“For a while I was famous for my ‘long takes’, these sequence shots that last several minutes. At that time it was really special. Within these sequence shots there were close-ups and long shots – everything. Film-making is really over that now. With the influence of commercials and music, editing has become snappier. Unavoidably in a long shot you have empty moments, and it can be boring today. But, for example, Bela Tarr uses them to say something.”
– Miklos Jancsó interviewed by Andrew James Horton 1

“Jancso is a genius. Until him Hungarian film was just a petit bourgeois, kitschy, stupid industry.”
– Bela Tarr in conversation with Jonathan Romney 2

The connections and important artistic linkage between Hungarian auteurs Jancsó and Tarr cannot be under estimated. There is a distinct and instantly recognisable atmosphere pervading their respective oeuvres, a specific identity moulded from the consistent use of evocative landscape, spellbinding long takes and mobile cameras, and a fixation on huddled masses of humanity. Both developed a unique cinematic language while simultaneously interrogating their nation’s history. Tarr and Jancsó made films that exist both as universal works of art, as well as something uniquely Hungarian.

The Red and The White was due to be a celebratory production to commemorate the October Revolution – telling the story of the Civil War at the beginning of the twentieth century between opposing Hungarian and Russian factions; the Bolshevik Reds and tsarist Whites. Instead we are given a somewhat delirious film presenting acts of violence as a calculated but almost random occurrence. The Red and The White presents conflict as choreographed disorder, complete with recurring motifs of confusion and humiliation manifesting in repeated scenes of orders from oppressors for captives to strip or identify their nationality, as well as endless executions presented almost arbitrarily both off-screen and on. “Someone, allegedly Godard, has said Jancsó would be the ideal director to make a film about Nazi concentration camps.” 3

Jancsó’s statement that Tarr uses the long take to “say something” is particularly telling when reviewing the comparative functions of sequence shots in the two director’s work. The combination of a rigorous formal style and distinct but opaque themes indeed creates a statement that straddles both their directorial identities. Tarr’s epics, particularly Satantango (1994) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), attracted allegorical political readings from critics while existing as politically neutral or anonymous in the narrative content. Jancsó shares this quality and Peter Cowie’s observation of his sixties films could indeed and has been since applied to Tarr: “In hindsight, one can see his films of the sixties as one man’s analysing of the ruthless and obduracy of old style communism”. 4 Laszlo Strausz’s close analysis of The Red and The White investigates the impersonal and neutral manner Jancsó deals with his subject, and infers a political statement through the way the film deals with its narrative. Making reference to several of the repeating scenes of power relations throughout the film, where upon we begin in the company of a group of soldiers before we are switched to the perspective of an advancing opposition group. “Here the choreography of the characters movements actually contrasts the pattern of the camera movement. The geometrical group patterns erase individuality; the soldiers are part of formations and take part in an armed conflict that the director depicts as violent, non-rational, and senseless – in which individuality in meaningless.” 5

In Chris Marker’s poetic portrait of Andrei Tarkovsky, Une Journee d’Andrei Arsenevitch (2000), the voice over narration considers the Russian director’s consistent use of sequence shot; “Where the tracking shot is no longer a moral issue but a metaphysical one.” It was Tarkovsky’s belief of temporality being the true and unique power of the cinematic art form, and the sequence shot was most often the formal vehicle to communicate this unfolding of time as an immersive cinematic experience. Jancsó’s films have been widely described as ‘cold’, ‘unemotional’ or ‘austere’, and his use of long takes associated with allegorical political ends. Less identified however is the ineffable sense of dream-like giddiness that an unedited sequence endows, an element that is unmistakably present in Jancsó’s cinema. 6

We can align the film’s formal tropes to a cosmically evocative tradition associated with the modern legends of cinema from Tarkovsky to Antonioni. 7 The Red and The White drowns the viewer in the flattened rural landscape, and it’s roaming camera is almost never still capturing handheld moments of tension between the long gliding tracks, pans and zooms that frame the warring soldiers in unedited long, medium and close-up shots. Action bursts into the frame to interrupt the cameras long tracking movement to suggest an ambush, hurtling tracks or aerial shots travel with soldiers on horseback and we are transported to and from locales in disorientating fashion to further highlight the dream like or unreal of the barbaric scenario.

Tarkovsky’s oeuvre of dreams and memories are referenced through the presence of the birch forest and the tranquil river, settings that bring a Tarkovksian elemental quality to the film as well as contributing scenes that suggest the most solemn and surrealistic aspects of warfare (young nurses ordered to retrieve bodies from the river as well and being coerced into an impromptu dance complete with brass band within the woodland setting). The final aspect of the film’s radical mise-en-scene to consider is the particular use of sound. There is a Bressonian quality of footsteps isolated and heightened on the soundtrack, often incongruously loud in extreme long shot. Suddenly we will notice a tranquil birdsong on the soundtrack swell only to be totally silenced by gunfire; an obvious analogy of poetic subjectivity within the formal devices in The Red and The White.

Jancsó communicates an obvious humanist anger in the shock of the matter of fact violence and murder of warfare, but more than this he also delivers a hallucinatory game of cat and mouse that largely ignores the specifics of history and politics to meditate on human nature.

The Red and the White (Csillagosok, Katonak, 1967, Hungary/Soviet Union, 87 min)

Prod Co: Mafilm, Mosfilm Prod: Jeno Gotz, Andras Nemeth, Kirill Sirjajev Dir: Miklos Jancso Scr: Gyula Hernadi, Miklos Jancso, Luca Karall, Valeri Karen, GiorgiMdivani Phot: Tamas Somlo Sound: Zoltan Toldy

Cast: József Madaras, Tibor Molnár, András Kozák, Jácint Juhász, Anatoli Yabbarov, Sergey Nikonenko, Mikhail Kozakov

Endnotes

 

  1.  Printed in the booklet of Second Run’s DVD of The Red and The White.
  2.  Romney, Jonathan. (2008) “Playing Jesus Christ”. Sight and Sound. 18 (4) p.9.
  3.  Cowie, Peter. (2004) Revolution! The Explosion of World Cinema in the 60s. London: Faber and Faber. Pp. 143
  4.  Cowie, Peter. (2004) Revolution! The Explosion of World Cinema in the 60s. London: Faber and Faber. Pp. 143
  5.  Strausz, Laszlo. (2009) “The Politics of Style in Miklos Jancso’s The Red and The White and The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest”. Film Quarterly. 62 (3). Pp.43
  6.  The Red and The White can also be aligned alongside the hallucinatory Soviet anti-war films of modern cinema like Tarkovsky’s own Ivan’s Childhood (1962), Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying (1957), and Elim Klimov’s Come and See (1985) in creating harrowing images of war around extended sequence shots from a resolutely human perspective.
  7.  Pasolini famously identified Antonioni’s Il Deserto Rosso (1964) with his own concept of a poetically subjective camera (“indirect free style”), where the artist’s images are channelled through the emotional disposition of Monica Vitti’s character. See: Pasolini, Pier Paolo (1972) “Il cinema di poesia”, in Empirismo Eretico, Milano: Garzanti, 1991, pp. 167-187

About The Author

Adam Powell is a writer on cinema based in London. His primary research areas are the legacy of Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson in modes of realism in contemporary world cinema as well as post war British Cinema and London on film. He has conducted extensive interviews with Carlos Reygadas, Nicolas Winding Refn and Pedro Costa.