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.