Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 4
 Issue 2 
29 Mar
2004

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Miklos Jancso's A Mohacsi vesz (The Battle of Mohacs, 2003)HUNGARY
The Mohács disaster
Miklós Jancsó's
A Mohácsi vész
(The Battle of Mohacs, 2003)

Jancsó's latest addition to the recent successful "Pepe and Kapo" series of films sees the heroes travel back in time to a fateful date in European history. Andrew James Horton argues that the director has never been more involved in contemporary politics.


With each successive film in the "Pepe and Kapo" series, of which A Mohácsi vész (The Battle of Mohacs, 2003) is the latest, octogenarian Miklós Jancsó's burst of energy late in his career seems all the more remarkable. The mid-1990s had seemingly stumped the director, and after Kék Duna keringő (The Blue Danube Waltz) in 1991 there was a seven year break from directing full-length feature films. Had the free market and old age defeated this old iconoclast of Hungary's Communist era?

Evidently not. Jancsó kept himself busy in this period, teaching at Harvard for two years and working in documentary, and then reappeard in 1998 with the invigorating romp Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten (The Lord's Lantern in Budapest), which was well received by both audiences and critics and can be characterised by both continuity and dramatic change. Although there are a few cinematic florishes, the film is mostly devoid of the long takes, balletic camera movements and dramatic, symbolist mise-en-scène (candles, naked girls, smoke etc) that has been pervasive in much of the director's oeuvre (although, yes, there are a few of them). The mood also swung from intellectual ontological enquiry to light, irreverant farce.

Music, always an important component in Jancsó's films, remained in the foreground, but rather than folk ballads Jancsó used the popular music of today's youth—such as András Lovasi and his band Kispál és a Borz, Burzoá Nyugdíjasok (literally "The Unemployed Pensioners") and Bëlga (all of whom he had met through his new director of photography, Ferenc Grunwalsky). This has given some of the recent films the feeling of extended, anarchic pop videos, thus bringing Jancsó a new audience, which is, perhaps, surprising given that his films now mock the apathy and ignorance of contemporary youth culture (the allegorical dissection of historical power structures having disappeared from his films in the mid-1980s.)

Jancsó, now so old and distinguished, can get away with almost anything now, a situation he takes advantage of to play court jester, poking fun at everyone, including himself. The films are ultra low-budget affairs, something Jancsó prefers as it gives him more control, and are shot very quickly (A Mohácsi vész's shooting was completed in 15 days) with much evidence of improvisation and "in jokes" among the cast and crew. Jancsó has even claimed that the financing of one recent film has not allowed either himself or his actors to be paid. This shooting style has enabled him to complete five feature films in the last six years, an unparalleled productivity in Hungary's new free-market cinema industry.

Jancsó has always favoured working over and over again with certain actors, and in the recent films he takes this to new extremes by using the same characters in five different films. As well as all starring Péter Scherer and Zoltán Mucsi as Pepe and Kapo, they are all shot by Grunwalsky and scripted by long-time collaborator Gyula Hernádi.

Yet despite the overwhelming similarities between the five films, there has been an organic development across them, and A Mohácsi vész, as we shall see, is a very different work from the early contributions to the recent cycle.

Reclaiming history

A Mohácsi vész gets its title from one of the most important dates in Hungarian history, the defeat of the combined forces under King Louis II to the Turks in 1526, allowing the partition of Hungary between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs (with only Transylvania, now ironically part of Romania, remaining free) and bringing an end to the mediaeval Kingdom of Hungary. Such was the impact of this single event on Hungarian history, that Magyars refer to the battle as "the Mohács disaster" (in fact, the literal translation of the film's title into English).

Kapo, residing in present day Budapest, has found a way to travel back in time to this event with his video camera. He notices the visual similarity between himself and head of the Ottoman forces Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and between King Louis II and a Budapest policeman—Pepe—whom he lures to his hideout to convince him that the two have to go back and change the course of history and thus avert the disaster of the film's title.

After an initial unsuccessful attempt to go back in time, the two make it to 1526 and use their uncanny resemblance to the historical personalities at the heart of the battle to deceive the Turks into accepting that the battle never took place. This should, in theory, leave Hungary in a position to realise its historical potential and become a truly great nation, as present-day Hungarian nationalists would argue would have happened were it not for the defeat. But, in fact, nothing changes.

A Mohácsi vész is, therefore, a new departure for Jancsó, focussing on such a distinct and central part of Hungarian history. Even in the director's earlier films in which he focussed on history, the events depicted were marginal ones and often from obscure historical periods. Even Jancsó's previous work, Kelj fel, kománn, ne aludjál (Wake Up, Mate, Don't Sleep, 2002), which portrays the rounding up of Budapest's Jews for deportation in a Second World War that is superimposed on contemporary Budapest, while based around a well-known historical era foregrounds eschews the direct representation of any single documented event and rather spins a set of themes and variations around Magyar anti-Semitism.

A Mohácsi vész (unlike Kelj fel, kománn, ne aludjál) is also unusually plotted. After three films of almost total improvisation, Jancsó and Hernádi have returned to using a script on this feature.

A tale of two Marxes

Jancsó, who was once a committed Stalinist, has said that he still sees Marx as the best framework for interpretting the world. But looking at these films, you have to wonder whether he means Karl or Groucho. If it is the former, it would seem to be the Marx who said that history always repeats itself—the first time as tragedy, the second as farce—rather than Marx the exponent of dialectical and historical materialism. Indeed, all of Jancsó's films, with the timeless nature of their allegories have a sense of history repeating itself—the oppression of 1860s Hungary turning up again in 1956—rather than the Marxist model of history as linear development and the scientific inevitability of progress.

Jancsó's historical spaces in Kelj fel, kománn, ne aludjál and A Mohácsi vész are fused to the present. The past doesn't just shape today; it is still going on around us in a way we can interact with (even if we, the viewers, are ignorant of that fact). The past for Jancsó is certainly not something we should be able to progress from. It lingers in the atmosphere and the inability to detect or acknowledge its presence distorts perception and reason.

To state this more concretely, A Mohácsi vész and Kelj fel, kománn, ne aludjál in their different ways deal with historical events that have lead to contemporary "mistakes" in Hungarian thinking. Kelj fel, kománn, ne aludjál is a reaction to rising anti-Semitism in Hungary and also to the right-wing nationalist politics of former prime minister Viktor Orbán (when I met Jancsó last year he delighted in telling me that the ethnic roots of arch-Hungarian nationalist Orbán are partially Gypsy). Jancsó, through the film, reminds us the importance of the Jewish presence in Hungarian culture and life (as well as his own identification with it). He also leads the reader to painful facts about the Holocaust and how the attitudes that allowed it to happen in Hungary still exist today.

A Mohácsi vész examines the fallacy in Hungarian (nationalist) thought that the country could have been great, were it not for a series of disasters that were not of Hungary's making. Jancsó's response is that Hungary could never have been great. As I have argued previously in Kinoeye, Jancsó is not particularly interested in history, and here he seems to be arguing more about present failures than past ones. Nevertheless, A Mohácsi vész's attitude to history makes this a unique Jancsó film and perhaps of all his films it is the one that is most rooted in the Hungarian experience. Indeed, when Jancsó faced the international critics at the 35th Magyar filmszemle (Hungarian Film Week) in Budapest earlier this year all he could offer as a way of an explanation for the film was an apology for a film that could only be unintelligable to international viewers.

Perhaps this is understandable. In the 1960s, Jancsó argued against authoritarianism, which by definition is universal. Now he is arguing against the political bugbears of today's society, nationalism and racism. While these are still universal qualities, it becomes harder to represent them without resorting to national specificity.

A Mohácsi vész and, to a lesser extent, Kelj fel, kománn, ne aludjál are new departures in Jancsó's career, a fact which is worthy of critical note. The films themselves, though, are not likely to travel. As Variety's Derek Elley has stingly said of Kelj fel, kománn, ne aludjál, Jancsó "shows twice the energy but half the clarity of colleagues a third his age." Elley also gave A Mohácsi vész a largely negative review, pointing to the fact that the satiric opportunities of a supposedly great Hungary and Hungarian as a world language are largely overlooked in favour of long and complex scenes detailing how to travel back to the past.

This makes A Mohácsi vész a film that's rather disappointing. Tackling a theme of contemporary importance in a way that is wholly new in his career, one might have hoped that this could have been a major release in Jancsó's career. Sadly, it isn't, and we are left with the tantalising hope that Jancsó's peculiarly energetic long life will hold out long enough to produce a film that is more coherently biting on this very pertinent theme.

Andrew James Horton

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Also of interest
About the author

Andrew James Horton is Editor-in-Chief of Kinoeye and was the founding Culture Editor of Central Europe Review, on whose advisory board he now sits.


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