by a brief interrogation scene involving Szczuka's own son caught with the group of partisans surrounded in the forest (the equation is thus perfect). Asked by the communist officer what he was doing during the Warsaw Rising, the boy answers slowly: "I was shooting Germans." "And now you're shooting Poles," accuses the other. The boy pauses for a moment. "And you, sir? Sparrows?"
The powerful truth is revealed in this moment. Both sides shoot Poles, shoot one another, themselves in fact, in the neverending ritual of violence, and this is exactly what the "red and the white" do in their own deep belief in the meaning of it all, lost in the historical process impossible to fathom from the inside; helpless pawns on the chesboard of destiny.
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