Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 4 
3 Mar
2003

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Miklos Jancso's A zsarnok szive, avagy Boccaccio Magyarorszagon (The Tyrant's Heart, 1981) HUNGARY
The tyrant's waltz
Miklós Jancsó's films in the period 1981 to 1991

Jancsó's 1980s films drew accusations of "self-parody" from critics at the time of their release. Graham Petrie reassesses four features made in this period of "punctuated equilibrium."


In his now half-century long career Miklós Jancsó's films have evolved in what might seem at first to be unpredictable and even incompatible ways, yet with an underlying logic both in theme and style. Setting aside the "Stalinist" doumentaries of the 1950s and the "false starts" of his first two features, A harangok Rómában mentek (The Bells Have Gone to Rome, 1959) and Oldás és kötés (Cantata, 1963), his films from the partly autobiographical Igy jöttem (My Way Home, 1964) onwards have—despite apparently wildly diverging thematic material and visual styles—a continuity that derives from a willingness to constantly re-examine previous intellectual and political positions and ruthlessly discard those that no longer seem relevant or feasible.

Though, to take an example at random, there may seem at first sight to be nothing in common between the rigorously stripped down black and white images and austere theme and action of Csend és kiáltás (Silence and Cry, 1968), and the orgiastic action, lush colour and soft-focus photography of Vizi privati, pubbliche virtú (Private Vices, Public Virtues, 1975) there is in fact a logical progression that links the two together, just as there is a similar linking of the latter film to the contemporary Budapest setting and the ubiquitous television screens of Jézus Krisztus horoszkópja (Jesus Christ's Horoscope, 1988) or Kék Duna keringő (Blue Danube Waltz, 1991).

This continuity has perhaps been obscured for many viewers by the frequent accusations of "mannerism," "repetition" and even "self-parody" levelled at his work with increasing hostility, especially by Hungarian critics, since the mid-1970s, combined with the problematics of seeing most of the later films—in the English-speaking world at least—outside the context of a one-off film festival or archive screening. At a time when even French, Italian or Swedish films struggle to establish a presence in American or British cinemas, it is doubly difficult for films from a small country such as Hungary or an idiosyncratic director such as Jancsó to make much of an impact.

Yet his relative invisibility today is our loss, for his recent work deals directly with some of the major problems of our time—no longer cloaked in the "Aesopian" disguise forced on filmmakers in the Soviet bloc for so many years that implied (for official consumption at least) that the problems raised by their films belonged to a safely distant past.

Knowledge as an illusion

The thematics of Jancsó's films over the past four decades can be loosely categorised as follows. Arbitrary power, oppression, victimisation and violence dominate the first "trilogy"—Szegénylegények (The Round-Up, 1965), Csillagosok, katonák (The Red and the White, 1967) and Csend és kiáltás. These remain throughout the following decade, but merge with the question of how to resist and overthrow the oppressors, especially when it is so easy for those leading the resistance to impose their own form of oppression in turn—themes prominent in Fényes szelek (The Confrontation, 1968), Sirokkó (Winter Wind, 1969), Még kér a nép (Red Psalm, 1971), Roma rivuole Cesare (Rome Wants Another Caesar, 1973) and Szerelmem, Elektra (Elektreia, 1974), among others.

Meanwhile, Jancsó's visual style (in collaboration with his regular camerman János Kende) becomes increasingly fluid and balletic, dominated by lengthy, often ten-minute long, sequence shots. The action at the same time becomes steadily less and less "realistic", filled with singing, dancing, co-ordinated movements of the actors, recurring symbolic motifs of fire, water, candles, doves and female nudity, and blatantly "impossible" incidents such as characters who have been killed returning to life, or the anachronistic red helicopter that appears at the end of Szerelmem, Elektra.

An important shift of thematic approach can be discerned beneath the soft-porn surface of the Italian-made Vizi privati, pubbliche virtú. Previous films had explored the nature of tyranny and the feasibility of its overthrow; even when the attempted revolution was misguided or unsuccessful, the possibility remained that, one day, a just society might come into being. Vizi privati, pubbliche virtú inaugurates an increasing scepticism in this respect: truth and justice are no longer as self-evident and clear-cut as they had previously appeared to be and the hope of ultimate success is perhaps nothing more than an illusion.

This idea becomes central to A zsarnok szíve, avagy Boccaccio Magyarországon (The Tyrant's Heart, 1981), set in the confines of a royal palace in 15th-century Hungary during the country's struggle for independence from Turkish invaders. Though the film is subtitled "Boccaccio in Hungary", the plot has nothing to do with Boccaccio apart from a brief interlude during which one of the characters sings a song based on one of his tales. More obvious references are to legendary or historical figures from the Hungarian past, including the noblewoman Erzsébet Báthory, who was said to have preserved her youth by bathing each day in a virgin's blood.

And the relationship between the young prince's mother and his uncle is clearly based on Hamlet.

The plot, which is filled with deliberate falsifications, contradictions, fictions and lies, has the prince, Gáspár, who had been taken abroad to Italy for his own safety, called back home after the supposed death of his father in battle against the Turks, bringing with him a troupe of Italian actors. He enters almost immediately into an atmosphere of deceit, treachery and suspicion, in which almost everything he (and we) are told is immediately contradicted or cancelled out by a different story. There seems to be no one, apart from his actor friends, whom he can believe or trust, and much of the action is mimicked by dancers moving through the exotically furnished and decorated rooms of the castle. He is given different versions of his father's death—in battle against the Turks, or killed by a bear, or murdered by the prince's uncle.

His mother may not really order the daily killing of young women, may or may not have been struck dumb following the death of her husband, and may not even really be Gáspár's mother. His father may not be dead after all—perhaps he is really the mysterious Turkish officer who seems to control much of the action, while his supposed mother and uncle are in fact actors hired to play their roles. Gáspár himself may have been recalled merely to be a puppet ruler, subordinate to the wishes of the Turks.

Meanwhile plots and counter-plots, murders and assassinations proliferate in the background, in the course of which most of the characters—including Gáspár himself—appear to die before returning to life again. Brechtian alienation devices remind us that we are witnessing a series of performances rather than "reality," and the Italian actors, in Commedia dell' arte style, address and even insult the audience, talking directly to the camera. Finally, Gáspár and his actor friends attempt to flee from the castle, but, on reaching the featureless landscape of the Hungarian plain seen so often in Jancsó's films, they are all shot down by unseen assailants (mirroring the death of the Prince and his associates at the end of Vizi privati, pubbliche virtú).

The sumptuously exotic setting of the film, complete with the now customary and ubiquitous candles and naked women, masks a sense that there is no longer a clear-cut enemy against which to struggle. If no one is really who he or she appears to be, if every apparent truth is immediately cancelled out or replaced by another that is equally illusory, if the characters' seeming freedom is also an illusion and they are under the arbitrary control of ruthless and inexplicable forces, then there can be no real possibility of successful resistance or revolution.

Jancsó virtually acknowledges this in an interview given some five years later while preparing Szörnyek évadja (Season of Monsters, 1986):

It seems to me that the world is becoming more and more irrational: it is impossible to know exactly why anything is there, and where it originated. The world defies any attempt at explaining it with the aid of things we believe, or know, or have seen to be an explanation. The various philosophies, hypotheses, religions that have been produced for thousands of years all provide explanations of a subjective kind.[1]

His comments here are interestingly close to Lester Thurow's analysis of the contemporary social order in The Future of Capitalism: "in a period of punctuated equilibrium no one knows what new social behavior patterns will allow humans to prosper and survive. But since old patterns don't seem to be working, experiments with different new ones have to be tried." [2]

Szörnyek évadja itself, however—to my mind at least, though a more sympathetic account of it can be found elsewhere in this issue—simply mirrors this intellectual and ideological confusion rather than providing an alternative to it. Jancsó's first film with a present-day setting since La Pacifista in 1970, and the first since Oldás és kötés in 1963 to take place in contemporary Hungary, it both provides links to the past and indicates new stylistic directions for the future. Though most of the action here takes place outdoors, the film begins in Budapest, which would become the primary setting of all Jancsó's subsequent films.

Almost all pretence of realism is abandoned, as characters cause explosions simply with a pointed finger, and a car abandoned in a lake turns out to be a jeep when it is recovered. There are the now customary deaths and resurrections, a ubiquitous red helicopter, and the usual candles, doves and naked women decorate the background. The main visual innovation, which is to become central to the director's next three films, is the proliferation of TV screens throughout, recording the action as it happens, or providing an alternative perspective, or repeating or anticipating the events.

Obscure details

TV screens become the central feature of Jézus Krisztus horoszkópja and take on a major thematic significance which was merely latent in the previous film. The main character, played by György Cserhalmi, a mainstay of many of Jancsó's films of this period, and identified near the end of the film as "Joseph Kaffka" (sic) goes through a series of mysterious relationships with three women—Marta, whom he may or may not have murdered; Kata, a fomer policewoman who may have killed Marta and framed him for the murder; and Juli, a nurse who is often seen being interviewed on TV about the Stalinist show trials of the 1950s (Kata's grandfather was apparently one of the victims of these).

The Stalinist and Soviet-dominated past is pervasive in the film, resulting no doubt from the new freedom to examine this enjoyed by Hungarian filmmakers in the era of glasnost. A man reads lengthy extracts from Stalin and Lenin to old men in a café; references are made to the Soviet show trials of Bukharin and others in the 1930s, and to the Hungarian versions inaugurated by the dictatorial Rákosi in the 1950s; Nikita Krushchev is seen in a mixture of actual and fake documentary footage in the context of a programme about the Soviet repression of the 1956 Hungarian revolution; and background TV screens contain interviews about political imprisonment and execution in the 1950s.

Yet, the present does not seems to have escaped totally from the terrors of the past. The film opens with an anonymous man undergoing a beating, then being questioned by a policeman and made to show his ID card. The man reading from Stalin is also asked for his ID; the hero is asked at one point, "Why are the police always after you?"; Kata is, or was, a policewoman; and policemen, often with dogs, appear throughout the film, especially towards the end.

Though the main outline of the plot is fairly clear, the details are often deliberately obscure and contradictory. After helping the victim of the beating at the opening of the film, Kaffka, who carries a video camera through much of the action, films some of the café conversation nostalgically recalling the glory days of Stalinism, then goes to a party where a woman introduces him as her "friend and lover." This woman then gets into an ugly argument where she displays blatant anti-Semitism before apologising for this. Kaffka goes to look for another woman, Marta, and finds her dead on the kitchen floor with a dagger beside her and a large poster of himself on the wall. He takes the poster and leaves the apartment.

He then turns up at Kata's apartment carrying a bunch of flowers. TV images show her being interviewed as to why she joined the police. The romantic mood is broken when she accuses him of having an affair with another woman, Juli, and shows him a video image of the two of them together. They quarrel as he denies this affair and he then talks about Marta's death, denying that he had killed her. She says that "all writers and artists lie" (he is apparently a poet) but the romantic setting returns as they drink champagne and dance. Kata then says that she killed Marta and has framed him for the crime, mentioning circumstantial evidence such as the poster. They start to make love, after which she goes to take a shower while he talks about the false accusations made against her grandfather in the 1950s. She comes out of the shower and threatens him with a gun, saying that she loves him; but then shoots herself. He screams and picks up her body (or perhaps just her empty robe), then leaves, taking his camera with him.

The scene then switches to a room filled with TV monitors, on most of which Juli is being interviewed about the 1950s. Kaffka enters another room, also filled with TV monitors, picking up the poster as he goes. On one of the screens a long panning shot takes in some of the men at the party earlier, including Kaffka himself. An abrupt cut shows him accusing another man of killing Marta; the man replies that he (Kaffka) will be the next to die. In a brief outdoors scene in the courtyard where the film had opened, the newcomer, sitting in a Volkswagen, repeats his threat, saying that Kaffa will "come to a bad end" because he can't accept the world as it is.

He is then seen in Juli's apartment, in a room dominated by huge bank of TV monitors showing her interview; he turns these off with a wave of his hand. Another monitor repeats the earlier shot of Kaffa and other men at the party. Juli and he start to talk about astrology, the end of the world and extreme and unprecedented weather conditions—a theme that is taken up by a speaker on one of the televisions. They embrace and drink champagne and the scene begins to resemble the earlier one with Kata, especially when she starts to take a shower and he, half-naked, waits outside the glass door.

Suddenly a masked man bursts into the room and shoots him; she screams loudly as she covers his body, again recalling Kata's death. She is then seen leaving the building and running towards the Volkswagen, where she finds his body. She goes to a phone booth and, while she is phoning for an ambulance, one arrives with unnatural speed and the body (which may now not be his) is removed.

She is then shown being sedated, in a room where TV monitors continue the discussion of extreme and unpredictable weather changes—"we have reached the limits of human knowledge." She gives a friend of Kaffka's, seen earlier, the cassette showing scenes from the party, but, as the camera scans the men present once more, Kaffka's image has disappeared. It is at this point that she first gives his name—"Joseph Kaffka."

Returning to the courtyard, now filled with police cars, Juli is comforted by a policeman as she says she is afraid to go inside the house. Meanwhile horsemen seen earlier, dressed in showjumping costume, circle the scene, as do the police cars. When Juli is next seen, her house is no longer there and the Volkswagen is now a burnt-out wreck. The man who had threatened Kaffka says he plans to build on this spot and, when she says she recognises him, he denies this. She gets into a police car, as the camera circles this and the constant rain continues. She says again that his name was Joseph Kaffka and gives his address and ID number. The police check this and say that there is no record of him having existed. When she disputes this, she is told that their computer can't prove that Christ had ever existed either.

The police cars and motor cycles enter a large streetcar garage; she gets out and kneels beside one of the tramlines. The horsemen ride past and guitar music is heard as the wind blows dust over her.

The end of privacy

Talking in interview during the production of the film, Gyula Hernádi, who adapted the script from one of his short stories, stated that "in the film, it is not the story that is of interest, but its presentation, its form." [3] Beginning relatively realistically, though with some obscure and ambiguous incidents, the film moves towards a resolution that cannot be explained in rational terms. Did Kaffka ever exist or (like out-of-favour Soviet politicians) has his image, and identity, simply been erased from the historical record? Is he a murderer or someone who is framed for other people's crimes? Is the contemporary world capable of being rationally understood or explained? How relevant is a commonplace murder mystery when (as the scientists on TV warn) the world may be heading blindly towards imminent catastrophe?

The formal structure within which these questions are explored is dominated by the ubiquitous TV and video images that proliferate everywhere—indoors and outdoors, in private and in public spaces— apparently recording (and perhaps controlling) every aspect of the characters' lives—in chilling anticipation of the recently stated aim of security services in the US, Britain and elsewhere to record every phone call or e-mail message sent by their citizens.

As in Szörnyek évadja, but to a far greater extent, the monitors rarely simply record the action taking place, but provide alternative viewpoints, repeat scenes or show incidents from both past and, possibly, future. Often the cinematic image and the video image contained within it blend seamlessly so that characters move smoothly from one level of "reality" to another without a break and the dreamlike effect of several scenes is accentuated by quietly atmospheric music and by the strange time disjunctions and apparent impossibilities, especially towards the end (Juli leaves Kaffka's body in her house, then finds it in the intact Volkswagen; in the same scene the house disappears and the car becomes a wreck).

The overall effect is to suggest that privacy is no longer possible; official surveillance is everywhere and, on a metaphysical level, even visual evidence of our existence and identity can easily be erased. Even the title of the film contains a logical impossibility: as Jancsó explained in the interview already quoted: "According to the church, Jesus Christ could not have a horoscope, because then the position of the stars would have determined his fate, and not God's will."[4]

Reality questioned once more

Cserhalmi also takes the lead in Kék Duna keringő, a film whose political content is fully on the surface and which also suggests that the "New" post-Communist Hungary may not be all that different in many ways from the "Old" Hungary. Strangely enough, despite the blatantly obvious Budapest setting, the reviewer in the New Hungarian Quarterly seemed unwilling to recognise this, stating mysteriously that "the focus is on the assassination of a political leader in a banana style republic."[5]

As with Jézus Krisztus horoszkópja the main outline of the plot is relatively clear, though many details are obscure and the ending provides a twist that throws into question the "reality" of much—or all—of the previous action. The film begins and ends with a song by a Jancsó perennial, the folk singer and guitarist Tamás Cseh, as the camera circles him incessantly and a puzzled-looking sidekick shelters him from the rain with an umbrella. The song praises the women of Budapest, says how nice it is to live by the Danube, that life is a mixture of sweet and sour, and, if you are in debt here there are no consequences to be faced. This last idea seems to relate specifically to the main themes of the film. We then see musicians on a hotel terrace playing the "Blue Danube Waltz"; they reappear at frequent intervals throughout, perhaps representing the clichéd view of Hungary as opposed to contemporary reality.

Cserhalmi plays a maverick politician whose career straddles "Old" and "New" Hungary: a dissident under the old regime, he is equally unhappy with the frenzied rush towards capitalism inaugurated by his cousin, the country's new prime minister (played by another Jancsó favourite, József Madaras). Surrounded by a barrage of TV screens, with the action constantly being filmed on video, the prime minister, who has smoothly made the transition from Communist stalwart to enthusiastic capitalist, is welcoming the return of a Hungarian businessman who has spent many years abroad and is now prepared to invest heavily in the country's economy. Cserhalmi's character angrily, but to no avail, protests at what he sees as a betrayal of the ideals that had originally brought about a change of government; later scenes show the industrialist and the prime minister confronted by workers threatened with loss of their jobs under the new policies; they too are ignored. As in Jézus Krisztus horoszkópja, police and security men are omnipresent throughout the film, searching for bombs and interrogating the characters at every opportunity.

Suddenly the premier is shot by an unseen assailant. His cousin and his wife, who are having an affair, are suspected but not arrested; the wife, who is apparently terminally ill and in need of constant medical attention, collapses and is taken to hospital, where she is looked after by a woman doctor who is her husband's mistress and was an informer for the previous Communist government. Cserhalmi gives a eulogy for the dead premier, after which the wife tells him hysterically that "it was not necessary to kill him" and says she wants to confess to a priest and that they should both commit suicide—implying that they were responsible for the assassination.

From this point on the plot line diverges along several largely incompatible directions, as in earlier films. The wife, previously seen a wheelchair, is now running along a city street with the hero; shots ring out and both collapse. In hospital, however, the woman doctor tells the security chief that they both took poison but were saved in time. Then the hero is seen in hospital clothing; he finds the wife lying on the floor, carries her off, and tells the Colonel that she cut her wrists. He is promptly arrested for her murder and accused also of killing the premier out of sexual rivalry. He is presumably released, however, for he is next seen with the doctor in the premier's house where he encounters the priest mentioned earlier. The priest offers to listen to his confession, but he refuses, saying he doesn't believe in the afterlife. Left alone, he hears a shot and goes downstairs to find the priest dead. He tells the Colonel, "they killed him," and in turn is told, "all these murders happen when you are around." The Colonel adds, "we have a record of your movements" and tells him that they can fit an incriminating soundtrack to video images of him. Another gun shot is heard and the Colonel is now dead.

The hero and the doctor run through the street into a garden where he seems to encounter his mother. The doctor continues on her own and a series of TV images show the (previously dead) prime minister pointing a gun, the doctor and the wife, and the hero, holding a gun, being shot and falling to the ground. Multiple images here sometimes show TV images inside a TV image and the premier watching a televised image of himself.

The film then comes full circle as the premier walks out to the hotel terrace where he addresses the audience of the opening scene (including the priest), announcing the hero's death and saying that "we didn't watch over him carefully enough." The scene switches to the interior of a helicopter where the (no longer dead) Colonel tells his associates that "he killed himself. He was always crazy, he always spoke his mind, always spoke the truth." "Does that make him crazy?" a policeman asks, and the answer is "Yes."

The film's structure could be interpreted in several ways. The action may all take place in the hero's mind in the moment before his death—which perhaps occurs early in the film, after his quarrel with the premier, when he makes a mock gesture of shooting himself with a gun. Or it could take place in the premier's mind, as he considers getting rid of an inconvenient political rival and also his unfaithful wife. The all-pervasive TV screens create once more the sense of constant surveillance but also imply multiple realities and perspectives, not all of which cohere logically.

Despite the comparative directness and contemporaneous relevance of the film's theme, it seems to have suffered the fate of much of Jancsó's recent work in becoming virtually invisible, both in Hungary and elsewhere. For the following half dozen years, the director worked on television documentaries, before returning to feature filmmaking with Nekem lámpást adott kezembe as Úr Pesten (The Lord's Lantern in Budapest, 1998), the first of a loosely linked series of four films totally different in style, tone and theme from any of his previous films, in which he seems to have given up the attempt to convince an uncaring world of the problems facing it and to be content (with Hernádi's co-operation) to amuse himself by presenting the absurdities of contemporary life.

As he said while preparing Jézus Krisztus horoszkópja, "In short, it's a shitty world; that's just the way it is." Though he immediately adds, as if unwilling to succumb to despair completely, "But in the story, there is a glimmer of hope, with a touch of irony added."[6]

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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Footnotes

1."Season of Monsters. Interview with Miklós Jancsó and Gyula Hernádi at the shooting of their new film", Hungarofilm Bulletin 5/1986, p 12.return to text

2.Thurow, Lester C. The Future of Capitalism (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc, 1996) p 236.return to text

3. "An Ontological Crime Film. Interview with Miklós Jancsó and Gyula Hernádi", Hungarofilm Bulletin 2/1988, p 25return to text

4. Ibid, p 23.return to text

5. Edna Rauth, "Hungarian Film Week 1992", New Hungarian Quarterly, Vol XXXIII, No 126 (Summer 1992), p 158. return to text

6. Op cit, 1988, p 28.return to text

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