This is the tenth in the series of articles exploring my favourite Hungarian films and I have chosen one of the greatest Hungarian films of all time, Miklós Jancsó’s The Round-Up/Szegénylegények (1965). This isn’t necessarily my favourite of the ten films I have written about, but it is hard to argue with its status as one of the finest Hungarian films ever produced, if not the best. Not only did it make the top of the Hungarian film critics list of all-time best Hungarian films, it also made The Guardian’s list of the top 100 films of all time, albeit at number 88. So, clearly we have a film that has much critical acclaim. And it is even more appropriate that we should looking at this masterpiece as the director, Miklós Jancsó, passed away only a few months ago in January 2014 at the grand old age of 92. So this is the right time to discuss this monument to Hungarian cinema.
The story-line of The Round-Up concerns the aftermath of the 1848 Revolution and the Habsburgs brutal efforts to crush the rebellion in the following years. Students of Hungarian history will know only too well the viciousness of the Austrian general Haynau who amongst his many acts of infamy after the revolution had 13 generals executed at Arad. Following the crushing of the revolution Internment camps were set up and rebels were rounded-up and placed in these camps, and this where the film takes place, hence its title for English distribution, The Round-Up. (A more accurate translation of Szegénylegények would be closer to “the hopeless ones” or literally “the unfortunate lads”)
Yet it is not the Austrian themselves who run the camp and administer the interrogations, punishments and executions, it their Hungarian lackeys. This point proves crucial when we look at the historical context of when the film was made.
The prison guards are seeking the last remaining rebel, Sándor Rózsa and his gang and are convinced he, or members of his gang, are in the internment camp. One prisoners turns informant but his murdered by his fellow prisoners. This death allows the guards to find out who the members of Sándor Rózsa’s gang are. They face the inevitable result of death by firing squad, just like the martyrs of Arad, but this time at the hands of their fellow Hungarians.
Like much of Jancsó’s work, this squarely deals with actual events of Hungarian history. Yet this is not some historical or costume drama full of baroque heros, absurd villains and a triumphant, nationalistic ending. No, it is a sparse, almost abstract portrayal of rebellion and defeat. The film was shot entirely on the puszta, those vast, flat plains of eastern Hungary that seemingly stretch forever. The puszta , with its vastness and angular, flat landscape form a decidedly minimalist backdrop. The landscape is always shown in bright harsh sunlight with the buildings of the internment camp painted in a kind of brutal, sun washed white plaster. The film was shot in black and white so this harshness of white works very well indeed.
It also places the film firmly in the Hungarian context. The puszta occupies a unique place in the Hungarian consciousness, similar to that of the Wild West does in the American consciousness. It is a place harsh nature which man must conquer full of archetypal characters who master the landscape. Several of Jancsó’s films were also shot on the puszta, suggesting a real love affair with this environment.
The starkness of the physical backdrop is also reflected in the overall visual style of the film. We see a high degree of formality in many Jancsó’s films with actors placed in almost ballet-like formation. Shots are composed with an absence of flourish or wastefulness, but with an elegance of simplicity and style. It is afterall a film and therefore a primarily visual experience. This I think was one of Jancsó’s great strengths was his sense of the visual. Much of the movement in the film feels almost choreographed as characters move in precise formation and according to predefined patterns. There is very little looseness in the film and everything feels tightly controlled and scripted.
Jancsó makes great use of the layering of foreground and background. Both exist on a separate plane but the way they frame each other gives a distinctive look to his films. Often the background is the bleak, harsh, puszta but equally maybe a stark architecture or a precisely placed group of people moving in exact patterns.
Characters in Jancsó’s films are rarely portrayed with any great depth of psychoanalysis. Characters don’t reveal themselves through language and their stories but simply by their being in a particular place and time. The characters are never the story for Jancsó. Likewise the plotlines in a Jancsó’s film are never complex nor full of suspense and surprise. The story is simply told and Hungarian audiences would have instantly understood the context of much of Jancsó’s works, and none more so than The Round-Up.
In many of the earlier Miklós Jancsó’s films actors play a secondary role to the visual style of the film and this is true in the case of The Round-Up. Yet it would be remiss of me not to mention the work of Zoltán Latinovits who we met when discussing Szinbad and plays a leading role in this film. He does light up the screen with his brooding looks and smouldering passionate resentment at the circumstances he finds himself in as a prisoner. Any film with Latinovits starring is always worth watching!
Context is everything in this film, and none more so in the era in which it is made. I must admit that when first watching The Round-Up I was struck with the thought of how heck did the Communist regime allow this to be produced and widely screened? This was 1966 remember, a bare 10 years since the revolution. The parallel between the brutality portrayed so clearly and decisively by Jancsó seem a virtual mirror image of the repression after 1956. Prisoners rounded-up, tortured and executed? Informants? A foreign power exercising power and hegemony via local Hungarians? These questions, and their answers, would have been all too clear in the minds of Hungarian audiences when they first saw The Round-Up.
So obvious was the connection that Jancsó was only allowed to show the film at the Cannes film festival if he explicitly disavowed the film’s connection with 1956. He did this, of course, but in an interview in 2002 he said this about the film and its relationship to the events of 1956.
“In the 1960s, it was obvious that the film was about 1956 as it was so close in time, to everyone all round the world. Before I was allowed to take the film to Cannes, I had to make a declaration that the film had nothing to do with Hungarian politics or society. Everybody knew it wasn’t true. They even showed the film in Russia, though”.
In the same interview he also told an amusing story about the millionth person to see the film in Hungary. (That fact alone tells you how well the film was received in Hungary at the time.) When the millionth viewer was identified in a particular cinema, the seat and row of the person was called out and lucky person sitting there invited to receive the prize for being the millionth person to The Round-Up. There was an old lady sitting in that seat but she didn’t move when called. The seat and row were called again but still the old lady didn’t budge. It turned out she was completely deaf and dumb. I love that story because it reinforces that the film is such a visual experience that even if you can’t hear a word of it, you will know exactly what is happening. But only if you are Hungarian!
As I mentioned in the opening paragraph The Round-Up was not only an enormous success in Hungarian and is regarded as the masterpiece of Hungarian cinema, it also attracted significant world-wide acclaim and influence. It established Jancsó as a major European director and his visual style would go on to influence not just Hungarian directors like Béla Tarr, but the proponent of so-called spaghetti westerns Sergio Leone. Jancsó went on to win the Director’s Prize at Cannes in 1971 for the much-praised Red Psalm/Még kér a nép and he produced several other masterpieces such as The Red and White/Csillagosak katonák (1967), Silence and Cry/Csend és kiállitás (1968), and Confrontation/Fényes szelek (1968), all of which deal with historical instances of oppression and rebellion in some form.
Like all artists the quality of his output does vary somewhat and his work in the 1970’s was far from universally praised. His frequent use of nudity at this time, hinted at in The Round-Up, would prove problematic for the more conservative among Hungarians. He did however continue producing films well into his 80’s.
Much of his later work is not available outside of Hungary or Hungarian-speaking audiences so there is a rich treasure trove of films from this most remarkable director yet to be made available to wider audiences. One can only hope that the slowly expanding number of Hungarian cinema available on DVD will continue and gather pace.
As I mentioned in the opening Miklós Jancsó passed away recently on 31 January 2014 aged 92. He had said a few years earlier, “In the old times I tried to take myself seriously, because I thought it was possible to change the world, but not anymore.”. One may respectfully agree or disagree with this sentiment, but what is undeniable is that his legacy will live on through future generations who too will come to love and admire the master of Hungarian cinema.
I would recommend buying the DVD version produced by Second Run DVD. This a handsome print and comes with a comprehensive booklet in English about the film. There is also an additional 20 documentary about the film. Strangely, and perhaps disappointingly, the entire film is available on YouTube.