Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 4 
3 Mar

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We should see the world the same way
János Kende interviewed

Jancsó's regular cinematographer from the 1960s to the early 1990s talks to Graham Petrie about the director's working methods, why A zsarnok szíve deserves to be reappraised and why his best shots never get into Jancsó's films.

János Kende started work with Jancsó in 1965 and two years later became his favoured cinematographer. For 25 years, Kende was behind the camera on almost every feature that the director made. In addition, he also worked with other great names in Hungarian cinema, such as Zsolt Kézdi-Kovács, Márta Mészáros, Pál Gábor and others. His camerawork is particularly noted for its directness and precision and his ability to capture the mood or atmosphere of a particular landscape or setting.

Kinoeye here presents a previously unpublished interview by Graham Petrie, made in 1985. At this time, Jancsó's latest film was A zsarnok szíve (The Tyrant's Heart, 1981), which saw the visual style and spatial architecture change dramatically from his early films. This process would continue in the "tetralogy of chaos" that Jancsó was about to embark on. This loose tetralogy, though, was to constitute the last features Jancsó would make with Kende, and from the mid-1990s his favoured director of photography has been Ferenc Grunwalsky.

I have spoken already to György Illés, who, I believe, was your teacher at the Film School. One thing he mentioned was that directors and cameramen begin by receiving the same training. Was this the case when you were at the School?

In my time, between 1961 and 1965, directors and cameramen were trained separately. The training was very good and very thorough and each student received a lot of personal attention. Illés tried to get each student to develop his own personal style as a cameraman, and I developed a very close personal relationship with him. We were perhaps the last group to receive such close attention and we were also perhaps the last group not to receive any separate training in electronics and television work. While I was still at school, I began to work with Tamás Vámos, a director who now lives in Canada, and with Sándor Sára [cameraman and director.] I missed quite a few classes as a result, but Illés felt that I was learning as much through working with Sára as I would through attending school.

You say you were encouraged to develop a personal style of camerawork. When you work with a director—and you've worked with some of the best in Hungary—what do you see as your role: do you try to bring a distinctive contribution to the film, or do you consider yourself subordinate to the director with the task of recreating his or her vision as well as you can?

On the whole, I've always put the emphasis on playing a subordinate role, for the real responsibility for the film lies with the director. Naturally, I always try to put something of my own personality into the film, but my primary concern lies with what the director wants. So if there is a difference of opinion between the director and myself, and if I can't persuade him to accept my point of view, then I will just do as he wants. Naturally, if there are too many disagreements of this kind, they will lead to a point where we stop working together. What I require from a director is that he should see the world in much the same way as I do, that we should have some ideas in common.

In my entire career, I've only worked with one director whose ideas were so different from mine that we couldn't agree at all, and that was [Zoltán] Gyöngyössy. I made three films with him and then we parted company. But while I was working with him, I tried to do what he wanted.

Jancsó has said in interviews that he started to use you as his cameraman because you were able to work very quickly, you could improvise, you could film on location without bothering too much with elaborate lighting effects. On the other hand, I've seen a recent film that you photographed, Boszorkányszombat (Witches' Sabbath, 1983), which was directed by János Rósza, and it's full of the most complex kind of lighting and optical effects. Do you have any preference for one kind of visual style as against another?

I'm simply interested in making good and successful films, and the methods involved don't really matter. I'm happy making films, whether they're simple or sophisticated. I enjoy improvisation and I also enjoy making films that involve long and careful planning.

One of my favorite artists is Alexander Calder, who made mobiles: they move, yet in every phase of their movement they create a perfect composition. That's something you find in Jancsó too, the same combination of movement and composition. I don't really approach films from a technical viewpoint, although I realise that you have to be able to understand that aspect and be able to work with it. Unlike some of my colleagues, I've never been excited about any particular tool of filmmaking, a special kind of film stock or lens or anything like that; what interests me is what you can achieve by using that particular tool. However, I've always been happy when I could find the solution to a particular technical problem.

Can we talk more about your work with Jancsó? I think you first worked with him on a short film called Jelenlét (Presence, 1965) and then you became director of photography on Csend és kiáltés (Silence and Cry, 1968). When you are working with him, how do you plan the shooting, what kind of things do you discuss? Do you plan an overall visual style, do you have very clear ideas in advance as to how the film will look, or do you leave a lot of that until the actual shooting?

The way Jancsó makes his films is usually that, two or three months beforehand, he and his scriptwriter Hernádi have long discussions about the film. I often take part in these discussions myself and, almost of its own accord, a certain idea of what the film will be like develops out of this. It was rather different, however, with the most recent film I made with Jancsó which is my tenth with him overall, A zsarnok szíve. Here, for the first time, Jancsó recorded the rehearsals, and then he and I looked at them on a TV monitor and discussed things and decided what changes to make in the various shots. In the earlier films, however, as I was the one who was actually operating the camera and controlling the zoom, it was really up to me to decide how to frame the shots and Jancsó saw the results for the first time when the rushes were shown.

So that was the normal pattern?

Yes, up until A zsarnok szíve. One thing about Jancsó is the he expects good work from his crew and he is never surprised by anything really good; he gets angry, however, when the work doesn't live up to his expectations. I've been a friend since 1963 and I would find it rather absurd if he started explaining to me in detail the kind of shot or the kind of framing he wanted: I know him too well to need that. It's pleasant to work for him, because he's very positive about accepting other people's ideas and advice if they will contribute to the film. Yet it's also difficult to work for him; I really suffered through the making of every film.

I've read accounts of his filming which suggest that, in a normal day's work, nothing much will actually be shot until quite late in the day: all the time is spent working out the camera movements and the movement of the actors. Is that correct?

It depends, it varies from film to film. What we always do first, when we start shooting, is to define the space: this involves laying down the tracks and establishing the area in which the action will take place. And then we'll mark a starting point—it could be anything, a close-up of an actor, an object, a vehicle, whatever. And then we develop and build up the movements of the actors starting from that point, and parallel to this we work out the movements of the extras.

This looks rather funny because, since we know where they are to be at the end of the shot, they start from that point and move backward so that they can work out where to start from in order to be able to arrive at the required place at the required time. During all this time, of course, I'm concentrating on how it looks through the camera, and it was only when I saw films made about his method of shooting that I realised how many people were moving all the time. But it's a very concentrated way of working and it creates a lot of tension in the people working for him.

So the shots themselves are actually improvised on location and it's only the props and the technical equipment that we work out in detail beforehand: candles, rain-making machines and so on. We make sure that we have all these; then, on location, especially if the shooting gets bogged down a little, we have them if we need them and we decide on the spot how to use them.

As the actual shots are never precisely planned in advance, we can rarely make use of the first take because there are still mistakes in it. We usually use the second take because the third and fourth get to be so perfect that they become lifeless and mechanical. They lose their natural tension and even if there are still some small mistakes in the second take, that's better than having something too mechanical. As a result, the shots that I would consider best from a technical point of view never get into the final film!

Are there any particular shots or sequences that you feel particularly proud of?

There are some I don't like, and sometimes these are my fault and sometimes they're Jancsó's. I think, however, that A zsarnok szíve is really a very good film, much better and more intelligent than it was given credit for being—in Hungary or anywhere else. I hope the whole world will discover this film one day. But Jancsó has always had this problem of not making the kind of films that happen to be in the fashion; he's only 64, however, and he's got another ten or fifteen years ahead of him, so perhaps the fashion will catch up with him again.

How do you feel about the criticism that Jancsó has just been repeating himself in his last four or five films and that he has nothing new to say?

I myself feel that, while the statistical probability of a director inventing a unique personal style is very small, the possibility of a director inventing two such styles is non-existent. Jancsó has tried to make a different kind of film, but it's never worked out. Magyar rapszódia (A Hungarian Rhapsody, 1978) was intended to be a new kind of film for him, but when he started to make it, he found he couldn't do it in any other way than his usual one. I don't consider this a shortcoming, because when I go to see a Fellini film I expect to see "Fellini" and not something else. I like directors who have an obsession and there are enough film-makers in the world to give variety and choice overall. It doesn't bother me that John Ford made, say, 96 films that are all the same.

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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