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)