The start of the 1980s was a watershed in Jancsó's career, as he moved from the modern to the post-modern. Jaromír Blažejovský charts the director's progress from revolutionary optimism into ontological scepticism and authorial irony.[*]
Now would be the time to renew strength
Now would be the time to rot forever
Now would be the time for muscles to twitch
Now would be the time to be slashed on the breast...
Szörnyek évadja (Season of Monsters)
It isn't an exaggeration to say that permanent revolution, as symbolised by a red helicopter in the closing scene of Szerelmem, Elektra (Elektreia, 1974), is the encompassing principle of Jancsó's work on a stylistic and conceptual level. We can barely find a film within Jancsó's filmography that doesn't involve characteristics such as "innovative," "extreme," "revolutionary in style" or "radically new" (although from the 1970s there was an increase in the number of critics who talked about fatigue, mannerism, and stereotyping).
Stylistic innovations and revisions of ideological attitudes have occurred throughout Jancsó's cycles or creative eras. For example a fundamental change of Jancsó's cinematic style took place between the first and the third parts of his first trilogy: from the approximately 45-second shots filmed by director of photography Tamás Somló in Szegénylegények (The Round-Up, 1965) to the two- to three-minute takes done by János Kende in Csend és kiáltás (Silence and Cry, 1968). And if the first work of Jancsó's "choreographic" era, Fényes szelek (Confrontation, 1968), connected the seductive photogeny of youthful leftism with its sarcastic critique, then the purest piece of the choreographic style, Még kér a nép (Red Psalm, 1971), was, by contrast, a passionate and non-problematic expression of the pathos of revolution.
The film that never was
But the line of revolutions breaks off at the end of the 1970s and an empty space appears in Janscó's filmography, a film that is missing. This film that was never made is Concerto —the third part of the Vitam et sanguinem trilogy, which was inspired by the life of the Hungarian politician Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky. Miklós Jancsó was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at Cannes for the first two parts of the trilogy, Magyar rapszódia (Hungarian Rhapsody, 1978) and Allegro Barbaro (1978), but audiences could only read the screenplay of the third part of this project.
The director later explained that financial problems, the engagement of leading actor György Cserhalmi, as well as his own fatigue were the reasons why he didn't make Concerto. But we can assume that the real cause was elsewhere else. After the first two parts of Vitam et sanguinem, it was clear that the combination of filmic style and ideological attitude failed to work. We could characterise this mixture as radically revolutionary and equally anti-totalitarian, articulated in a pathos-filled "balletic" form. Jancsó and Hernádi had been using this system since the film Égi bárány (Agnus Dei, 1970). The trilogy Vitam et sanguinem should have represented a synthesis: it should have become a Hungarian version of the great epics that started to appear from the second half of the 1970s in world cinema—Andrzej Wajda's Ziemia obiecana (The Promised Land), Bernado Bertolucci's Novecento, Andrei Konchalovsky's Siberiade etc.
But then in Hernádi's and Jancsó's films, the epic time of history usually doesn't hurry, but the moment of celebration lasts. During these celebrations, important historical instances of revolt and terror, ritually repeat. Thus the epic flight in Vitam et sanguinem conflicted with the gravitational power of Jancsó's style. This conflict then brought a spectacular shift away from the ideology of the work and onto its form. Magyar rapszódia and Allegro Barbaro are the only two Jancsó films that conjure up the label "academic." Also these are his last films with a revolutionary, optimistic message and thus Jancsó's last modern films. Everything that Jancsó made later would be filled with ambiguity, doubts, irony and self-irony, intertextuality, allusions to thoughts, characters and events from the cultural memory of humankind and a postmodern perception of world and history (for example, in the plurality of alternative narration where nobody can claim to have the absolute truth).
Theatre of tyrants
The co-production A zsarnok szíve, avagy Boccaccio Magyarogszágon (The Tyrant's Heart, 1981), where the Hungarian and Italian line of Jancsó's work meet, seemed to be more of a rest between demanding projects than the start of a new period. This time the action doesn't take place in the open air of the Hungarian puszta (plain). Almost the entire story is enclosed in the interior of an alleged royal residence that resembles a theatre, cathedral, spa or stadium. The story intercuts motifs from Hamlet, the Oedipus myth and the life and legend of the historical figure Erzsébet Báthory, an infamous Hungarian artistocrat who bathed in the blood of virgins, thus earning her the title "the Blood Countess." Boccaccio's name in the Hungarian title (the subtitle literally translates as "or Boccaccio in Hungary") is a red herring; a more appropriate patron to A zsarnok szíve would be Freud or Borges.
The royal son Gáspár (László Gálffy), who was brought up abroad, arrives in 15th-century Hungary accompanied by his Italian friend Filippo (Ninetto Davoli). He discovers that his father, who supposedly died in a battle with the Turks, was actually lacerated by a bear and that Queen Katalin sacrifices one girl every night so she can bathe in her blood, which keeps the monarch eternally young. But this beautiful and youthful queen (Thérèse-Ann Savoy) might not be Gáspár's mother, and his Uncle Károly (József Madaras), the queen's lover and Gáspár's possible father, might be the murderer of his real father. The uncle and a bishop are certainly hiding something from Gáspár, and maybe the whole story is just a gleeful trick of wandering comedians.
In the end, Gáspár is told that his real father is a Turkish emissary (György Cserhalmi) who wanted to ensure the Hungarian throne for his sultan by having the queen bear a Turkish child. The drama culminates in mutual murders after which the actors rest, celebrate a successful performance and get ready to move on to somewhere else. The palace gate opens onto the outside world, and in a typical Jancsó ending, which in contrast to the previous illusions seems to be the cruel truth, the figures of the actors are shot on the bare horizon. We hear a song about the need to bring the Hungarian and German nations closer together during the final credits.
In A zsarnok szíve, Jancsó demonstrates the illusion of a great history that he had taken seriously up to then. Gáspár strays into a labyrinth of divination, assumptions, intrigues and false information—a metaphor of the situation of man in a totalitarian regime where the seeming becomes real and the reality stays hidden behind the palace walls. Agents of foreign powers conspire in the palace while people have no influence on the events and are reduced to victims.
Jancsó makes innovative use of carnavalesque staging, changeable
interior spaces and of Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt ("alienation effect"), such as when Ninetto Davoli (who brings his angelic knavery from Pasolini's films) stabs himself for show during one of his acting studies, but smiles after that and apologises to the audience for forgetting to bring ketchup, thus breaking the audience's suspension of disbelief in the story as reality. The most important change is an ironic relation to history and ontological scepticism: the world is only theatre; truth is unknowable.
Jancsó also used authorial self-irony in his following lighter opus, Omega, Omega..., which he later claimed he made "for the money." It's a television documentary about a concert by the legendary Hungarian rock group Omega, which in November 1982 celebrated its 20th anniversary. Omega reached its greatest success between 1968 to 1971, especially thanks to composer Gábor Presser. The legendary record Tízezer lépés (10,000 Steps) with the hit "Gyöngyhaju lány" ("A Girl With Pearls in Her Hair") dates from this period.
The idea to invite a film-maker to the anniversary concert was probably motivated by the example of the rock group Illés whom Omega had competed against for many years. The nostalgic concert of Illés was organised and filmed by Gábor Koltay under the title A koncert (The Concert, 1981). The film was a great success in Hungarian cinemas. A 75 minute-long release of video-recorded material shot by Jancsó's film crew in Budapest's Sport Hall was distributed to cinemas under the title Omega, Omega...only in 1984, but the audience condemned it.
Omega's bombastic stage show curiously overlapped with Jancsó's standard obsessions, such as the profusion of candles, naked girls, folksy costumes, helmets, uniforms, and even a cream battle. The military march during the piece "10,000 Steps" ends up as a parody of both Jancsó and Omega. Neither the ostentatious and trivial interviews of Gyula Hernádi with the members of the rock group, nor the efforts to show the older musicians as roguish and modest guys or the overture from Richard Strauss Also sprach Zarathustra help the film. But Omega, Omega... had a certain meaning for the crystallisation of Jancsó's new style; Gábor Gelencsér also considers the director's other television activities from the 1970s and 80s to be important in the development of Jancsó's vision.
Monster from the lake
Eight years passed after Allegro Barbaro before Jancsó and Hernádi seriously attempted to continue in their main creative pursuit. This time they chose a story from the present. Under the title Szörnyek évadja (Season of Monsters, 1986), they depicted a conflict of ideas that leads the world towards catastrophe. Gyula Hernádi lists these ideas during an interview:
One is equality, one of the principal problems mankind has been facing throughout history, from Christ's teaching through the French Revolution to the ideas of socialism. The other is elitism, the belief in rule by an elite, according to which the only thing that matters is giftedness, capabilities. [...] The third is fear; this is often manifested in the nowadays very fashionable disaster theories.
The film was a return, after 18 years, to Fényes szelek. As Hernádi explains: „
Many of the actors are the same: they now play in this film 18 years older. [...] In Confrontation [Fényes szelek], in a way we sought to confront enthusiastic belief with disillusionment. We attempted to show the way manipulation was present behind enthusiasm. By now we have come to realise that if and when hope becomes predominant, this is to the detriment of rationality.
The characters that personify abstract ideas meet on 20 August (which is Constitution Day in Hungary) at a birthday party of their former professor (Ferenc Kállai). The conflict happens between a neurosurgeon, Komondy (József Madaras), who propagates the idea of equality, and a psychiatrist, Bardócz (György Cserhalmi), who represents the idea of aristocratism. Next the idea of catastrophe comes up as a solution to global problems; the idea of terror follows and finally comes the idea of Christian love, whose exponent is Jesus Christ resembling Don Quixote.
A series of allusions to Fényes szelek point to the extremist past of the protagonists: András Kozák plays a police officer this time, Lajos Balázsovits wears a red shirt similar to the one he wore previously and, if I'm not mistaken, the pond with an embankment where young members of Folk Universities (Nékosz) used to bathe is the same as the one that in Szörnyek évadja is haunted by a monster. Furthermore, when Komondy pushes a car loaded with corpses into the pond, a crane pulls out a completely different vehicle—a police jeep from Fényes szelek.
In this way, the director reminds us that the generation that is now at the top of their strength experienced their youth in a time when Stalinism was embraced with enthusiasm. Props, symbols and even ideas come back as embarrassing momentoes of those times. Everything is waiting for a new showdown, much like the trauma of the year 1956.
But what does the monster that supposedly lurks in the pond (where young Communists used to bathe in the times of Fényes szelek) mean? As we can see, the water is completely poisoned and spontaneously errupts into flames. From the behavior of the monster we can conclude that it personifies violence committed in the name of higher goals, particularly in the name of equality. The monster together with the pond is a repository of evil—it accepts the car with dead artists and gives up the jeep that has stayed in the water since Fényes szelek's time. The monster is a symbol of the menace carried by civilisation acting under the guise of egalitarian ideals.
It turns out that Komondy has a secret connection with the monster; he controls the powers of the pond and with a magic gesture of his hand can conjure up flames in a haystack. He wants to reach the harmony of equality by manipulating the neuron paths in human brains; in order to achieve this goal, he puts a group of people to sleep with injections, he dissects human tissue and he murders artists. As the bard (played by Tamás Cseh and an indispensible character in Jancsó's film since the time of Még kér a nép) sings about him:
His lips are switchblades, he gabbles,
Fish die where he bathed in the lake,
The flowers in his hands are carnivorous,
He is shoved towards us by insane time,
Carnivorous time, insane time.
Bardócz, through the performance of Cserhalmi, is so charismatic that shapely Annabella (Katarzyna Figura) mistakes him for Jesus and prints his bloody face on her white t-shirt. We also nearly surrender to the temptation that he is a positive hero of the film, especially when we see him resolutely fight Komondy. Only when they both join to murder Christ do we understand that they are the same when it comes to the societal worth of their ideas. They both seek to bring about a violent change in reality.
Picking up the threads of Fényes szelek, we find the character of Kati (Júli Nyakó), who seems to continue the extremist program of Jutka and Tereza, two protagonists from the earlier film. Jutka and Tereza belonged to the 40s but they had inside of them the radicalism of "the new left wing" of 1968. Kati, on the other hand, represents a kind of "acidification" of the 1960s student movement that lead to terrorism in one of its wings in the next decade. Kati's erotic motive (Komondy was her mother's lover and Kati is also attracted to him) could be interpreted as a courtship between young terrorism and old totalitarianism, similar to the courtship we witnessed between the ultra-radical Jutka and the olice officer Andris at the end of Fényes szelek.
Let's recall the episode from Fényes szelek: members of the Nékosz challenged the seminarians to debate three issues: the role of the individual in history, whether the world is knowable and the relationship between religion and communism. Only the Nékosz students thought they knew the answers, and none of the seminarians were drawn into the debate. But the film-makers themselves offered the supremely sceptical answers in Szörnyek évadja: if individuality intends to save the world it can only play a negative role; today's world isn't knowable, at least not through present-day ideologies and Christianity ,with its love toward fellow man, has a humiliating role.
Jancsó and Hernádi show that entropy grows as a result of irrational forces: space is saturated with the attributes of modern civilisation, screens are installed everywhere and through them everything is visible without becoming comprehensible; helicopters fly over the celebration and occasionally a man on fire runs about. It's a world before a deluge that actually starts in the finale. While Jancsó and Hernádi's previous films mediated the experience of manipulation, violence and terror in their films, they now attack the ideas presuming manipulation, violence and terror.
At the same time, Szörnyek évadja represents another stylish transition point because it is Jancsó's last work created (mostly) in the open air and using the effect of horror generated by open space. At the same time, it is also the first of Jancsó's "urban" films, the opening of the film taking place in one of the newest hotels in Budapest with a dramatic drive through the city's streets. Jancsó's city films were to work with space in a different way to that seen in his previous films. While in the "agoraphobic" films, set in flat open air, the actions expanded towards the depth of the field, in his urban films, more claustrophobically composed, the deep focus is complemented and later even substituted by the "montage of ecrans", his ubiquitous screen and video technique.
At the same time, the relation between long shot and close-up changes. In Jancsó's older films (for example, Fényes szelek) close-up was rarely used, but the technique was to be used with exceptional expressive power in his city films as "talking heads" on TV screens became more important. The TV screens make space but also time unsure: the screens sometime show a synchronous event, sometimes the near past and some other times we can even see events that will only happen within the "frame of reality.".
Kaf(f)ka in Budapest
Szörnyek évadja started a new series that Gábor Gelencsér has called a "trilogy of chaos." The trilogy was later expanded into a free tetralogy reacting to the ideological and political disruptions of Eastern Europe in the transitional period between totality and democracy. Jézus Krisztus horoszkópja (Jesus Christ Horoscope, 1988) was made as the second film of this tetralogy. This time the theme is directly an agony of Communism. Cserhalmi plays a demonic-looking poet named Josef K (who, contrary to the author of Der Process / The Trial, has his surname spelt "Kaffka") who in a black hat and a waving coat walks through different flats and hotels in Budapest and has unclear relationships with three women: Márta (Ildikó Bánsági) and ex-policewoman Kata (Dorottya Udvaros) are murdered in mysterious circumstances; Josef K himself then vanishes in the presence of a meteorologist, Juli (Juli Básti).
Meanwhile, a dreary group of nostalgic men recall Stalin in a luxurious restaurant. They recite Lenin's texts, meet under black umbrellas and bury one of their fighting comrades. Collectively, they represent dark forces. Their actions, recorded by a videocamera, are parodically accompanied by revolutionary melodies adapted in the style of pop tunes. These are songs from Jancsó's previous films, the same songs that steeled a nation about to plunge into a class struggle ("In the time of prehistoric man, oh...oh...yoho! / There were no poor or rich, oh...oh...yoho...").
To a great extent, Jézus Krisztus horoszkópja is a film of quotations: we watch a documentary about an official visit of Nikita Khrushchev in 1958 on the TV, we listen to Lenin's famous Letter to the Congress containing a critique of Stalin, Josef K tells how Mátyás Rákosi invited an ex-leader of the social democrats, Árpád Szakasits, to dinner in 1950 and let him be arrested, and we hear a disconcertingly long-term meteorological forecast. Jézus Krisztus horoszkópja keeps the grace of a period political "noir film" that testifies to the atmosphere of that short historical era when Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost already opened the questions of taboo past but the old guard of leaders and their security apparatus still had the power in Eastern Europe.
Old Stalinists, new democrats
The first film created by the Jancsó-Hernádi team after the fall of the Berlin Wall is a political fiction, Isten hátrafelé megy (God Walks Backwards, 1990). The introduction takes place close to the Fisherman's Bastion at Buda castle, where a TV crew shoots a kind of political ballet. It shows us Hungary after the fall of Communism: the citizens are out and edgy; nobody really works; however, nationalist manifestos are declaimed. Ominous news comes from the Soviet Union: a reactionary coup d'état has taken place, and Gorbachev has been overthrown and executed. Orderly and always ready, the Hungarian Stalinists, for whom even János Kádár's leadership of the country was a betrayal of Communist principles, strike to mount their own takeover. United democrats defeat them but at that point Soviet tanks enter Hungary again and the Red Army kills everybody, including sympathetic Stalinists.
Isten hátrafelé megy is the first comedy in Jancsó's filmography. Presumably, there were two influences that moved Jancsó towards this genre: firstly, that of Karl Marx and his thought about history repeating itself as a farce (the later development of the Moscow coup d'état in August 1991, which Hernádi and Jancsó predict in their film, confirmed the truth of Marx's maxim), and, secondly, the personality of Károly Eperjes in the main role. Eperjes doesn't intend to be a mere figure in a landscape (which was the main thing Jancsó demanded of his actors). He concentrates the audience's attention on himself: he fools around, he shows off; he follows on from Ninetto Davoli in A zsarnok szíve and he anticipates the clowning of the characters Pepe and Kapa who appear in Jancsó's most recent films.
András Kozák, who regularly personifies leftist fighters or secret policemen, got a role a Bolshevik conspirator who claims that "Even today, a five-pointed star can be drawn in one go." József Madaras playes a democrat of a new kind and his white suit evokes supreme mistrust. Naturally, a naked girl can't be left out; this time it's a French girl Nathalie, a symbol of revolution. Police narks called Short and Tall want to soap her down, soldiers want to have easy sex with her, but she escapes and prevents the attempted coup d'état.
Thus, in Isten hátrafelé megy Jancsó shows the decay of politics: the old Bolshevik politics the same as the politics of reformatory communists or the nationalist and liberalistic politics. The TV screens reproducing action into other parallel events are a stylistic component much as they were in Szörnyek évadja and Jézus Krisztus horoszkópja. Miklós Jancsó and Gyula Hernádi finally laugh at themselves; from previous events they make a "film within film" and take the spectator into a projection room where the film has just ended. The director apologises to his friends for the bad air in the room and he invites them to enjoy champagne and a striptease.
In this way, Jancsó laughs at post-totalitarian fashion to fill everything with naked girls and at the same time he knows very well that it is the only thing a part of his audience understand in his films. A chat about the film follows a humorous commentary where the authors make bitter jokes about post-totalitarian moralising and the classification of the citizens according to the level of collaboration, suffering and resistance. In the last take, Jancsó and Hernádi are shot on the street. As is common for these artists, we don't get to find out who does the shooting.
Omega, Omega... aside, Isten hátrafelé megy is the first auto-ironic film by Hernádi and Jancsó, where both of the authors show up in front of the camera. With solidarity, they take the responsibility for their work by letting themselves to be shot much like their characters. That way the film stays a part of a "tetralogy of chaos" but at the same time it announces the future change of Jancsó's poetics. This change appears in a stylistic exercise, "A nagy agyhalál" ("The Great Hungarian Brain Death"), from an omnibus project by Pál Sándor, Károly Makk and Miklós Jancsó named Szeressük egymást, gyerekek (Love Each Other, 1995), and in the satiric series of films that started in 1998 and is still continuing.
New democrats on the Blue Danube
Meanwhile, Miklós Jancsó filmed another feature film and one we can consider as the crown of "tetralogy of chaos." This work is an attempt at a political thriller Kék Duna keringő (Blue Danube Waltz, 1991), co-produced by American producer Michael Fitzgerald.
Once again, the story takes place in the present: a rich ex-patriot arrives to Hungary and he intends to buy up a profitable factory, shut it down, fire the workers and build offices. A servile prime minister in a white suit (József Madaras) welcomes him, followed by his cousin (György Cserhalmi), once a dissident but now a member of parliament who criticises the premier. Cserhalmi's character helped the prime minister to get his position and moreover he is his wife's (Ildikó Bánsági) lover, while the prime minister's lover (Dorottya Udvaros) is the private doctor to the leader and his spouse. The fifth person is a police officer who served also in the former regime; he is played, as usual, by András Kozák.
The cousin together with the prime minister's wife plots the premier's assassination. The killing is carried out, but the prime minister's widow is found dead, probably suicide, since she has suffered from cancer. The representatives of the establishment urge the hero to admit committing the murder and advise him to justify it as a crime passionelle, which could politically help him. When he refuses it, he witnesses a mysterious murder of a priest to whom he just confessed (László Gálffy) and also the murder of the police officer played by Kozák.
To avoid being shot himself, he runs away with the doctor. In the end, he comes to a hotel room where the whole story began, and finally he is shot in the head there. While he lies dead, we start to understand that a time loop has just closed; everything has happened in his mind; the visit of the rich investor is just about to start. In a helicopter, we listen to a final dialogue of a colonel with one of the policemen: "He was a fool. He said everything that was on his mind. In Communist times or now he always said the truth." "It's said that the whole life appears in the moment of death".
The film is framed by "Kádár's Waltz," with words by Géza Bereményi (poet, lyricist and later a film-maker in his own right) set to the tune of Strauss's Blue Danube Waltz. The song is performed by the indispensable folk singer Tamás Cseh, while a smiling bodyguard holds an umbrella over his head. The melody of this waltz comes back in different variations throughout the film.
The story resembles Borges's short story "The Secret Miracle," where the hero gets a chance from God to live one second before execution for a whole year. The moment of bifurcation comes around the 13th minute of the film when the hero after a quarrel with the premier finds himself in the room of his death: he considers suicide for a moment and effortlessly, as if unwittingly, touched his forehead.
In its time, Kék Duna keringő seemed to be a relatively brave political film that points at the sale of national wealth, corruption in high politics and the lasting influence of power structures. Jancsó and Hernádi predicted the tension, and even murders, that really happened in the 1990s in the former Eastern Bloc.
However, this attempt at a political thriller doesn't have the visual beauty we expect from Miklós Jancsó (even the nude girls are missing for those viewers who respond to his art on that level). The film is overloaded with dialogue and its middle part in particular is relatively boring. In Hungarian cinemas, the film was a flop; only 5754 spectators saw it in its first year.
Kék Duna keringő was also the last thing that could be said about the idea of revolution. Jancsó and Hernádi had analyzed various aspects of the idea of revolution, mostly from leftist positions, for quarter of century; they followed the idea from its freshest youth (Csend és kiáltás, Még kér a nép) up to its burial (Jézus Krisztus horoszkópja) and on through to its reincarnation as new democratic structures. Then in his next feature, Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten (The Lord's Lantern in Budapest, 1998), Jancsó asks in a grotesque manner a different question, which in its way had already been announced in Szörnyek évadja: "Is it me, or has the whole world gone mad?"
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Translated by Ivana Košuličová