“Jancsó is a genius. Until him, Hungarian film was just a petit-bourgeois, kitschy, stupid industry. It didn't matter if somebody was able to do a little bit better, a little more artistically: the mentality of the filmmakers was always the same; they accepted the order. But Jancsó didn't accept the forms, the style or any school. He was able to be a real revolutionary, and that's why he deeply touched me when I was young. I saw a lot of movies and they were all fake, all lies, so I never felt anything when I left the cinema. He was the first director to show me real pictures and a real choreography of the camera and I realised that cinema was not what they wanted to show me – the real cinema was what this man was doing. […] At the time I was 16 or 17, and Jancsó opened my eyes. […] He always dealt mostly with the real relationship between people and power – he was always a political guy. […] How he used timing was terribly important – what I call ‘internal cutting’. Jancso cuts within shots, not on the editing table, and when you have a frame by him you know immediately it's his. Maybe the most important thing about him is his personality, his mentality, and what he represents. He was a strong leftist, of course. […] I know him personally because he asked me to play a character in Season of Monsters (1987). I did it only twice in my life, the other time for Gábor Bódy, another very great Hungarian director who committed suicide. The strange thing is that both of them asked me to play Jesus Christ! Jancsó will always be important, and not just for Hungarian or European cinema. People need to see his really beautiful three or four first movies. The highest mountain is The Round-Up, but then come Silence and Cry (1968), The Red and the White (1967) and Cantata (1962). Another I like a lot is My Way Home (1964). I saw it a year ago on TV – I wasn’t going to watch it but I caught the first two minutes and after that I couldn’t move away.”
Andrew James Horton: Your first international success was Szegénylegyek (The Round-up, 1965). Hungarian critics often interpret this as an allegory of 1956. Despite the fact this event has little resonance outside Hungary, the film has done very well abroad, where people seem to emphasise the broader significance of the film’s study of tyranny. Do you prefer the specific or general reading of this film? Or are you happy to leave it up to the viewer to decide how to read it?
Miklós Jancsó: This film isn’t just about 1956. The film is about the fact that there are people who want to be free and people who are oppressing them. The oppressors always use the same methods. In the places, where there is no freedom – Turkey, Iran, China – it’s a very simple equation. 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. But the story of the film, or a large part of it, was a true story from the 1800s. When the rope is put around someone’s neck to convince them to talk, that’s a real story. 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.
Andrew James Horton in conversation with Miklós Jancsó2
“If there were a textbook on film space, it would read: ‘There are several types of movie space, the three most important being: (1) the field of the screen, (2) the psychological space of the actor, and (3) the area of experience and geography that the film covers.’ [...] Because it’s the uniting style plus the basic look of a film, the third kind of space controls everything else – acting, pace, costume. [...] The Round-Up (1966), a stark overhead lighting from beginning to end, geometric shadows, hard peasant faces, stiff coats, big sculpture hats, is a movie of hieratic stylized movement in a Kafka space that is mostly sinister flatness and bald verticals. Sometimes there is violent action, but Jancsó’s fascinating, but too insistent, style is based on a taut balance between a harsh, stark imagery and a desolate pessimism. In all the movies mentioned here, the space is most absolutely controlled, given over to rigidly patterned male groups.”
“The Round-Up was a milestone in the history of Hungarian modern cinema, as it started a long and lasting series of all kinds of political and historical parables, but most important it created the most genuine and comprehensive visual and narrative model of the Kafkaesque experience of Central European historical existence, which would be Jancsó’s central subject matter for the following thirty years. [What] I want to highlight is the extent to which the success of Jancsó’s model was due to the idea of a superficial order masking fundamental chaos, which became more apparent as this style became increasingly symbolic and ornamental.
As realist as The Round-Up appears, it hides in its form the ultimate source of the ornamental symbolism of his movement choreography that will unfold later. The Round-Up is the best example of a special variation of the modern investigation genre in which the goal of the investigation is concealed. Apparently, there is a strict logic in the investigation that suggests that there are clear, unequivocal goals pursued by a central power and executed at the various levels of the military and law enforcement hierarchy. [...] [However,] we follow a long and complicated investigation, the goal of which is unclear and seems to change at every turn. We do not know where the orders come from and do not understand the logic behind the orders. We assume the different steps fit in a logical order and that the closure of the story is a logical outcome of the investigation, whose ultimate goal is revealed, but in fact this is not the case. The whole complicated procedure of humiliating the captives and turning them one against the other is not necessary for the final result. Logic and rationality are just mystified surfaces in this world of self-contained violence and repression.
[F]rom My Way Home (1965) on, Jancsó locates all his stories, apart from two exceptions (Confrontation, 1968; and La pacifista, 1972) in an entirely empty prairie-like landscape very typical of the eastern region of Hungary, called the puszta. He intensifies the abstract character of the milieu to such a degree that it becomes symbolic. [...] In Jancsó’s films the space becomes completely homogeneous. There are no streets, no roads to lead the characters’ movements, and there are only a few randomly dispersed built objects or trees to provide some sense of orientation in this endless and homogeneous space. The space is given structure almost exclusively by the movements of the camera and the characters. As there are no predetermined routes and directions from where something or someone is more likely to appear than from another direction, appearance or disappearance of humans and things in this space seems always somewhat random and unexpected. Since this homogeneous space continues endlessly in all directions, the portion of the space the viewer momentarily does not see is perceived as undisclosed rather than as being a different space unit. [...] The radically continuous composition of Jancsó’s films covers a vision of a radically fragmented reality.
When Jancsó places his stories in the Hungarian puszta, it is not only because he wants his setting to be even more empty and abstract than the setting of Antonioni, but essentially because he thinks that this is the original place of the mentality and psychology of that particular human ritual that he is representing in his films. The basic elements he uses to build up his constructions of choreographed movements are those of the ancient experience of those living defenseless this wide open space, where soldiers of various powers may show up and disappear at any moment, where no stable structure can crystallize apart from what is immediately given, and where ultimate loneliness is the source of ultimate cruelty.”
András Bálint Kovács4
- 1. Béla Tarr, “Playing Jesus Christ,” Sight & Sound 18, nr. 4 (2008), 9. In this short text, Béla Tarr offers his views and shares his enduring respect for Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó.
- 2. Miklós Jancsó, “This Silly Profession,” interview by Andrew James Horton, in Kinoeye 3, nr. 3 (2003), a two-part special issue on Miklós Jancsó.
- 3. Manny Farber, introduction to Negative Space. Manny Farber on the movies (London: Studio Vista, 1971), 1-3. Farber mentions The Round-Up in a group of movies consisting of La Femme Infidèle (Claude Chabrol, 1969), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966), In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950) and Model Shop (Jacques Demy, 1969). In Film Comment nr. 5 (2006), J. Hoberman noted that the only one of the New York intellectuals – Stanley Kauffmann, Dwight MacDonald, Susan Sontag – to comment on The Round-Up when it turned up at the 1966 New York Film Festival was Manny Farber.
- 4. András Bálint Kovács, “Jancsó and the Ornamental Style,” in Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 330-335.