Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

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 Issue 4 
3 Mar

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Miklos Jancso in 2003: photo Andrew James Horton) HUNGARY
I haven't changed,
the world has

Miklós Jancsó interviewed

Jancsó's later works have suffered in comparison to his "classic" period of the 1960s. Graham Petrie talks to the director about how these much-maligned films explore and expand his traditional themes in ways appropriate for a different era.

The films made by Miklós Jancsó (born 1921) in the second half of the 1960s, such as The Round-Up (Szegénylégeiyek, 1965). The Red and the White (Csillagosok, katonák, 1967), and Silence and Cry (Csend és kiáltás, 1968) were at the forefront of the revival of Hungarian cinema in that decade, while the starkness of his themes and a distinctive visual style based on the almost constantly moving camera made Jancsó himself one of the most controversial and widely discussed of contemporary directors.

Much of his later work, however, has been dismissed as a self—indulgent concern with form at the expense of content, or as little more than a tired reworking of his earlier effects. As the "great period" has already been extensively analysed in numerous books and articles.

Kinoeye here presents an interview conducted by Graham Petrie in 1985, at, perhaps, a low-point in critical interest in Jancsó's latest films. This interview concentrates on what were then his most recent features which can still be considered among his most unjustly neglected works.

I know you started to make films in the 1950s, but it's generally agreed that your major work as a director dates from the mid-1960s. Would you say that, over the last twenty years, your style and themes have remained consistent, or do you see a development and change from the earlier work to what you are doing now?

I'm well aware that most people think that my best films were made during the l960s. In fact there was a poll taken by Hungarian critics this year to choose the best forty films made in the forty years since Hungary's liberation by the Soviet army, and five of these forty films were made by me and all five were made during the 1960s. There seems to have been a return to an earlier outlook, in the sense that people now prefer to see relatively simple stories told in a relatively realistic style, and these films would fit into this category.

Of course, they were considered rather unusual and different at the time they were made, but, even so, they were not all that different from the normal, so-called realistic style. If I were to look at them again, I would probably he surprised myself at how well they fit into the mainstream of realistic film making of the period. I think all this explains why my later films have not been so popular—by "later" films I mean those starting with Égi bárany (Agnus Dei) in 1970. After that I spent about ten years in Italy and I made four feature films and a couple of documentaries there. These films aren't usually taken into account here in Hungary, it's as if they didn't even exist—except for Vizi privati, pubbliche virtú (Private Vices, Public Virtues, 1976) which was quite controversial in Italy and elsewhere.

As for any difference between these later films and the earlier ones, I think the ideas are basically the same, the main difference perhaps is in the style. The later films contain what I would call a "theoretical irony," they are ironical but at the same tine they are not humorous or funny, and this seems to upset both audiences and critics.

I've seen all your Italian films except La Pacifista (1970) and it has always seemed to me that there is a very clear development and continuity in your recent work. Do you think it would help if your Italian films were better known in Hungary?

Not really. Hungarian critics pay attention only to a few selected films and film-makers, and they're not interested in style or in someone who reworks the same theme over and over again, as [Walt] Whitman did. In fact, this applies to most critics, not just Hungarian ones: all they notice is the techniques, the long takes and the people moving around, and they don't pay any attention to what I'm talking about.

What would you say were the main themes of your work in the 1970s?

Unfortunately, it has been the same theme throughout my career: an exploration of the state of society in which some people always try to exploit others. Even if they come from the oppressed classes themselves, once they get into power they change and try to oppress other people. This is still the there that interests me most today, along with the techniques used by these people to persuade others to follow them, even though they're obviously taking the wrong path. Ultimately perhaps audiences all round the world know more about this whole power game than anything I can tell them through my films.

You said that you felt your style had changed somewhat in your recent films, and it seems to me that Magyar rapszódia (Hungarian Rhapsody, 1978) and Allegro Barbaro (1978) are much more abstract and symbolic and deliberately non-realistic than even a film like Még kér a nép (Red Psalm, 1971) or Szerelmem, Elektra (Elektreia, 1974). Why did you choose to move in this direction?

I tend to choose my themes to fit my style and to explain why I work in this highly stylised manner, let me say that I go to the cinema quite a lot and I find it ridiculous to see films with a historical subject treating that subject in a realistic style, because everyone knows that the film is made at the present day and it's dealing with an era we know very little about.

For example, in the Italian television series made about Marco Polo, it's ridiculous to imagine that Marco Polo could have met the Chinese emperor in the circumstances shown in the film. Those films that present a historical subject in a purely realistic way either consider the viewers to be little more than children, and so they make a nice colourful picture book for them, or they tell the story as if it was a history book for elementary schools. It's not just ridiculous, it's also bad faith, because they don't consider the viewer to be an equal partner.

Another kind of "historical" film is the kind where the film-maker really wants to force his own ideas on the viewer, but he dresses the film up in a realistic costume in order to make it look objective rather than subjective. This too is bad faith and lying because it misleads the viewer. I don't want to lie to the viewers in my films, and so I choose a style that makes it clear to them that I am only telling them what I think, it's my own personal viewpoint, and they shouldn't for a moment believe that this an accurate reproduction of actual events in the past.

As for the kind of themes that interest me, let's take the Italian anarchist who assassinated King Umberto II of Italy around 1902 in a stadium before thousands of people. There was no death penalty in Italy at the time, and so he was sentenced to life imprisonment, and then a month later he committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell. Shortly afterwards, the prison governor and some other officials received the highest state awards from the government. I would like to find out what really happened there. It's the same with the death of Rudolf, the heir to the Hapsburg Empire [the subject of Vizi privati, pubbliche virtú]—there is much about that which is still unclear.

It seems then that you would like the audience to engage in a kind of dialogue with you; you want them to be provoked into thinking and asking questions for themselves instead of passively receiving the answers from you?

Yes, that's right. We—I and the friends with whom I make my films—don't think of the viewer as a child but as an adult, and we would like to be partners in an equal discussion with him. We don't want to tell him what to think.

I know that Magyar rapszódia and Allegro Barbaro are loosely based on the life of the politician Bajcsy-Zsilinszky [A nobleman who became a leading liberal politician and anti-fascist and who was executed in 1944. He is called István Zsadányi in the films]. How important is it for the audience to know some of the details of Hungarian history of the period?

I don't think the viewer needs to know anything about the actual historical or political circumstances. The story is very simple and straightforward, about someone who does not come from the oppressed classes, but who ends up taking their side. Allegro Barbaro is, perhaps, more difficult for the viewer because it is more symbolic and fantastic.

It seems to take the form of a gigantic flash-forward: István gets out of a red car and walks towards the camera; there are clouds of smoke and you cut forward in time to show the story of the film; and then at the end you return to István standing beside the car. Why did you choose this kind of structure?

The story of the film is really a fantasy—what István imagines in something like one minute of real time. In his fantasy, he becomes a hero and inspires his people to become heroic too—but of course none of this actually happens in reality. Although he himself, in historical fact, really was heroic, what we wanted to show was the ironic duality between his own heroism and the people—who he imagines as being heroic too—not being heroic at all. Of course this isn't the real story of Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, it's our own personal view of the period of the Second World War. It's more like a fairy story or folk tale.

You seem to have a more pessimistic outlook here than in Még kér a nép, where you suggest that revolution really is possible, that the people really will unite to fight for their freedom. In later films like Szerelmem, Elektra and Roma revuole Cesare (Rome Wants Another Caesar, 1973) you show someone who tries to encourage the people to revolt, tries to convince them that they can change their circumstances, but fails to do so. This seems to be the theme of Allegro Barbaro too, from what you've just said. Why do you seem to believe that people won't listen any longer, that they don't really want things to change?

This pessimism is probably due to the changes that have taken place throughout the world since 1968. These changes can't he ignored.

I'd like to come back to that in a moment, but let's just stick with Allegro Barbaro for a moment. There are several very long takes in the film in which all kinds of incompatible events take place, things that couldn't in reality he happening in one continuous sequence of time and space. People die and come back to life again, for example, within the framework of one continuous camera movement. Could you say something about why you use this technique?

Basically I used this technique to make the viewer understand that he is not seeing reality—what he is seeing is unreal. In the classical style of editing the viewer realises that there may he jumps in time between the shots. However, in a long take, when he sees so many different actions taking place within the one shot – and most viewers know enough about film to understand that this is all one long take— then, when the viewer sees so many contradictory events happening within that shot that couldn't possibly happen in reality, he has to understand that it is not true, it's a fantasy, it's impossible. Whether the viewers then accept or reject it is another matter, but at least they understand that it's not true. And if they understand that it is not real, then they are forced to think about what it really wants to tell then.

You said earlier that audiences didn't really need to know the historical facts behind these films. Yet Hungarian cinema has always had a very strongly nationalistic identity and this has always been one of its main virtues. Do you feel that, in your films, you're speaking for Hungary, trying to help define and maintain its identity as a nation, or, taking a quote Roma revuole Cesare, are you "fighting for all small nations who are oppressed?" Or are both aspects involved?

That's really a very complex and difficult question and especially difficult to answer in today's world. I'm only half-Hungarian myself, my mother was Romanian and I came from Transylvania, and the whole question of Hungarian national identity is very complicated. There are about 15 million Hungarians alive today, but only about half of them actually live in Hungary, and the question of Hungary's national identity is a pressing political problem.

One reason for this is that Hungarian language and culture are quite unique. A relatively small Slav nation can find its identity more easily than we can because our language cuts us off from the rest of the world and leaves us isolated. There are two aspects to this search for a Hungarian identity: on the one side you have the ancient Latin saying, Extra Hungaria non est vita ("Nothing exists outside Hungary"), and on the other, which is perhaps natural for a small country like ours, is the quotation from Bakhunin that someone speaks at the end of La Pacifista: "Our freedom is the freedom of everyone else."

A lot of what we've been talking about seems to apply to A zsarnok szíve (The Tyrant's Heart, 1981) as well. One theme seems to concern the role of the artist in today's world—there's a line near the beginning where someone talks about art as being lies dressed up and pretending to be truth and beauty.

That statement is meant ironically, about what those in power want from the artist. It's not really meant to say what art is.

Yes, I understand that, but I think the film is still concerned with the problem of whether it's possible, in contemporary political circumstances, for the artist to tell the truth.

This is perhaps the most difficult of my films because we never actually know what is real and what is fantasy—unlike Allegro Barbaro, where you realise where the dream begins and reality ends. Here only the final deaths, the killing of the actors, is real: beyond this you don't how much of the story actually took place or not. To some extent it does reflect my feelings about what an artist can do in today's world, but then I'm not really sure whether film-making is an art and I can be considered an artist. An artist should be able to create his own autonomous world, but making a film depends on so many extraneous factors that I don't really think it's an authentic form of art.

You've just said that we never know in the film what is real and what isn't. It's also a very theatrical film, you make a lot of use of theatrical performances, curtains being drawn across the stage, deliberately artificial elements like that. Is this part of what you re saying about power and political lying and mystification in the film: that we're living in a world where we don't know any longer what's true and what isn't; we're given so many contradictory accounts that it's impossible to find out the true version any longer?

[Laughs] Thank you very much. That's exactly what the film is about.

Could you add more to that?

This is the only film I have made that takes place almost entirely on a stage, except for the last scene. I did it this way to express my feeling that life today is so complicated that, even within a relatively small space, it's like a labyrinth, you can't really find your way around. And that applies to people's personal lives as well as to political life. But the film doesn't suggest that is just the natural state of events and it's perfectly normal it's trying to say that there are people who have made the world this way and who try to—and do—manipulate it to their own advantage.

The ultimate reality, then, is the power beyond that small enclosed world, which brings it to an end with the deaths at the end of the film—which are real and final deaths, unlike the fake deaths earlier?

Yes, that's why you go outside at the end, to the anonymous horsemen who you just see in the distance.

I believe the film wasn't very successful in Hungary? Do you think people didn't want to understand it?

Hungarian audiences are so influenced by television that they're not open to films of this kind any longer. There's even a kind of hostility towards them, which is encouraged by some critics and other people. Perhaps the time for making films of this kind is past, it's getting harder to find money for them and you can't help feeling that you're working in a vacuum and you have to ask yourself how much longer it's worth going on.

Is some of this frustration, perhaps, expressed in A zsarnok szíve in the insults and gestures addressed directly to the camera and so to the audience?

Yes and no. It's traditional in Italian theatre for the actors to behave like this to the audience. But it's frustrating for a filmmaker who would like his films to be understood, to find that they are not.

Putting together all that you've been saying, and the way your films themselves have developed, you seem to feel that, both artistically and politically, the audience doesn't want to listen any longer, it doesn't want to be challenged or disturbed. Does film still have any useful role to play in this situation?

I don't think it's I who have changed; I think the world has. I'm not a pessimist. I think an artist, a film-maker, an ordinary person too, has constantly to say "No" to all the injustices around him. What really matters with a film is how widely it's distributed—— its influence depends on that. The position an artist takes on matters of right and wrong, his own personal integrity, doesn't always matter as far as his public image is concerned—though of course I have much more affection for those of my colleagues who stand up against manipulation rather than serving it. All power organisations, the state or the authorities, even the owner of a communications network, however, prefer those who are obedient to those who are not.

Do you think things are any easier for the younger generation: are their films more widely accepted?

Theoretically they should be, because their subjects and techniques are more popular, but in fact the Hungarian audience rejects most of them too. As soon as they smell Art, they become hostile. It seems to me that, since 1968, the world of the white races at least has moved towards a sort of apathy. There are no real philosophical goals in this world, not even in the more successful societies such as North America. The goals are all very primitive and short-term, like stopping Communist "expansion". But there are no really worthwhile long-term goals anywhere in this world. Whether the younger generation of film-makers will be able to find and fulfil a role in this situation, I can't really say.

It must be difficult making films intended to warn people about this apathy, when the apathy itself prevents them from paying attention to what you are saying.

Up to about 1963, during the period of what was called "peaceful co-existence," there was a general illusion, both in the West and in the Communist world, that there was a real chance of creating social peace through the welfare society. 1968 destroyed that hope and it seems to me that what has happened since is that certain levels of society are now beginning to accept as legitimate the idea that they should be different from, and superior to, other levels of society: that they should be moderately or even very well off, and that other people should be poor or deprived. Eventually this social development may have an effect on this intellectual or philosophical apathy, but in the meantime the process can he seen everywhere, in our part of the world too.

It's certainly what's happening in America and Britain. Are you suggesting that, if the process continues or accelerates, it will spur people out of their apathy again?

I don't really know what will happen. All I can say is that life will be easier for film-makers then because it's easier to make films about that kind of subject than about apathy. And the apathy will he broken to some extent by the development of this process. All governments and authorities prefer apathy because then they can make artists serve their ends better and reinforce the apathy, but if the apathy is broken, then artists will feel more independent and have more chance to be creative and autonomous.

So there is some hope after all?

[Laughs] Maybe after the Third World War we'll have good films again.

Graham Petrie

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Also of interest
About the author

Graham Petrie is the author of History Must Answer To Man: The Contemporary Hungarian Cinema (1978), a book on Jancsó's Red Psalm in the Cinetext series (Flicks Books), books on Francois Truffaut and Andrei Tarkovsky (with Vida T Johnson), and Hollywood Destines: European Directors In America, 1922-1931.

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