Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Miklós Jancsó | The Red and the White  (1967)

The Russian Civil War opposed communist Reds and counter-revolutionary Whites, in a highly confused national and international context following both the October Revolution and the end of the First World War. A considerable number of nationalities including Hungarian, either as volunteers or within expeditionary forces, took part in a conflict that spread  for five long years throughout the margins of the vast Russian empire. Contrary to WWI and in spite of what the opposition in colours suggest, this wasn't a war with steady sets of alliances and clear frontlines.

Attack and retreat

Confusion, especially for non-East European viewers, is the first striking characteristic of The Red and the White. Like in a gigantic revolving opera set gone mad, locations change control, winners become losers, victims turn into executioners. There is no telling if a character we've been following for a while won't be dead in the next scene - in fact, he probably will. Yet, the film holds in a magnificent way, drawing its coherence and strength not from a preformed storyline, but from what actually happens in front of the camera, and how it is shot.

War is about division. Divide between friend and foe, men and women, Russians and non-Russians, the uniformed and the naked, being alive and being dead. The soldiers in The Red and the White are busy bees spending their time in frantically creating such divides ad absurdum. And while they sometimes hesitate in engaging in some of them, or boldly refuse, it is only a postponement for nothing seems to appease the whirlpool. Even humane gestures seem to happen by accident, as if kindness could only randomly overcome this great passion for cutting the world in two.

A ballet of life and death

The camera is the only thing that can make sense of this split-apart universe. Through meticulously crafted, extended tracking shots (a technique which would later culminate in Red Psalm) Jancsó organizes a fantastic choreography of armies, bodies, faces, architectures, lands and skies. Not only does this immediately refuses us the comfort of choosing sides, but as odd as it may seem to film war as a ballet it is probably one of the most effective attempts I have seen to convey at the same time its futility, restlessness and tragic beauty.

Jancsó's work is more than a great film. It is a brilliant example of the necessity, for an artist who wishes to challenge political opinions, to challenge the very art form he is using. No matter the amount of pacifist speech and horrifying shots you add into it, you can't make an anti-war movie shaped like a pro-war (whatever the reasons) one. For if there is no relevant divide between style and content in politics, there should be none either in the cinema that engages them.

Csillagosok, katonák at imdb

DVD edition in the Miklós Jancsó Collection (Second Run)


  1. I bought his collection with three movies a while ago and want to watch them soon. I started watching one of them but the quality of the pictures isn't so good. What I saw so far would have looked better in colour. It's not the same way Hitchcock uses black and white, to sculpt people. But if I'm not mistaken Hitchcock films a lot ij the studio and indoors, while Jancsó films a lot outside. I just watched Carriage to Vienna and there too, I thought, the black and white wasn't ideal.

    1. Which publisher is your box set from? Surely, the studio offers a lot of possibilities of expression with light and Hitchcock when in the US used masters such as Georges Barnes, Robert Burks or Gregg Toland (who shot Notorious).

      However Tamás Somló was far from being a bad photographer and I quite like the rendering he chose for The Red and the White and The Round-up : bleached skies, monotonous fields, muddy waters, fog and smoke - whereas the human skin shows vivid contrast. I think it fits rather well the feeling of loneliness in the great steppes, Hungarian or further East!

      For my part, color or black & white, what matters is the intention and the achieved meaning. I'm often disappointed, if not baffled, by the use - or rather the uselessness - of color in too many movies to list.

  2. Replies
    1. I checked on several forums and it seems the transfers on the Second Run edition aren't so good (the same on the French edition by Clavis).

      I have a 2011 re-edition on DVD by the Hungarian cinematheque. The image is very good, with english subtitles. ships to the EU (the shipping fees may exceed the cost of the DVD, though). :)

  3. I don't live in a EU country which makes shipping even more costly. Thanks any way.