Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 4
 Issue 2 
29 Mar
2004

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Miklos Jancso's Szegenylegenyek (The Round-Up, 1965)HUNGARY
A "sand-lot" of allegory-making
Realism and symbolism in the early works of Miklós Jancsó

Despite being commonly read as allegorical works, Jancsó's early films are noticeable for their extreme realism. Iván Forgács examines how these two sit side by side as the director uses physical space to define the spiritual.


Miklós Jancsó's first film The Bells Have Gone to Rome (A harangok Rómába mentek, 1958) has remained almost unnoticed as a fluid piece of lyrical realism flourishing in contemporary Eastern Europe. This lack of interest in the film is itself relevant. The attribute "lyrical" helps us to perceive some of the basic structural peculiarities of this tendency on a practical level and makes more understandable the meaning of some former tendencies in film, such as neorealism.

The film industry, in its quest for an aesthetic that can break through the walls of show business and the business of propaganda, can be perceived as focusing on the story if it requires both mimetically objective representationalism and coherent interpretation. But the first patterns of renewal in post-war cinema yet could not represent synthetic forms to accommodate these two principles together. For a long period, artists had understood objectivity as the reality of action, and indicated their relation to the world through the interpretation of it. Hence, it seems that these issues of realism in a story are simply issues of content and theme.

Miklós Jancsó started his film career as the above-mentioned paradigm was changing. The story of A harangok Rómába mentek is adequately simple; it lacks all kinds of untruthful pathos, and it concentrates on the problem of choice, which can even be interpreted in an existentialist way.

It is Easter, 1945, and the eastern front is nearing a small Transdanubian town. Tibor, the teacher of the local grammar school, tries everything to prevent his students from being drafted into the army. However, when in the end they have to go into battle he agrees to be their leader, on the condition that his own brother does not have to go to war. For one student, Péter, this behaviour on the part of Tibor is unacceptable, and with his companions he flees to an idyllic island. Being determined enough, he finally manages to convince his brother that his prevaricate obedience is senseless and makes him give up his traditional values.

Obviously for contemporaries of the film, Tibor's ethical tragedy was an exciting, newsy theme. Nevertheless, Jancsó did not really know what to do with the possibilities offered by lyrical realism, with its poetic intonation that preserves the experience of continuance and reality. Between the wrestling hero and the realistically depicted environment, he is unable to find connecting points that could palpably reveal the inner world of the teacher. At the same time, the other more ordinary characters-that of Péter and the other students-show up surprisingly emphatically.

What makes the boys interesting is that according to their declarative utterances they almost seem to become rebels, but still they cannot reach mature actions-armed struggle. They remain adolescents. They perceive the reality of war as a playing field that expands immeasurably. However, this is why they take it absolutely seriously. They act thoughtlessly free. They cannot exactly conceive what the concrete connections between things are; consequently, they live through all their experiences at the level of essence.

As a result of the different points of view and feelings of the adolescents and those of the adults, the events, scenes and objects are placed into two different contexts. In the mature approach, which is emphasised, is their real nature, their role in everyday life, while in the childish fantasies they rather appear to be symbols carrying significance, interpreting reality, creating existence.

What suggests a kind of originality in Jancsó's film is that this psychologically motivated realistic duality comes out visually. This is the result of an almost Bresson-like, withheld, objective direct narration. It is true, however, that it does not provide Péter with a strong artistic life-space. He wrestles in vain, and he uselessly hesitates right to the end. All his efforts are only signalled by his moral conflict and his subsequent heroic is self-sacrifice.

Péter and his fellows are all afire with the useless desire that they alone can realise their wishes at the level of haphazard playful adventures and gestures (the hiding of the refugee girl Jana, the foundation of republic on an island). They are still not genuine participants in reality; they only act in it as bystanders. They live it symbolically, thus-almost unperceived-they become its lyrical interpreters.

One of Péter's inner monologues reveals their attitude quite precisely. When Jana is taken away by her fellow fighters in secrecy, he believes that she has disappeared. He bursts out, "Jana! How happy we were when we had found you. And if you were here now, everything would be much simpler. We could go together to the island, we could keep you away from harm, and perhaps the whole class could escape together."

This is a genuine mental state, a symbolising world view, which is always typical of teenagers, and its verbal exposition gains a genuinely important function in the artistic sense. It creates a context for a possible symbolist mode of portrayal. Jancsó finds this out accidentally. He creates a few student heroes, who live through the most unimportant war events as changes of fortune. They deal with the accidentally rescued partisan girl as if she was a goddess, and they conceive an island as if it was the land of a New Homeland, a real Democratic Republic. The directorial solutions start to fumble in a direction that could make the viewers see it too and try to find a way of filling up the pictorial world with similar metaphorical meanings.

Jancsó's great trick is that he pretends that everything was going in its own direction. He keeps clear of lyrical picture and montage compositions, and of abstract shifts in time. Seemingly, he remains a doctrinaire realist, for whom the main and most important virtue of the moving picture is that it transmits things analytically and objectively. But this realism is actually a "formalist" stylisation, which-usually in a kind of (socio-)psychologically based symbolising context-serves exactly as an unusually concentrated lyrical film expression.

Let's examine what kind of results A harangok Rómába mentek brings. As a whole, this film undeniably remains realist, and within this it undertakes an attempt to suggest the pictorial depiction of a clearly defined state of mind. Let's fancy an interpretation of Zoltán Fábri's adaptation of Ferenc Molnár's novel A Pál-utcai fiúk (The Pál Street Boys, 1969) in which the "sand-lot" (grund) is not only conceived as a symbol but we also live through how Nemecsek and his fellows are hypnotised by this symbolic space.

It is not difficult to extend this analogy, since the island has a similar role in the consciousness of the students of the provincial town in the film, and its external parameters also seem to be sand-lot-like at a certain level. It is a wild, uninhabited place. It is nothing, but it might be anything. Its natural flexibility brilliantly serves the human spirit that visits its clearances, thickets and reed plots. For Péter and his friends, this is an asylum and a revolutionary space.

Essentially, Jancsó here comes across a well-know phenomenon, the projection of the inner world into natural landscapes, but experience restrains him. Here, the pictorial expression really seems to be preceded by itself. The boys and the island have a surprisingly organic relationship. It is sufficient that the cameraman, Tamás Somló, assigns some softer shades to the scenes, and one at once feels the protective warmth of a real republic.

Nevertheless, the theme is manifested within a wider framework here than in Ferenc Molnár's book. For the boys of Pál Street, the sand-lot basically means everything. Thus, these fine pictorial tunings become highly exciting; it turns elements expounded in an ordinary context into fascinating, symbolically powerful motifs. The basis of this method is a kind of ancient lyrical principle: making things demesh. In the process of picture composition, new dimensions come into existence almost imperceptibly, such elements are emphasised, which- along with them being added together from the angle of perception of description-shepherd things in the direction of interpretation.

Péter and his friends are digging a trench. But they enjoy themselves too much. One can feel that it is not patriotic enthusiasm that drives them, but rather a kind of unconscious, cynical rejoicing, since while others are digging graves what they are digging is a cover-trench for them. They behave like civilians in a military event; thus, it loses its significance. It turns into a playground labyrinth.

The mine, where Péter and his friend rescue the partisan Jana, creates an even more depressing feeling. The fact that it is only used as an execution place enlarges its miserable features and all of its inhumane aspects. But Jana's apotheosis can easily be achieved too. The pellucid beauty of the actress who plays Jana does not confirm her role as a partisan, but it gives a widely interpretable depth to the abstract femininity that her rescuers see in her.

Another significant symbolising momentum can be emphasised in the film and in the light of Jancsó's subsequent oeuvre it is probably the most interesting. While they resting during their trench digging, Jóska calls Péter aside and hands him a gun. Immediately, Péter arms it and, spiritually, takes target. In the course of the seemingly childish scene, the gun becomes a kind of spiritual symbol of the beauty of fight.

One can see another good example for the exploitation of the creation of an accurate context by the means of film. It is apparent that the two boys are not partisans and they are not preparing for action. In this way, the physical gun at once exceeds its own objectiveness, and becomes abstracted into a symbol by two arhythmical solutions-the partially ritual and protracted handing over of the gun on the one hand and the gesticulating suddenness of aiming on the other. Both of these give a special feeling to the presentation. The passion for freedom gets mixed up with the joy of aggression.

In the course of Jancsó's career, however, the clean-cut aesthetic break-through into East European modernist film was represented by the continuance of the above processes in Oldás és kötés (Cantata, 1963), a film based on József Lengyel's short story. Why? Is there really such a remarkable difference between lyrical realism and the first pieces of the "new wave," which are conceived of as a watershed by film history?

Theoretically not. Film of the early 1960s does not expect anything new of cinematic art and it do even not offer new cinematic structures either. It keeps on living in the enchanting existence of explaining cognition. On the other hand, its thematic innovation leads to new solutions-which formerly might have appeared accidental-and it does so at such a rate that it leads to a qualitative change in film practice. The existentialist description of individuals' inner worlds comes into focus, which in a way automatically dissolves the oppositions between the description of lyrical and mimetic verisimilitude. Poetry, the subjective abstraction, turns into a topic that can objectively be depicted. Instead of outer events, the organising forces of composition become pieces of conversation, situations and meditative contemplations.

The inner life

Whereas in the case of A harangok Rómába mentek an interesting mode of description nearly gets lost (in spite of the future direction it anticipates), in Oldás és kötés the theme is offered at the level of a quasi-masterpiece. Ambrus, a young doctor at a clinic in Budapest, ardently criticises his elderly professor's practices, but during an operation the prof's preterhuman self-assurance forces Ambrus into self-examination.

He wants to think over his own career and his relationship with his friends and with his lover, but the city mixes everything up in him. He thus travels back to his home village, and he visits his father on his farm. The encounter with his father and his former acquaintances slowly leads him out of his critical state of mind.

So we are again faced with an authentically expounded inner process, but this time it is the process that forms the total contents of the film. Although the process can have contact with actual socio-critical elements in an East European manner, one cannot step out of it. But even this way, it does not imply any challenge to realism. Just the contrary. The presentation of the self-analysis of the hero requires summarising pictures, compressed to the utmost, both from his past and present. These can run into a symbolist intensity as well, but this is already another topic.

One can perceive this work as a kind of study. He recollects characteristic pictures of the reality of the life-style of an age and examines whether he can use them to display the symbol-system of some historical-sociological beings. The result is vastly thoughtful. In the context of the spiritual conflict, a lot of elements of reality gain a symbolic meaning without any artistic struggling. Let us have a brief look at the most notable highlights.

The hospital has been one of the most effective pictorial mediums since almost the very beginning of cinematic art-and not only because of the all-pervading whiteness. It is a strictly organised world, where everything has its definite space, every gesture has its own meaning. The hospital is a factory where every quotidian act is the peak of self-possessed humanism. It is a workplace where mental, physical and moral certainty are inseparable. A spiritual fortress, a materialistic temple. An arena of initiation to the secret of life. And it seems that everything serves the necessary embodiment of all that is human: the white smocks, the separating uniforms of doctors, nurses and patients, the hierarchical structures, the liturgy of visits, consultations and operations (the objective intonation, the vesture, the latex gloves, the ritual hand-washing).

Things have both a practical function and a world-interpreting, self-suggesting liturgical aspect. For the community of doctors, the hospital is a symbolical space inspiring action, and it is exactly this feeling that gives faith to the patients. It has an unbelievably huge transubstantiating power, which has its effect on a series of actors as well.

Doctors often enthuse uncomprehendingly how credibly the life of hospitals is pictured even by actors and directors of low-standard soap operas. However, this is not by accident; the key of this seemingly easy artistic empathy can be found in the peculiar form-organising "structures" of this atmosphere. Jancsó obviously knows it very well. He informs us about the site with moderate respect, throwing out its everyday symbolic order.

Nevertheless, he intervenes somewhat; he emphatically expands the space of the hospital towards the garden, where-among others-medical students walk at a drawling rhythm. This organic connection with nature correctly illustrates that there is no talk about a fastuous human profession, flirting with creation. The personage of Ambrus can in no way belong to this context. His inner conflict is demonstrated by a dramatically ardent clash between him and his environment.

Following this, the wrestling hero can easily be a maverick in the world around. He has a symbolising effect on everything. But to get adequate feedback it must be accurately defined where he should attain. It is not by accident, that his crisis culminates in an urban intellectual milieu. Moreover, in an atelier. If we mentioned the hospital in connection with the exceptional sensation of concentration, than the atelier is the home of intellectual struggle and spiritual tribulation. It differs from stage, film factory or musical practising room. It is a home, where everything is innerly unorganised, everything induces watching inside. Especially when there is not work of creation.

One can rest anywhere; nothing has a fixed place; one can feel as if he could leave behind all his problems, but on the contrary, exactly the things that are disintegrated in him are those that can maintain everyday balance. Here one can look in a disturbing mirror, and all the seemingly trivial friendly coffee-bar conversations, inwardly love dissects, workshop-talks, amateur screenings obtain another dimension. Their imperfection is emphasised when they are suppressed into one space by the inner cuts of a realistic environment-picture. Jancsó intensifies it beyond endurance. The liturgical moment of an intellectual being organised in physical line of scenes, which begets an alienating effect; their empty hollows drive Ambrus to the verge of total self-breach instead of giving him an intellectual handhold, and hunt him out of the city.

The way of escape leads understandably to his home village, the traditional place of purification. But this time the pattern does not work with rustic easiness. The encounter with his kindred and homefolk is a cause of new disturbing experiences for Ambrus. He has to confront the accidentality of his career, his aggressive past in the Party, his egoism that took everybody's trust, love and help for granted, the incredibility of his reformer attitudes.

The village is an ideal place only for intellectual meditation, but not for human life. Namely, in a broad sense it is the original home of civilisation, but its contradictions are still more embraceable in it. One can circuit it. But it cannot offer consolation. Ambrus has to visit the farm of his father to find relief. A house with a veranda, stable, granary and shadoof. In its spare objectivity, it is the space of hopeless wrestling. But in the context of our hero, who arrives by car, it is the symbol of freedom, a place where man can be himself as a neutron of the universe-that does not mean the recognition of the real purpose of life, but the acquiescence of its meaninglessness.

This time the picture of the farm discloses the purifying content in the emptiness as well. Anyway, the context is able to impart its ancient symbolism to the closing pictures. In the light of Ambrus's recuperated inner harmony all of the sites become human. In a roadster-which suggests travel, moving bounded to place with peculiar picturesqueness-the hero reaches the end of the tunnel and a view of Budapest's famous Chain Bridge and the Great City opens up before him with cathartic allurement.

In search of home

The symbolising effects of Oldás és kötés are created during the presentation of a spiritual process. Így jöttem (My Way Home, 1964) does not seem to reach this point. Although it uses a series of historical symbols, it appears to remain inside lyrical realism. In reality, the less sophisticated it is, the closer it gets to symbolism.

The content of the film is commonly reduced to the presentation of the friendship between a Hungarian student and a Soviet private. But the evolution of this inter-relation is only a part of the dramatic clue to this film, as the title-My Way Home - makes it clear immediately. The film is about a home-coming Hungarian boy at the end of the war. But his regress is already transcripted. Where Jóska goes will not be unravelled. After a while one can understand his journey more and more as a quest for home, and not just because the film withholds some information.

Unlike his occasional fellow-travellers—separates, escaped prisoners of war, several kinds of refugees—he is not in a hurry and patiently meets the obstacles in his way. He more and more puts himself into an observational position. He would like to orientate himself in the space of a brand new historical situation. Unlike Péter in A harangok Rómába mentek, he does not romanticise anything, does not press his imaginations on the phenomena. But he is also forced to collate a kind of picture from tiny mosaics. He does not know the real connections either, so he can only perceive things through symbolising shifts of accent. The director alights upon a situation in which recognition and lyricism coincide.

This is the birth of the organic symbolising space emblematic of the films of Jancsó. We can describe it as the Hungarian puszta, an undulating east European plain. But that is not the point. Its real distinctiveness is that it is a battlefield, an arena-the sand-lot of history and being, where future can be formed in the thought, which interprets the past. Its visual particularity is not necessarily its flatness, but its limitless ductility, since it can convert mental-spiritual processes immediately to physical-natural whiffles.

The pictorial power of battlefields has been present in westerns and adventure-films since the very beginning, and sometimes it can push them even to the verge of an aesthetic quality. But Jancsó gives to this representation new inter-relations through which it can reveal war's profoundness. However, the film maintains its historic cinematic traits even in this context: the credible presentation of dramatic occurrences-which is rather rare in Hungarian cinema-shows that the director has a huge talent even for the most popular action-oriented genres.

The stone-quarry and the island of A harangok Rómába mentek was a battlefield, just like the hospital, the atelier and the farm in the Oldás és kötés. But the scenes of the Így jöttem (roads, ruins, a prison-camp, grassland, a cistern, a railway station) are organised into one continuous scenery, into a limitless battlefield. In itself, it could obviously be just a simple compositional accuracy. But a realistic situation endows this battlefield with symbolising power.

The war itself has ended upon it, but its signs are still present everywhere. It is in an interim, disintegrated, undefined state. People are looking for their home on it; things are seeking their function. In a disturbed being, they become signs to each other, waiting for interpretation.

What could be an airplane repeatedly appearing above a wasteland? A reconnaissance plane? Scarcely. Rather the herald of renewal and liberation. What are the dispersed, neglected weapons, guns and empty trenches? What can the grassland, the ploughed land be, if mines explode on them? What is a ruined manor house for, with its abandoned pastiche sculptures? What an impassable barbed wire suggests in a prison camp that slowly becoming useless, or the hunt for a naked female soldier in the declivitous field? What does a uniform mean, if anybody can put it on as an ordinary coat? And what do the coats mean, if one can recognise uniforms in them one after the other?

And finally, what do people represent? In the behaviour and advice of his compatriots, Jóska does not find any conscious choices, only historical reflexes, fixed national habits of survival. The only observable organised power, the sole orientating centre could be the Soviet army for him. But he meets it recurrently in dysfunctional situations, so he feels, above all, its cultural extraneity. Hence, when he is assigned to work as a cowherd together with a similarly aged injured private, Kolya, it offers him an important basis from several points of view. Although his home-quest has been interrupted, he finds, however, an interim place, and has the opportunity to represent something to himself about the world forming around.

Nevertheless, he is only able to get some impressions during his slowly evolving friendship with Kolya, which will come to a sticky end. The Russian boy also gets only some futile expressions about the country where he is fighting. Anyway, for him this fraternisation has no importance at all. Belonging to the victorious, history-making power, he believes he can see everything clearly, he knows where he is, and to where he wants to go home.

This junction is more interesting to Jóska, who feels that all of his future depends on who the liberators of the country in reality are. "Scythian" barbarians, or the soldiers of the revolution? But he does not constrain to get an answer. For him the feeling of confidence is enough, which-despite his contradictory experiences-is formulating step by step in him. It may represent what it is like-this strange, militaristic civilisation deserves this confidence because of its humanistic feats.

From the motifs of the symbolising space of Így jöttem one can get even today an impressively adequate picture about the evolution of the historical-social consciousness of a generation, or about the interrelation between two cultures. One can see an unusually credible view of the Soviets, who are not particularly benign, often do not care about their own men (partially that causes the death of Kolya), handle the orders bureaucratically, which-together with their technical disadvantages-counteracts many of their positive intentions. All these are principally shown by the senseless assemblies and the horrifying spectacle of a disinfecting steam-boiler.

So what can be attractive in the Soviets for Jóska and his contemporaries? The egalitarian values that are always present in their behaviour, the gestures of crude straighforwardness, their extreme passion for freedom and the lack of their problems of identity. The unconsciously cruising airplane has already been mentioned. A similarly powerful picture can be seen when Kolya is visited by his Cossack fellows. The boy gets astride a horse, and gallops round and round together with his pals in a total ecstatic daze. He feels at home for a while-since he has got a home somewhere. Jóska is watching him begrudgingly. His way home will be longer.

So, during their common game, he eagerly tries the gestures of Kolya, holding joyfully the pistol of the victor and repeating "riukhy vher!" (hands up!) in Russian. Eventually he puts on Soviet uniform, when he wants to bring help to his friend, but he arrives too late. He does not change his clothes afterwards; he continues to travel as a Soviet private, shouldering the burden of the blows of his irreconcilably wounded pride, confronting the fears and suspicion of his compatriots.

The triumph of analytical reason

Despite the above-mentioned antecedents, film history routinely finds the birth of the symbols of Jancsó in his Szegénylegények (Szegénylegények) shot in 1965. But after the Így jöttem this excellent work does not represent any theoretically observable epochal innovations, neither in narration, space and time perception, nor in the symbolism of the director. It is another question that this original dramaturgical story could be perceived parabolically as well, and some of its motifs have become symbols.

By and large, it can be considered an emphatically realist work. Its historical objectivity is underlined by the prefacing narrative supported by graphics:

Pest-Buda. The sixties of the last century. The age of industrialisation, enrichment, Ferenc Deák, Gyula Andrássy, Kálmán Tisza. The spirit of 1848 is just a phrase already. Bourgeois wealth is the most important. The life for the people has been the same for centuries. Their poverty is even increased by the successive scarce years of the mid-sixties. Crime is increasing, there are more and more desperate actions to break the walls of poverty. The power is impiteous. It is haunting for outlaws and highwaymen everywhere. They are the last who resist actively. Criminals in the eyes of official public opinion, freedom fighters in the folk songs. In 1869 count Gedeon Ráday is designated to a special commissioner. His duty is to secure private property. His main effort is directed against highwaymen. He wants to reach his aims by all possible means.

The graphics first shows factories, machines of the age, then elements of peasant life, clothes and things of highwaymen, and finally the sketch of the rampart of the prison camp. So one can unequivocally check that in the film all the scenes and costumes are historically authentic-within the framework of a very modest artistic stylisation.

After wrestling with lyrical realism, the analytic realism of the age can be seen at a consummated level. Hence the task is no longer an interpretation, but an analysing summation; Jancsó's art has moved towards documentarism, which has indeed had a liberating effect on him, since in all of his former works this aspiration has sought predominance. Apparently indifferent objectivity, seconds and totals shot at eye-level. This cool depiction of Szegénylegények is even stronger, since in this film one cannot find a central hero who psychologically motivates the representation.

The camera, the artist himself, becomes the calm observer. But his realistic objectivity fascinatingly finds its connections with symbolism again. And this time already not a kind of real absurdity, spiritual clash leads the interpretation beyond the dimension of realism, but a compository principle. It is not only a matter of long shots and inner cuts, since as I have emphasised already, these had get more and more importance in the former works of Jancsó. But here dramaturgy uses them for a tiny trick. The chronological contact of the events connected in the long shots is unreal, and this suppresses the events to a process even more effectively than montage can do-since there is not a sign suggesting that something is missing from the narrative. The episodes of interrogation, avengement, cheating and final penalty are interfluent, and everything moves organically together with the camera. The dramatic situations of practice of power at last aggregate in a dynamically suspended poetical picture.

Taking everything into account, Szegénylegények is not a symbolist film but a realist work which creates symbols. There is nothing allegorical in it. Its aesthetical impression dedicates many of its visual elements to become abstract ontological problems. Furthermore altogether. Things elevate to be the symbols of an oppressing and manipulative sociological being only in their connections and progress. Even this specific rampart is not fixed by itself in the notion of the spectators, although its better known variations, the prisons, compounds and death camps often appear effectively in the world of motion-picture. Here the farm-buildings and the puszta belong to the penalty zone, the space of nakedness.

Two ostensibly peaceful scenes, but violence can be expanded anytime to them in forms of interrogation, torture, drills or execution. So the arena is unified. The functions of intonation, denotation and group-formation are handled by the costumes. These are simple uniforms, clothes of certain sociological strata, but their symbolising effect is unbelievable during modelling of social conflicts. The uniform of the gendarmes always injected a kind of outwardly system-specified, narrow-spirited arrogance into the order-executing apparatus of physical violence. The black garment and the robe of those who belong to the comissioner's elite suggest the hiding confidence of power in the pervasive whiteness of the scene.

Meanwhile the mangy, gappy folkish clothes of the highwaymen, or the nudity of the girl vapulated to death signs rousingly how exposed the lower classes are. The honvéd-uniform attains symbolically the most complex meaning; it signs both revolutionary traditions and historical compliance in serving the oppressors. These visual elements later will be able to mediate by themselves the symbolic content, which was given to them by the self-interpreting dramaturgy and analytic realism of Szegénylegények.

Freedom and death

If one can speak of symbolism in film at all, then its first conceptionally consequent piece in Jancsó's work has been his Csillagosok, katonák (The Red and the White ) in 1967. Contrary to the abstracting objectivity of Szegénylegények, in this film the emphasis is placed on (self)reflections of the artist. Realism receives a stylising function, and discovers its own formal peculiarities when representing its world. However, from a certain point of view dramaturgy draws it into a symbol-making vacuum.

The film was one of many Soviet-Hungarian co-productions, and raised a lot of debates; its action is exciting, so it could even have been a popular adventure film. During the civil war in Russia a brigade of Hungarian internationalists- alongside of some Red units-is ambushed by a White blockade. The Whites start cruel retaliation against them. The revolutionaries try to break out. One of them manages to escape with the help of the nurses of the military hospital, and he brings help, but it arrives too late.

However, dramaturgy does not seem to be interested in these at all. It forgets to tell the story, but it is very detailed in some of its elements. It creates an observing position. The fable is broken into pieces, into fragments of a mosaic, and these expound themselves in a realist manner, but their epic connecting points get lost. With the real time of inner cuts, Jancsó organises them into a coherent progress in the arena of the civil war, which is diluted in a unified natural landscape. The formula becomes totally different from that of Így jöttem or Szegénylegények. These arbitrary connections are not merely compressed, but are being placed among a kind of ontological law of spiritual being, creating a symbolic poetic picture-line out of the conventionally realist episodes and happenings.

Chaos is not motivatedly adventitious, but becomes an enigmatically general momentum. Since it is not clear who escapes and where, why they kill, despite the well-shaped values, everything reamins meaningless and accidental. Horses are galloping, without their riders who have been machine-gunned from an airplane. Maybe the feeling of power, cruelty remain the only joy in facing the continuous death-message of a senseless being. A sacral evoking of destiny. Although the interpretation of symbolic compositions cannot be exact, one thing is unequivocal: it is one of the most frequent thematic characteristics in Jancsó's films.

Since A harangok Rómába mentek it has been salient that, beside his humanist commitment, the director is capable to make the enjoyment of rule over life and sending to death palpable to such a great extent. Even the touching of the gun makes faces flush with intoxication, but reaching out arms, pulling the trigger and the elimination of the victim cause a real and complete satisfaction. In Csillagosok, katonák the dreadful ecstasy of torture and destruction repeats itself a number of times and in many different variations. It does not matter whether it is accomplished by the Reds or by the Whites, although the uniforms and fluttering shirts unmistakably show the difference between the scales of values.

At the beginning of the film a Cossack official gets so much preoccupied in the conservative and traditional way of judging that he encounters his own execution with proud unworldliness. In the uplifted space of the monastery, the White commander organises the butchering of the Red unit into a fate tempting hunting. But none of the Red leaders can have enough of the spectacle of the elimination of the enemy, and in the hope of salvational jurisdiction, shoot one bullet after the other into their bodies. The best-composed massacres take place outside of the barracks of the military hospital. But it is still not in the murders where the delirium of power gains its real manifestation, it is expressed the most fearfully in the way of speaking based on imperatives. Everybody who can gives commands and orders.

This is what inspirits one of the seemingly most peaceful series of scenes in the film, which have an extremely complex symbolical meaning. One of the White officials has the nurses of the hospital collected, make them stand in a line, and then make them get on a cart. They stop at a clearance in a birch-wood. The shepherding of the women continues, and an orchestra begins to play a waltz. An adjutant asks the nurses to dance in pairs and orders his companions to make a face-about. The Russian symbolist spectacle was organised for the commander of the guard, who walks in it imperturbably for a few minutes, then lets the women leave.

Here freedom equals death. A few dozen red soldiers elevate to be a genuine revolutionary force, when, getting rid of their uniforms, they march in a line, singing the Marseilles, towards the beautifully composed, death scattering squadron of the oppressors. László, who arrives too late with the succours-conjuring up Így jöttem-gives a salute to the heroes with his sword and wearing a uniform, after all. His commitments do not let him believe in the senseless being cast into the world.

Beyond realism

The modernism of the 1960s slowly gives way to an anything-goes approach at the end of the decade, which left a difficult choice for Miklós Jancsó. He knew the symbolist power of his realist style very well, but the desire to step forward so his aspirations could create an even more concentrated visual form persuaded him to leave behind the real plans and enter a world of his own artistic symbols.

The clear-cut decision gets delayed for a few years, which results in several exciting experimental works. Csend és kiáltás (Silence And Cry, 1968) seeks the means of visual narration, but on the whole it continues the line of Szegénylegények, since it motivates the extreme situations of human humiliation with genuine and historically concrete depictions of the period of the white terror.

Fényes szelek (The Confrontation, 1968) strives to portray the NÉKOSZ (National Association of People's Colleges) movement from the point of view of the symbols of the era. However, the genre of the performance-styled discussion film gives a didactic unambiguity to the limited number of symbol carrying clothes, military equipment and to the well-organised movements of different groups of people.

Sirokkó (Sirocco / Winter Wind, 1969), with its endlessly lengthy adjustments, symbolises, with the time-condensing way of narration, the elements of a space that can be completely ranged, and it symbolises the gestures of its characters, which is a well-definable state of mind, serving the self-destructive lack of self confidence of a fanaticised Croatian terrorist who is unable to compromise.

And then comes the mystery-play of Égi bárány (Agnus Dei, 1970), with which Jancsó commits himself for a long time to ornamental symbolism. The virtuosic and dynamic adjustments of spectacle emblem forth the base-symbol of the historical arena, filling it with a great number of gestures, rites and choreographed movements. The abstract motifs, however, remain static, decorative mosaics in the realistically continuous time and space of film, in the sand-lot of symbol creation.

Iván Forgács

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Also of interest

Iván Forgács works for the Hungarian Film Archive in Budapest and is the Editor-in-Chief of Moveast.


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