The Round-Up (Szegénylegények, Hungary, 1966) offers an early distillation of the qualities for which Miklós Jancsó soon became an acknowledged master of modernist world cinema. The Hungarian director’s form of narratively attenuated filmmaking, often comprised of long and virtuosic tracking shots featuring large casts of bodies in complex choreographed, almost wordless set-pieces, is here on less extreme display than in the films immediately following. But while offering a wider variety of shots and less forbidding style compared to The Red and the White (1967), Silence and Cry (1968) and Red Psalm (1972) – which generally push the long-take principle to its radical limits – The Round-Up is an absolute masterpiece of still-innovative, formally challenging political cinema.1

Crucially, the film strikingly introduces with trademark precision and trans-historical provocation the key subject essayed across all Jancsó’s best-known work, no matter the historical setting. His great theme is power: its defining of reality and recent history, its arbitrary and often absurd directives, its degrading treatment of the human body, and ultimately its impermanence. A brief prologue informs us via voice-over narration that The Round-Up is set in Hungary at the end of the 1860s at the dawn of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Delivered over historical and thematically suggestive diagrams, this prologue already paints a palimpsestic picture, encapsulating the film’s setting and immediate back-history – most importantly, the nationalist and revolutionary fervour in Hungary and elsewhere across Europe exploding in 1848-9 – and later post-revolutionary scenarios, ‘successful’ and otherwise, and beyond. This notably includes The Round-Up’s own Communist bloc production context as part of the gradual loosening of restrictions after many years of oppression and reprisals by the restored pro-Soviet Budapest government following the failed 1956 Hungarian uprising. The largely abstract on-screen portrayal of power and its cold application at the behest of far away state agents determined to thwart ‘another’ 1848 or 1956 could almost be set anywhere, any time.

The original Hungarian title literally translates as ‘The Hopeless Ones’. This descriptor refers to the film’s anonymous prisoners kept within a strange kind of rural internment or concentration camp, mysteriously referred to as the Earthworks, in the midst of the great Hungarian puszta (steppe). But it also connotes a population at large kept in chains, no matter the political situation or era. The men and women on screen are suffering the long after-effects of the resurgent state’s paranoia in the wake of the nationalist and revolutionary period two decades earlier.2 In the film, the military – with Hungarians now doing Austria’s (and soon the new Austro-Hungarian Empire’s) bidding – appears obsessed with Sándor Rózsa, a real figure encapsulating revolutionary, nationalist guerilla fighter, and betyár (outlaw) very familiar from other national contexts. In the film Rózsa is never seen, remaining semi-mythical. Yet whether he is real or otherwise, dead or alive, present or absent, seems ultimately unimportant, as this folk-icon symbolizes the very notion or spirit of ongoing resistance. At one point a prisoner tells his father he has never seen Rózsa, only to be corrected: ‘You have seen him often.’ Meanwhile, soldiers continually harass the prisoners as to whether the fabled rebel leader is present at the camp, despite appearing to know he is not. The state’s real enemy, it turns out, is less Rózsa than his followers and the idea he represents, as the chilling but politically logical final scene so sharply illustrates. More broadly, it is the people per se.3

The prisoners are incarcerated within both the claustrophobic confines of the Earthworks buildings and courtyard and the great puszta beyond, which initially seems to tease them with the possibility of freedom. In fact, the power of the state is so complete that even the tantalizing openness of nature is illusory. If anyone makes a break for it, there is literally nowhere to hide. As in his other internationally well-known films, Jancsó largely offers us a cinema of the out-of-doors. And one early scene aside, the horror all happens under a glorious sunny sky. In a deeply authoritarian context, freedom lies precisely nowhere, even on the puszta. Crucial to this relentless thematic strain so dominating the director’s 1960s and ‘70s work is the precise nature of the images rendering such a starkly hermetic world.

The first of many Jancsó films shot in 2.35:1 widescreen, The Round-Up’s constantly striking compositions emphasize the extreme rectangular frame in often abstractly rendering a very rigorous and restricted mise en scène. Offering enormous graphic interest, these images also exhibit a strong emphasis on texture – that of clothing, stone, wood, grass, stucco, earth, grass, and sky. If this and the director’s immediately proceeding films constitute an almost avant-gardist cinema of de-narrativised formal emphasis, the frequently breathtaking shots and staging of bodies in space also amounts to a true cinema of spectacle.4 Most notably perhaps, while nowhere near as extensive as in his following films – where they can comprise the entire running time (culminating with the opulent Red Psalm) – The Round-Up shows Jancsó’s solidifying interest in elaborate crane-mounted tracking shots as key structuring principle. Here still one important component within a frequently staggering array of images and combinations thereof, long shots are marked by extensive potential mobility, the camera always seeming poised for lateral and swooping vertical movement.

Here also is established in earnest the director’s particular approach to narrative attenuation, and stark downplaying of character and psychology. In the early scenes, a protagonist seems possible in the form of a farmer who fruitlessly tries to negotiate with military officers by offering to inform on fellow prisoners so as to lessen his own punishment. But the dual drivers of individual agency and narrative progression are voided quickly enough. In addition, the sense of a ‘group protagonist’ (in line with loose communist principles) featuring in The Confrontation (1969) and Red Psalm – and thereby ‘authentic’ revolutionary action – never seems viable here. No single person or group is remotely free enough to drive meaningful change. Only the distant imperial state can do so.

Throughout, narration appears largely undermined by a radically ‘objective’ camera. Although we get more close-ups than in Jancsó’s following films, so that skin and hair become additional sources of fascination for the camera, no single on-screen figure is of any importance for long. The result is a kind of figural cinema with multiple undifferentiated bodies treated primarily as graphic components of the image, morphing easily into others, in a process with no significant narrative outcome. This choreography of massed and more intimate arrangements of bodies set against a stark built environment and wide-open nature, with the human figures or camera typically moving, or both, suggests a visual (but hopeless) dance.5

The Round-Up offers a stark kind of abstract, formalist filmmaking. But rather than a lessening of clarity, Jancsó thereby generates much more trans-historical thematic articulation and an appropriately challenging political cinema. A comparably ‘realistic’ soundtrack devoid of non-diegetic music accompanies the film’s quasi-parabolic scenario and highly stylized images. Strikingly, the near constant chirp of birds invokes nature’s obliviousness to human degradation. Meanwhile on screen, doorways, gates and walls are given repeated emphasis, with many shots suggesting the proscenium arch. The accumulative result is a highly ‘presentationalist’ and reflexive political modernism, but without the more obvious markers of distanciation or ‘alienation’ familiar from the work of Jean-Luc Godard and other radical Western directors. Instead, we are faced with a unique kind of ‘cinema of cruelty’ driven by a rigorous and genuinely revolutionary humanist impulse properly embedded in the dual moments of The Round-Up’s setting and production, while also echoing loudly and troublingly across historical and political contexts, including our own.

The Round-Up (Miklós Jancsó, 1966 Hungary 90 mins)

Prod co: MAFILM IV JátékfilmstúdióProd: István Daubner Dir: Miklós Jancsó Scr: Gyula Hernádi Phot: Tamás Somló Ed: Zoltán Farkas Prod Des: Tamás Banovich Sound Des: Zoltán Toldy Cast: János Görbe, Zoltán Latinovits, Tibor Molnár, Gábor Agárdi, András Kozák, Béla Barsi, József Madaras¸ János Koltai, István Avar, Lajos Öze, Rudolf Somogyvári, Attila Nagy, Zoltán Basilides, György Bárdy, Zsigmond Fülöp.

Endnotes

  1. Like many viewers, The Round-Up – the first of the director’s films to garner significant international attention – was my first experience of Jancsó’s work. Well before its end, I knew I was experiencing an advance in my understanding of what a feature film could be in certain respects analogous to my first viewing of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960). While I could detect select influences (including, Jancsó has acknowledged, Antonioni) and easily gleaned the key role the director has played for subsequent Hungarian and other former Eastern Bloc filmmakers (such as Béla Tarr) and beyond (Sergio Leone), in visual style and approach to thematic address I had never quite seen anything like The Round-Up.
  2. In Hungary, this heritage was a story of attempted liberation from Austria in a war against both Austrian and Russian armies, fuelled by nationalist politics mixed with the broader revolutionary fervour sweeping much of central Europe.
  3. Power’s real enemy, Jancsó’s cinema repeatedly shows, is always the people en mass. Across its running time The Round-Up demonstrates that this includes official ‘enemies’, those who seek collusion with the powers-that-be, and even official servants of the state such as soldiers – again, a story very much resonant across multiple authoritarian contexts throughout history.
  4. The extreme formalism of the film is both its key and yet can also momentarily blind us to connections with contemporary and subsequent films of a more clearly genre- and narrative-based nature, notably Leone’s. Yet while it would be an unhelpful stretch to call The Round-Up a genre piece, in decidedly abstract and de-dramatized form we can detect the Western refigured for a Marxist context, as well as the prisoner-of-war film, and the parable tradition. (The presence of female nudity and torture, especially in light of Jancsó’s subsequent soft-core Italian productions, also hints at exploitation cinema.)
  5. This emphasis on the dance, here only suggested, will become clearer and increasingly erotic in the much more intimate Silence and Cry, before exploding fully in The Confrontation and Red Psalm, both of which offer unique modernist and Marxist versions of the musical.

About The Author

Hamish Ford is a lecturer in Film, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Newcastle, and a regular contributor to Senses of Cinema.