Imagine a life during wartime where your country is invaded by foreign forces and your friends and neighbors have either joined the resistance or sided with the enemy in order to save their own skins. The lines were more clearly drawn during the American Civil War where geography, uniforms and flags were the distinguishing physical differences but in Europe, wars and revolutions were much more complicated and confusing for the opposing sides. Consider, for example, The Red and the White (Hungarian title: Csillagosok, Katonak, 1967), directed by Miklos Jancso, in which Hungary collapses into chaos in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. As depicted by Jansco, the landscape becomes a no man’s land where the roles of the oppressors and the oppressed are constantly switching and non-partisan peasants are caught in the middle with no control over their fates. The result is a visually mesmerizing, almost absurdist view of power changing hands almost as rapidly as gamers in an interactive duel.
The Red and the White was the second film in an unofficial trilogy by Jancso that focused on events that occurred in 1919. The first film was The Round-Up (Hungarian title: Szegenylegenyek, 1966) and the third was Silence and Cry (Hungarian title: Csend es Kialtas, 1968) but it wouldn’t be the last time Jancso made a film set in 1919. Agnus Dei (Hungarian title: Egi Barany, 1971) would examine the role that the Catholic church played in the rise of fascism after the Russian Revolution.
Jancso began his film career in the early 1950s making documentary shorts and directed his first feature film, The Bells Have Gone to Rome (Hungarian title: A Harangok Romaba Mentek), in 1959. It wasn’t until the release of The Round-Up in 1966, however, that the director finally achieved international recognition while honing his distinctive style that he would refine further in subsequent films. This involved taking a linear approach to narratives that were often rendered in an episodic manner and were usually based on historical events. But what made Jancso’s films stand out was his visual approach which favored long, unbroken camera movements while choreographed groups of people moved in and out of the frame until a central figure would be identified and followed until their purpose in the story was revealed.
The effect is mesmerizing and often creates tension and suspense with a minimum of dialogue or character development. In fact, Jancso was not that interested in trying to depict the political or psychological reasons that motivates his characters. Instead, he preferred to let his roaming cast of players reveal themselves through their actions. And since many of his films are set during wars or revolutions, you can expect the worse from human behavior.
The Red and the White is no exception and immediately pulls the viewer into a violent conflict that is unfolding in a border region around the Volga River in 1919. Invading Bolshevik forces and their allies known as Reds are locked in a struggle with anti-Russian nationalists known as Whites with Hungarians fighting on both sides. Non-partisan farmers and peasants are dragged into the melee and subjected to interrogation, torture and even execution if they are suspected of harboring the enemy or taking sides.
Trying to distinguish between the Reds and the Whites is confusing for the viewer and that is intentional because it adds to the sense of paranoia and disorientation. Also, neither side emerges as heroic or virtuous but they are both well matched in terms of brutality. And this addresses a central theme in a lot of Jancso’s work, which he described in an interview with Kinoeye as “an exploration of the state of society in which some people always try to exploit others. Even if they come from the oppressed classes themselves, once they get into power they change and try to oppress other people.”
Like most of Jancso’s films, The Red and the White features an ensemble of actors who pop up in the director’s films again and again such as Jozsef Madaras (as a Hungarian commander who commits suicide before he can be executed) and Andras Kozak, a Red Army soldier who is captured but later escapes and returns to lead an assault on White forces. He is one of the rare few who survives in the film and is seen paying tribute to his fallen comrades in the last shot in the movie. But most of the other Red and White soldiers see their fates go from victor to victim in a choreographed dance of doom. Despite the fact that Jancso stages the action in a detached observational manner, the effect is nonetheless completely engrossing.
Amid the stylized carnage, there are also moments of beauty and quiet contemplation in The Red and the White. One of the most memorable shots follows a troupe of musician/soldiers through a white birch forest as several army vehicles pull up to deposit a group of nurses in this idyllic setting. The women are then ordered to dance to the music and they pair up in same sex couples to waltz as their captors look on longingly.
When Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite, Dogtooth) introduced the film in London in 2015 at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts), he said, “The Red and The White was unlike anything I had seen before. A unique filmic language of humans moving around in this grand landscape, back and forth, again and again, killing, dying, hiding. The hunter becomes the prey and the prey the hunter and all over from the start again. It moved me deeply. The film speaks about war, conflict, life, death, belonging, loyalty, betrayal and so many other things. You experience everything in the moment, you identify yourself with every side and the repetition becomes a trance, while the film itself becomes universal and timeless.
In another scene, a handsome Hungarian escapee (Jacint Jahasz) flirts with a lovely volunteer nurse (Krystyna Mikolajewska) and even manages to steal a kiss in a fleeting moment of tenderness. The mood then changes abruptly as White forces surround the field hospital, the nurse is forced to strip and her would-be lover, who attempts to hide in the lake, is speared like a fish in front of her. Moments of pure visual poetry mingle with the horrific in this surreal environment which is closer to theater of the absurd than real life.
It should be noted that the dazzling widescreen black and white cinematography in The Red and the White is by Tamas Somlo. He was an influential collaborator on the early films of Jancso and would also help him transition into the use of color for The Confrontation (Hungarian title: Fenyes Szelek, 1969), a historical drama about the Communist takeover of Hungary in 1947.
In 1967 Hungary was under the control of the Soviet Union and The Red and the White was intended to be a celebratory film in honor of the October Revolution. What Jancso delivered, however, was not the glorified historical epic that was expected but something much more ambiguous and unsettling. The Russians were angry but it was hard to attack the film on a political basis because it had no political agenda. In the words of film critic Marjorie Baumgarten of The Austin Chronicle, “It is a story about humanity rather than individuals, a war story that has no clear sides, an epic without heroes. His war movie looks more like an Antonioni film than a genre actioner, interested more in form and technique than narrative events.”
Despite his stature as one of the most important Hungarian filmmakers of the 20th century, Jancso never saw any of his films nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. He was much more appreciated in Europe where he was celebrated often at the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals. At Cannes, he was a five time nominee for the Palme d’Or and in 1972 he won the Best Director prize for Red Psalm (Hungarian title: Meg Ker a Nep). Jancso was also a three time nominee for the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. He received a Honorable Mention award for Season of Monsters (Hungarian title: Szornyek Evadja) in 1987 and he given a career achievement award in 1990.
One last bit of trivia about The Red and the White: Future Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov (A Slave of Love, Siberiade, Dark Eyes) appears in a minor role as a White Officer. Mikhalkov would go on to win the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film of 1995, Burnt by the Sun, a pastoral period piece about a family gathering that is interrupted by a cousin with a hidden agenda.
The Red and the White has been available on DVD from different distributors over the years but the only one still in print appears to be the Second Run Films DVD from several years ago (It is a PAL disc so you would need an all-region player to view it). The good news is Kino Lorber is releasing new 4k restorations of six Mikos Jancso films on Blu-ray later in 2022 including The Red and the White and The Round-Up.
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