Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

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3 Mar

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Miklos Jancso's Isten hatrafele megy (God Walks Backwards, 1990)HUNGARY
Acquired uncertainty
Order and chaos
in the art of Miklós Jancsó

From 1981 onwards, Jancsó's films are characterised by a loss of structure. Gábor Gelencsér examines the order and chaos in Jancsó's art and how it affects the meaning of these works.

The present is neither a beginning nor a conclusion:
if there is such a thing as catastrophe, this is it.

       Mihály Kornis: A krízis és a divatja
       (Crisis and its Fashion)

Sándor's mistress going through a line of policemen, beatings, a naked body falling, a rampart, an abandoned space, blank looks, open fields, the stark horizon. Movement becoming a symbol for the domination of space.

The dumb ecstatic pain of Juli Básti like a huge empty bauble, screeching police sirens, railroad tracks leading nowhere, sand, solitude, immobility. The deeply penetrating experience of being lost, of being nowhere.

These descriptions are from two points in Jancsó's career—Szegénylegények (The Round Up, 1965) and Jézus Krisztus horoszkópja (Jesus Christ's Horoscope, 1988). Not peaks, not bookends, not triumphs of form, but not chosen arbitrarily either, one suspects. They show open spaces, squares—Jancsó's spaces (in both the real-symbolic and the spiritual-metaphysical sense). They create a single universe: that of the subjective view of a unique creative personality and of the world constituted by the films it produced.

The films completed in the second half of the eighties—Szörnyek évadja (Season of Monsters, 1986), Jézus Krisztus horoszkópja, Isten hátrafelé megy (God Walks Backwards, 1990)—are part of Jancsó's world view, a view that opens up and evolves through the films in line with the changing world.

Apart from the actors and characters who occasionally reappear from film to film and besides certain repeated formal solutions (primarily the use of video), the thread that weaves through these films is coloured by new ideas that seem to replace the fundamental issues that characterised the director's work of the 1960s and 70s. In considering the world as history, Jancsó focuses on the existence of the present-day world instead of the moral lessons of past. The analysis of incidents on the margins of history is exchanged for the analysis of incidents on the margins of life itself. Descriptions of the structure of power relations is replaced by descriptions of the lack of order in power relations, a kind of "structureless structure" of power relations, a delineated chaos that should not to be confused with "disorder." It becomes a structure with two poles, and, as such, it avoids a relativistic view of the world and moves towards a "metaphysics of chaos" and into a "cosmic ontology," a universal understanding of how a model society should behave and know itself.

Where is this central European "tempest," a man mature in years but avant-garde in attitude, going? Nowhere. Jancsó was always grounded in the reality of Hungarian society and history, and in these films he remains here. This decision was not a result of his politics, but rather, if one may say so, it was a result of his interest in form. The ethics of the decision to remain on this socio-historical ground in his films of the late 1980s should be considered in the light of the unassailable formal structure of Jancsó's films. The sense of "belonging" in all his films—the not always self-evident idea that the past "belongs" to the present—gives birth to new structural forms in his cinematic language (history shall decide whether or not the new form is valid and unassailable). This is not necessarily a virtue, but a basic fact. (Jancsó himself has said several times that he would not be able to make other kinds of films even if he wanted to.)

Nevertheless, from a distance, one can clearly see that the virtue of Jancsó's transformation, as far as his modes of expression are concerned, is the result of his independent creativity moving progressively deeper into the sphere of irony.

In the three films starting with Szörnyek évadja, the cinematography kept the concept of the preservation of personal and creative liberty continually in the foreground. Jancsó was not hailed as a prophet. He was not beatified, nor did he become a failed anarcho-revolutionary or a successful reformer. He did not fall into becoming a parody of himself, and he did not renew himself artistically. He did not acquire power and following, and he did not lose anything.

What has been lost is faith: faith in the possibility of changing the world at once, and faith in the fact that the art of film may be a spiritual-militant part of such a process as a revolutionary act. After 1968, rational pragmatism was proven to be a mistake. The plans to change the world, both politically and ecologically, led to destruction. We live in the age of symbols, both in social life (falsehood) and in the arts (truth).

This is the age of re-evaluation, relativism and multiple associations. Nothing is safe or secure. Shots are fired from an unseen gun at the end of A zsarnok szíve, avagy Boccaccio Magyarországon (The Tyrant's Heart, 1981) killing the actors, and the closing scene of Isten hátrafelé megy depicts Jancsó and his perennial screenwriter Gyula Hernádi being gunned down by unidentified assailants after a sequence in which they address they viewer. Nothing is certain, this ending says, with its reflexive ironic pathos that follows the "certainty" of the changes of the 1980s and 90s. "Nothing" cannot be conjugated. The world cannot be changed. The world (our world) should be created. And the human race, left alone in this godlike state, can only be seriously examined (together with its past or, in other words, its destiny) in an ironic fashion.

The modernity of the 1960s, the paradigm of new-ness, the prevalence of the "neo," is the structural ingredient that made possible, at that time, the universality of Jancsó's art. In our present post-modern culture, in this colorful state of decay and eclecticism, however, we can no longer speak of universality. Even so, Jancsó's recitation of irony (or, as Gyula Hernádi called it, Jancsó's "discourse of irony") remains an organic part of the film heritage of the world.


The typical cinematic grammar of Jancsó—the long shots, the particular surroundings, the clothing, the unaffected acting with the appropriate symbolism, the rhythm of the action—is the result of his depiction of a structure bound by precise rules. It was created to allow the abstract representation of the structure of power—oppressors and oppressed, revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries, whites and reds—all locked in binary oppositions that persuaded Jancsó to investigate the nature of power.

The historical eras his films invoked served primarily as a model for the movements and operations of power and force rather than being of intrinsic "historical" interest in its own right. From the very start, the order of his film world was decided not only according to choreographic-dramatic considerations but according to ideological-intellectual ones as well. The opposition of good and bad meant a changing but definite relationship; even the negative (unavoidable) aspects of revolutionary power—as, for example, depicted in Fényes szelek (The Confrontation)—would not bring into question its truthfulness and legitimacy.

The films investigating the structures of power and history did not ask the question "why" but rather "how." The symbolism of the films dissolved the lean, taut abstraction into a rich symbolisation of the nature of closed power-structure relations. Furthermore, the looser the framework of interpretation, the more important the methods of improvisation were in the visualisation, all of which led to an increasing load on the structural form.

The words of Peter Józsa are very true when he said that beginning with Egi Bárány (Agnus Dei, 1970) a structural analysis of Jancsó's films does not equal an interpretation of his films, but one must make a structural analysis if one hopes to gain an adequate understanding of the work. The investigation of the same types of problems in ever newer relationships, has led to unresolvable contradictions when dealing with historical personalities stuck in a given place and time. The individuals portrayed in Allegro Barbaro (1979) walk the paths of Jancsó's structure-world in a protracted, dream-like timelessness.

In the abstract, phenomenal, real world, individuality gains meaning only through "separation" when it is dreamed. But the director does not continue on this path; the third part of the planned Vitam et sanguinem (Our Life and Blood) trilogy, was never completed. The structure of the dramaturgy first creates relationships, then, demolishing itself, it goes on to recreate itself: the "unstructural" nature of the structure.

Before we investigate this process, let us first examine the operating principle of closed structures. The main pillars of Jancsó's expression are the following: leftist thinking, a dialectical view of history, a tendency towards abstraction and a radical, avant-garde stance. What links these pillars together is nothing less than the structure itself—the orderliness of the elements of Jancsó's viewpoint and the re-arrangement of these elements in each new film. The resulting structure has proven to be quite flexible as it has resulted in films with totally different poetics, from the film Így jöttem (My Way Home, 1964) to Szerelmem, Elektra (Electreia, 1974). Moreover, this structure succeeded in sensitively describing the movements of power and force. The flexibility was a result of the expression (Jancsó's skill as a film-maker) rather than the structure. The long shots simultaneously represented, in time and space, contradictory opposites, thus placing phenomena that exist side by side in reality next to each other on the screen.

The traditional narrative (and historical perspective) with its causal relationships was not destroyed by being depicted in this manner. Instead, a very abstract effect was achieved by overstepping the conventions of film narrative, making it impenetrable. In the structure of the oppressors and the oppressed, there was order: the revolutionary remained revolutionary and the counter-revolutionary remained counter-revolutionary. Their attributes (initially, forms of movement; later, allegories) were immutable. The dualities were accentuated most clearly by a figure or group that acted as an intermediary or moderate, as for example in Csend és kialtás (Silence and Cry, 1968) in which a White commander seems to protect an escaping Red. The changing elements of the system/structure; the movement of power and force, which at times is seen from the point of view of the oppressors, and at other times from that of the oppressed and which describes the dramaturgy of historical change: all this points to a permanent and ever-present factor—the principle of dialectics.

The "de-mythologising," objective historical view of Jancsó is, from the point of view of methodology and thought-process, deductive. His view of history is not deduced from the events or experiences of history, but with the aid of images and viewpoints resulting from the experience of past and present. Conviction (or, in other words, "faith") have stood in the background of Jancsó's world view. As such, his approach may be criticised, but not attacked. It can be reformulated, but it cannot be changed. The cinematic vision that encapsulates all this is the form-world that is locked into the closed structure of his films made until the beginning of the 1970s. This structure is reinforced from the outside by order and by the system, while inside an uncontainable will to gain freedom erupts. The increasingly abstract analysis of a shared historical fate that tends towards universal truth is also part of the impression gained.

The type of structure attributed to Jancsó (which does not necessarily influence the aesthetic quality of his film) and the uncertainties originating from it can be traced back to what happened in Eastern and Western Europe in 1968. This is a symbolic date. It is, after 1956, yet another event that leads many people to acknowledge the failure of the critical or reformative transformation of their ideas. The year 1968 did not simply mean the failure of a particular attempt, but the failure of a theoretical/practical model of revolution that would never have a chance. The tragic events did not give birth to a tragic era but rather to a melancholia and pessimism, which is clearly reflected in the regression of cultural and artistic life.

The decay of the order that had already begun attacked the walls of the theoretical framework in the form of an experimental reality. The individuals maintaining these ideas were also touched in their innermost selves. The uncertainty of this time no doubt influenced history but also individual thinking about history. Jancsó's type of structure, when taken alone and where it concerns the relationships in which it participated, are both in flux. The whole system was increasingly taken up with the spirit of relativism. The structure, which expanded to its maximum size due to the pressure from inside was restrained from the outside and thus started to lose its vital sense of integrity.

In Jancsó's films of the 1970s, such changes are obvious in several respects. Poetically speaking (ie not at the level of meaning), the fundamentally closed (still) structure of the films he made in Hungary that had already turned heavily to symbolism—Egi Bárány, Még kér a nép (Red Psalm, 1971) Szerelmem, Elektra—and the clean allegories originating from dances and movement, began to impel the embellished abstractions towards absurdity and "irreality." The supra-realistic elements in Jancsó's work should be read as the uncertainty of the actual "realism" of the structure (in later films this is more of an enrichment). One detects an ability to view things from outside the relativity of the structure. The reporter accidentally mixed up in environment of terrorism in La pacifista (1971); the shot at the end of the same film equating "anarchism" with the journalist's "historical subconscious"; the ceaseless dissenters of Roma rivuole cesare (Rome Wants Another Caesar, 1974), who do not submit to the dialectics of force and power of Jancsó's films; or Mária Vecsera in Vizi privati, pubbliche virtů (Private Vices, Public Virtues, 1975), the hermaphrodite nature of the formulas in operetta of power against the libido—these all represent fractures in a viewpoint arrived at from the outside.

The ever-widening gap between reality and truth in the 1970s and 80s could not be filled by earlier cinematic paradigms. In order to extend the syntax of Jancsó, a compromise was necessary. Beginning in the 1970s, this very consensus was totally compromised (which refers not only to compromises in left-wing politics but to other kinds of compromise as well, as a result of the wavering in the European trend of enlightenment, in Jancsó's words "the culture of the white man".) This world-view was attacked, criticised, discussed and debated, but remained unified (this is precisely why it could be attacked, criticised and debated) and fell into smaller circles and viewpoints that would be gathered together by the post-modern culture of the 1980s to be used in some works of art. With the suspension of the historologically-sociologically given fired viewpoint, the structure of Jancsó—his symbols, allegories and group-movements—would have become mute ornaments on the screens of the age. The events of history played a trick on the idea of History —the Jancsó-Hernádi collaboration brings to the stage the historical gimmicks of the 1980s.

From the viewpoint of the transformation of the "form-world" of the films, there are some important, mostly forgotten works, which correspond to the time when the Ôrelativization" of the structure shifted the expression towards a very personal and flexible manner of representation when compared to Jancsó's earlier film-world. This is why these films, which defy categorization, were made for TV. Television's more direct nature and accessibility enabled the compilation of visual footnotes. The camera followed thoughts instead of ideas; the birth of thoughts, and not dead statements. In Suomi (1985), a documentary about Finland shot for the Italian station RAI, and the film Budapest (1982), also made for RAI, the film-makers instead show the stories of different characters in different settings and in different areas of life. Analysis is replaced by understanding. The world achieves order in these works not from a superficial point of view, but from one of creation.

Jancsó's "camera-fountain-pen films" may appear to be a self-contained phase in the director's career, but this loss of structure plays an important role in the later drafting of the acquired uncertainty. These works helped him achieve the unity of the diachronic and synchronic methods not just as a theoretical model, but as a slice of life as well. Certain events in the political history of mankind become important in illustrating the chaotic state of the world. The period recalled in this manner, however, comes forth as actual experience rather than as an abstraction of history. (A fine example of identification with a model fate is Jelenlet [The Presence ] series, which uses its episodic structure to "synchronize" the stages of historical oblivion to the point of timelessness.) The result is a new psychology of creation. Instead of insight on events, the importance shifts to belonging to events. A picture of history is replaced by an experience of life.

The beginning of the end of "relativization" is A zsarnok szíve, which encyclopedically encompasses movements in poetics, content and the psychology of creation. The film leads us into a labyrinth where no one and nothing is known. Jancsó contradicts his own earlier forms with increasing consistency. With great visual sensitivity, the story is conveyed with more and more riddles, and his mysterious characters in the film's finale are sent into the never-ending unknown through a gate opening to nothingness. A zsarnok szíve is not so much a parable of the unrecognizable as one of the unfathomable. During the film the world depicted constantly escapes from the Jancsó structure. Someone, somewhere isn't playing by the rules. The answer is the last shot, which shows all the characters dead. We don't make the rules. We just play. The decision has slipped out of our hands, and we don't know what will happen.

After a light masterpiece about irony—Omega, Omega (1984)—and a serious masterpiece about life and death—L'Aube (The Dawn, 1985)—what follows is the trilogy of chaos.


"'Catastrophe' is a Greek word meaning to turn upside down." This statement begins the brief "Introduction to Catastrophe" in Szörnyek évadja and effectively marks the beginning of Jancsó's period of chaotic existence. We have seen that the signs that accompany the loss of structure always changed the way in which the moving world was expressed. Chaos is depicted in a similar way, but in this case we are not dealing with uncertainty or a flaw in the structure. We are now dealing with a collapse. The relation with order is "turned upside-down." The structure creates a structureless state. There is a 180-degree shift: instead of structure films, now film structures are made. While the former were adequate for analyzing the rules of the existing world, the latter tend to create a non-existent life that has fallen to pieces. A fundamental shift of vision takes place in the art of Jancsó, actually the loss of vision. This may sound like a play on words, but this is what Jancsó's films are: stories in an age when both reality and the thought-provoking influence of the art of film seem to be on the decline.

The unified world perspective and the resulting lack of these principles do not necessarily result in a lack of form or structure. As silence may be sensed through voices, darkness is made evident by shadows. In Jancsó's later films, one may discover the formlessness of form and the unstructured structure. These are not empty paradoxes; they are, in fact, full of content. The roots can be explained and their significance can be interpreted. Paraphrasing Peter Józsa, to analyze the films' lack of structure is essential for their interpretation.

For Jancsó's work, the "depictable" world was the imprint of a historically and sociologically ideological system. Their view brought about a closed world between wide poetic circles. Following the historical and political changes, the ideological outlook became more open, and this led to the "relativization" of the form-structure. Finally, as things stand now, the attitude of creating form is completely lost. The closed form was not followed by an open form—the form itself disappeared. The political system has changed, but there was no change of systems in the art of Jancsó. Jancsó does not change systems but demolishes them. He has fallen from order into chaos. In terms of form, he is dead.

We cannot refrain from stressing once again the importance of the ending of Isten hátrafelé megy. The fatal shooting of Jancsó and Hernádi is of course playful, provocative, sentimental and self-mocking, but it happens in a film to the creators of the film. This gesture allows for many crazy interpretations, but one must be cx-eluded: this death may not be placed between quotation marks. It is not abstract, allegorical, nor surrealistic. This death, there on the screen, as an artistic expression, is real.

The chaos dominating the films was born from the structure, not the real state, of the world. This is most important as it explains the director's metaphysical shift, replacing the historical parables with the writing of horoscopes. Jancsó is an analytical-constructive artist, but losing the solid background/perspective of the world, he lose the "real" possibilities of his construction. In Szörnyek évadja , instead of the movement of real power, the savage destruction of an unreal power appears, in contrast to the parable, in the form of a sci-fi thriller. The newer films also lost the abstract connection to history of the earlier films. Isten hátrafelé megy, which has to do with concrete political events, was conceived as a negative utopia (another matter that later is to become a "positive nightmare" in some respects). The devil must be painted on the wall, argues Gyula Hernádi in his self-analyzing monologue at the end of the film. Based on Szörnyek évadja and Jézus Krisztus horoszkópja, one could have concluded earlier that Jancsó paints the wall on the devil. They are not describing the chaos of the world but the world of chaos; however, with the turn of the century looming, the two are the same. The creators became prophets after making Isten hátrafelé megy, which is why we feel the spaceless, timeless world without causality of Jézus Krisztus horoszkópja as an obvious, painful reality.

In the opening frames of Szörnyek évadja Jancsó achieves a sense of being lost with incredible sensitivity. At the same time, he reveals his ties with his own past, his ways of expressing himself, his view of the world and of history, while at the same time severing these ties. These frames immediately preceding the lecture about catastrophe (driving from the tunnel toward the Chain Bridge) agree completely with the final frames of Cantata (Oldás és kötés, 1962). Where did we begin, and where did we end up?

After the virtuoso introduction of Szörnyek évadja, we find ourselves in the traditional world of Jancsó films. We are in a peasant's house in the Balaton highlands. A group gathers, singing, dancing, nude girls and singers appear; helicopters circle in the sky and cars drive around below. The gathering is a thirty-year high school reunion. We may, therefore, follow the fate of the 1956 generation through the abstracted movements of a group. We may believe that the well-known structure comes into effect again. But we stumble over mysterious murders, and through quotations we walk through the circles of universal culture from Pascal to Hegel, from the reincarnation of the devil to Jesus Christ.

The film upholds the tradition of long shots, broad panoramas, the formal tradition of complicated sequences, while disregarding rules of space and time. A new symbol is created at the same time. We become entangled in the network of "dissolution and bonding". The symbols and allegories fall to a point where they cannot be understood. At the beginning of the film, the traditional Hungarian parade of 20 August comes over as an operetta to the professor visiting home from self-imposed exile abroad. (Soon after, he is found dead.) At the end, the actors are transported from the scene of action in trucks used to transport animals. Then, we see doves flying around an empty room, fire erupts from the surface of a lake, and rain falls as if it would never stop. Finally, the initial sentence of the Bible is heard in Hungarian and in Hebrew: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And God saw that it was good".

Jézus Krisztus horoszkópja is a film of frozen fear, a "Kafkaesque" image of untouchable, unaccountable and inexplicable fear. Jancsó completely breaks away from his earlier medium.

The film was shot in closed and variable spaces. The true novelty is the uncertainty and the loss of structure. Since Így jöttem we have become accustomed to the fact that Jancsó's world is constantly moving. The camera moves, and the actors move in front of the camera. The way of depicting how history and the world operate not only followed the image but interpreted it with the contrast of motion and stillness. This could only take place following the creation of an attitude that reflects a unified point of view, in which the narrative and stylistic continuity is ensured by the continuous motion. In Jézus Krisztus horoszkópja the loss of structure results in a loss of the unified viewpoint as well. On the monitors that appear in the film, we see the same events happening at earlier or later times from different angles. The method launched in Szörnyek évadja and also used in Isten hátrafelé megy eliminates the common viewpoint created by the simultaneity of time and space. Linear time and the illusion-like three-dimensional space are converted into quasi-time and quasi-space. In this context, the final question of the film—"Who am I, am I at all?"—sounds like something from icy outer-space.

The self-mocking angle used through the whole structure of Isten hátrafelé megy has a liberating, releasing effect: there is an upward slope from planned order to created chaos. If we accept the definition given at the opening of the trilogy, we may conclude that the art of Jancsó is not catastrophic since it begins all over again; it is followed by something. It moves, functions and operates. From the individual and cosmic catastrophe of Jézus Krisztus horoszkópja we advance into the post-catastrophe of parodic history with Isten hátrafelé megy. The catastrophe is a tragic state of the world; the period following the catastrophe, at least for the Eastern European survivor, is self-mocking. The lost tragedy calls for a re-evaluation. Jancsó's latest work [at the time of writing in 1992], Blue Danube Waltz (Kék Duna keringő), is the vision of the intangible, of historical culmination inexplicable metaphysical fears; the tragedy of acquired uncertainty along the Danube.

Gábor Gelencsér

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About the author

Gábor Gelencsér is film lecturer at ELTE University in Budapest.

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1. Mira Liehm and Antonin Liehm, Les cinémas de l'Est, Les Éditions du Cerf, Paris, 1989.return to text

2. Yvette Biro, Jancsó, Editions Albatros, Paris, 1977, p 137.return to text

3. Claude Beylie and Marcel Martin, "L'ideologie, la technique et le rite," (interview with Miklós Jancsó) in Ecran 72, no 10, December 1972, Paris, p 10.return to text

4. Michel Estève, Le pouvoir en question, Les Éditions du Cerf, Paris, 1984, p 102.return to text

5. Jean-Pierre Jeancolas, Cinéma hongrois 1963-1988, Editions du CNRS, Paris, 1989, p 107.return to text

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