Those who have never seen a film by Miklós Jancsó from the 1960s, when this Hungarian director was at his peak, are usually astonished by the experience. When The Round-Up, his third film, came to London in 1965, the broadsheet critics almost dropped their pens in surprise.
Here was a deeply serious, decidedly uncamp and certainly not musically-minded middle European Busby Berkeley, who made formal patterns on the screen with humans and horses in order to illustrate the betrayals of his country’s history. I joke, but not much. To watch The Round-Up or 1967’s The Red and the White for the first time is to witness a kind of film ballet entering the realms of political drama.
In The Round-Up, Austrian soldiers representing the triumphant Hapsburg empire trap and interrogate the Hungarian partisans whose revolt against the empire’s rule has petered out. The period is the mid-19th century and only the legendary Sandor Rosza’s fighters stand in the way, succoured by the peasants. The drama is virtually divested of characters we can either sympathise with or hate. Instead, it deals largely in formal, abstract generalities. It is as if Jancsó is merely watching, regretfully conscious that there are those who will be killed and those whose job it is to kill them. A man running on the horizon is calmly shot down. Another is taken away to be tortured. Short words of command seem to be the apotheosis of dialogue. The film achieves, in one critic’s accurate view, “a total absorption of content into form”.
All this takes place on a very particular landscape: the vast, summer-scorched Hungarian plains where whitewashed buildings, cloaked men and their horses appear to be the only occupants. It seems like a world apart, but one able to illustrate both a specific vision of Hungarian history and part of the story of mankind, where the powerful slowly but surely triumph over the weak.
The film is so precisely choreographed that the patterns play on the mind until they become clear and obvious in their meanings. The camera style is beautiful but almost merciless. If the film can be criticised for its lack of emotion, it can’t be for its absence of power or for its cold appreciation of the situation it illustrates.
Later, with films such as The Confrontation and Red Psalm, Jancsó’s work begins to lose something through familiarity, and his obsession with half-naked girls and patterns becomes enervating. When he left Hungary for Italy in the 1970s, making erotic films such as Private Vices and Public Virtues (based on the Mayerling story), it seemed he had little more of value to say, or no way of saying it without repeating himself or exaggerating his weaknesses.
But the first few films were astonishing, whether dealing with Kossuth’s rebels of the 1860s or the aftermath of the 1919 Hungarian revolution. They bitterly analysed the history of his persecuted country and commented, too, on the nature of violence in more general terms. No one has tried quite the same thing in the same way, and that is his most formidable legacy.