Miklós Jancsó (27 September 1921– 31 January 2014) was a Hungarian filmmaker and screenwriter. Jancsó achieved international prominence from the mid-1960s onwards, with works including The Round-Up (Szegénylegények, 1965), The Red and the White (Csillagosok, katonák, 1967), and Red Psalm (Még kér a nép, 1971).
Jancsó’s films are characterized by visual stylization, elegantly choreographed shots, long takes, historical periods, rural settings, and lack of psychoanalysis. A frequent theme in his films is the abuse of power. His works are often allegorical commentaries on Hungary under Communism and the Soviet occupation, although some critics prefer to stress the universal dimensions of Jancsó’s explorations. Towards the end of the 1960s and especially into the 1970s, Jancsó’s work became increasingly stylized and overtly symbolic.
Born to Hungarian Sandor Jancsó and Romanian Angela Poparada, Miklós Jancsó studied, after his graduation from school, Law in Pécs, receiving his degree in Kolozsvár (Cluj) in 1944. He, also, took courses in art history and ethnography, which he continued to study in Transylvania. Jancsó served in World War II and was briefly a war prisoner. He registered with the legal Bar, but avoided a legal career.
After the war, Jancsó enrolled in the Academy of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest. He received his Diploma in Film Directing in 1950. Around this time Jancsó began working on newsreel footage and reported on such subjects as May Day celebrations, agricultural harvests and state visits from Soviet dignitaries. He first started directing films in 1954, making documentary newsreels. Between 1954 and 1958 he made newsreel shorts whose subjects ranged from a portrait of Hungarian writer Zsigmond Móricz in 1955 to the official Chinese state visit in 1957. Although these films do not reflect Jancsó’s aesthetic ability, they offered him the opportunity to master film-making’s technical side, while, also, enabled him to travel around Hungary and witness firsthand what was happening.
In 1958, he completed his first full-length feature film, The Bells Have Gone to Rome, which starred Miklós Gábor. In the film a group of Hungarian school-boys are pressured by Nazi Germans to join the army and fight on the eastern front against the Russians. As the schoolboys begin to learn about and understand the Nazi regime, they decline the offer. Jancsó dismissed this early work, returned to documentary film-making and collaborated with his wife Márta Mészáros. In 1959 he met Hungarian author Gyula Hernádi. They frequently worked together up until Hernádi’s death in 2005.
Szegénylegények (1966), his fifth feature film, was a huge hit domestically and internationally and is often considered as a significant work of world cinema. Hungarian film critic Zoltan Fabri called it “perhaps the best Hungarian film ever made.” Film critic Derek Malcolm included the film in his list of the 100 greatest films ever made. In Hungary, it was seen by over a million people (in a country with a population of 10 million).
Csillagosok, katonák (1967) became Jancsó’s biggest international success, winning the ‘Best Foreign Film’ award of the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics. In his following films, he developed a personal style characteristic for its historical analysis, use of complex camera movements, dance and popular songs. Jancsó created his own cinematic style. He called it “political musical”. Long takes became a trademark of Jancsó. The 80-minute long Sirokkó (1969) consists of only 12 shots. Jancsó received the ‘Best Director’ award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1972 for the film Még kér a nép (1972). During the 1970s, he shared his time between Italy and Hungary. Out of the films he made in Italy, the most known is Magánbűnök, közerkölcsök (1976). The films he did shortly after, Magyar rapszódia (1979) and Allegro barbaro (1979) were the most expensive Hungarian productions of the time, but critical reaction was muted.
Jancsó was awarded the Career Golden Lion at the Venice Film festival in 1990. After unsuccessful attempts and a long break from filming, Jancsó returned with Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten (1999). This proved to be a surprising comeback for the director. Its success led to five more films, Pepe (Zoltán Mucsi) and Kapa (Péter Scherer) films, the last made in 2006. Jancsó cemented his reputation by making appearances in a number of films, for example as himself in his Pepe and Kapa films and in guest roles in works by up-and-coming Hungarian directors. Jancsó died of lung cancer on 31 January 2014, aged 92. Fellow Hungarian director Béla Tarr called Jancsó “the greatest Hungarian film director of all time” and acknowledged Jancsó’s influence on his own work.