Miklós Jancsó: Radical Form in the Service of Radical Content

    The 1960s were a period that famously witnessed talent emerging from all corners of the world; what the French New Wave set in motion in the late 1950s, young cineastes continued throughout the world, from California and the European basin to Japan. The work of these filmmakers reflected a varying degree of influence, some were extreme and others less so, but in that period, none of them created a body of work of such singularity and utter uniqueness as Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó (1921–2014). Jancsó was not seen as a notorious or provocative filmmaker, even though his films were suffused with violence, ritual cruelty and nudity characteristic of that era. Perhaps he was too radical to fit into the mainstream European modernism of the time. In all likelihood, he was also – at least in Western terms – too abstrusely political to be adopted by critical elites and put on the pedestal of Eastern European socio-critical cinema, a position occupied by the Soviet, Polish and Czechoslovakian auteurs. 

    Miklós Jancsó created a radical form in the service of radical content, a series of seven or eight films that redefined aesthetic criteria from the mid-1960s to the first half of the 1970s, producing an output nearly unmatched in the history of film. Even if Jancsó did not stop directing until almost the very end of his life, his monumental work will remain associated, to a greater or lesser extent, with a collection of masterfully shot and enigmatic historical and political allegories that chronicled the recent history of Hungary and the Habsburg Empire. Jancsó’s thematic preoccupation was inherited at birth. He was born into a mixed family – his mother was Romanian, and his father Hungarian. The environment of his immediate family provided an insight into the issues of different nationalities, minorities, shifting national borders, foreign occupation and different rules – the ingrained issues of Hungarian history. It therefore comes as no surprise that Jancsó foregrounded these absurd and often chaotic (and violent) contradictions, which he was able to adeptly articulate as a former student of theology, law, ethnography and art history, and finally, as a prisoner of World War II when in Russian captivity his transformation into a staunch Marxist began. In this period, Jancsó based his historical subjects on repressive regimes. The Round-Up dramatizes the crushing of the vestiges of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution; The Red and the White shows Bolshevik battles against tsarist forces; The Confrontation depicts the consolidation of power in Hungary by hard-line Communists after WWII; Winter Wind focuses on Croatian separatists preparing for their anti-Yugoslav terror campaign in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, and Red Psalm shows the brutal repression of a peasants’ revolt in late 19th century.

    He liked to stress that he had no affinity for psychologization, and consequently had to find another means of expression, another game – and this was a game of style (e.g., passive actors) that was instantly scorned as abstraction. Jancsó simply did not know how to adopt realism (and did not want to, either); in other words, the viewer had to play his game, staying aware of the fiction. His historical and political films create an impression of “falsity,” theatricality, ritualization, occasionally even coming across as musicals (e.g., The Confrontation) or theatre of the absurd – without humour. Jancsó’s films do not depict real history, the director toys with historical facts in order to highlight an idea. Among others, the idea of film as spectacle, created by masterful camerawork and protracted tracking shots, which, in combination with the choreography of the mass scenes and lengthy shots-sequences (Winter Wind, for instance, is made of only thirteen shots), results in an inimitable dynamic experience. Ritual confrontation and death have never been as potent as in Jancsó’s films of that period. It is quite possible that Jancsó was the greatest stylistic virtuoso of his time, whom the history of film has not treated mercifully. Today, Jancsó is a half-forgotten giant, and that is why the centenary of his birth is an opportune moment for a rehabilitation he undoubtedly deserves. 

    Simon Popek