The round-up

Jancso Miklos

Hungary, 1965

TEACHER GUIDE

DETAILS

Drama, history

ISSUES

Freedom fighter movements in 1848-49, partisans, betrayal, the conflict between the individual and the government.

THE FILM

Following the supression of Lajos Kossuth’s 1848 revolution against Habsburg rule in Hungary, prison camps were set up for people who were suspected as Kossuth’s supporters. Almost 20 years later, some members of Sándor Rózsa’s guerrilla band, regarded as Kossuth’s last supporters, are reportedly imprisoned in a camp. Using various means of mental and physical torture and trickery, the prison’s guards try to identify the gang’s members and find out if Sándor is among them.  When one of the guerrillas, János Gajdar, is identified as a murderer by an old woman, he becomes an informer. If he shows his captors a man who has killed more people than he did, he is promised to be spared. Fearing for his life, he turns in several prisoners. An outcast among his inmates, Gajdar is murdered while in solitary confinement. The prison guards, who are looking for suspects and for Sándor himself, start interrogating prisoners whose cells had been left unlocked during the night of the murder. Suspects reveal the remaining guerrillas when tricked by a promise. Their captors make them believe that there is a chance of forming a new military unit and further deceit them by claiming that Sándor has been pardoned. The celebrating guerrillas are then told that those who were commanded by him, will still face execution.

Those who have never seen a film by Miklos Jancso made during the 60s, the time when the Hungarian director was at his peak, are usually astonished by the experience. When The Round-Up, his third film, came to London in 1965, critics were almost taken by surprise. Here was a overtly serious, decidedly uncamp and certainly not musically-minded middle European Busby Berkeley, who made patterns with humans and horses on screen in order to illustrate the betrayals in his country’s history. To watch The Round-Up or the 1967’s The Red and the White for the first time is to witness some kind of a film ballet entering the realms of political drama.

In The Round-Up, Austrian soldiers, representing the triumphant Hapsburgian Empire, trap and interrogate Hungarian partisans whose revolt against the Empire’s rule has culminated unsuccessfully. It is the mid-19th century and only the fighters of legendary Sandor Rosza stand in the way, succoured by the peasants. The drama is virtually invested with characters we can either sympathise, or hate, and deals largely in formal, abstract generalities. It is as if Jancso is observing, regretfully conscious of those who will be killed and of those whose job is to kill them. A man running towards the horizon is calmly shot. Another is taken away to be tortured. Short words of command seem to be the apotheosis of dialogue.

Everything 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 a world apart. However, it is a world that is able to communicate a specific vision of Hungarian history and mankind’s story, 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 lack of emotion, it can’t be for absence of power, or cold appreciation of the situation it illustrates.

Later, with films such as The Confrontation and Red Psalm, Jancso’s work begins to lose something through familiarity. It is, also, his obsession with half-naked girls and patterns that 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 of value to say, or no way out from repeating himself, or exaggerating his weaknesses.

Nevertheless, his first few films were astonishing, whether dealing with Kossuth’s rebels in the 1860s, or Hungarian revolution’s aftermath in 1919. These films bitterly analysed the history of Jancso’s persecuted country and commented on the nature of violence. No one has tried to do what he did, the way he did it. This is his formidable legacy.

The Round-Up does not exhibit many of Jancsó’s trademark elements to the degree evident later: thus, the takes are comparatively short and although the camera movements are carefully choreographed they do not exhibit the elaborate fluid style that would become so distinctive in films he made later. The film does, though, use Jancsó’s favourite setting, the Hungarian puszta (steppe), shot in characteristically oppressive sunlight. The film has little dialogue and rarely reveals the emotions of its characters. It has been called by one critic as “a total absorption of content into form”.

Like much of Jancsó’s work, The Round-Up deals with specific events in Hungarian history. Yet this is not a historical, or costume drama, full of baroque heroes, 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, in those vast, flat plains of eastern Hungary that seem to stretch forever. The puszta, with its vastness and angular, flat landscape, forms a decidedly minimalist background. The landscape is always shown in bright harsh sunlight with the prison-camp’s buildings 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, like the Wild West in the American consciousness. This harsh natural environment that man must conquer is full of archetypal characters who master the landscape.

Several other films of Jancsó were shot on the puszta, suggesting his fondness for this particular environment. The starkness of the physical backdrop is, also, reflected in the film’s overall visual style. We see a high degree of formality in many of Jancsó’s films with actors placed in almost ballet-like formations. Shots possess an elegance of simplicity and style. After all, one of Jancsó’s great strengths was his sense of the visual. Much of the film’s movement feels almost choreographed. The characters move in precise formation and according to predefined patterns. There is very little looseness and everything feels tightly controlled and scripted.

The Round-Up was produced by the Hungarian state film production company Mafilm. It had a budget of 17 million forints, around half a million US$ (at the exchange rates of the time). The screenplay was written by Hungarian author Gyula Hernádi, whom Jancsó had met in 1959. They frequently collaborated up until Hernádi’s death in 2005. The film was shot in widescreen in black and white by another regular collaborator of Jancsó, Tamás Somló.

The Round-Up premiered at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival and was a huge international success. Hungarian film critic Zoltan Fabri called it “perhaps the best Hungarian film ever made.”[2] Film critic Derek Malcolm included The Round-Up in his list of the 100 greatest films ever made. In Hungary, the film was seen by over a million people (in a country with a population of 10 million).

About the writer

Gyula Hernádi (23 August 1926 – 20 July 2005) was a Hungarian writer and screenwriter. He wrote for 36 films between 1965 and 2005, mostly for director Miklós Jancsó. He, also, wrote many novels, mostly surrealistic science fiction, or horror stories with unique twists.

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