Wednesday, 13 June 2007

The Red and the White (Hungary/USSR, 1967, Miklos Jancso)

Set during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1919, The Red and the White is a cool and dispassionate account of war devoid of heroism or appeal. The main focus is the role of Hungarian volunteers who enlisted to assist the Bolshevik Reds, who were fighting the White counter-revolutionaries. However, Jancso refrains from showing complete bias, portraying both sides as merciless and pitiless, and capable of committing atrocities against their fellow countrymen. Despite being commissioned to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the film was subsequently banned; most likely because it didn’t tow the party line and remained distinctly impartial, and also because the 1956 Hungarian Revolution that was brutally repressed remained in the collective memory.

Many Hungarians joined the Russian cause because they thought that in the long run, it would benefit their own country, which faced an uncertain future when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismantled by the peace settlements of 1919, and Hungary became an individual, self-governing nation. The question of course is, did it? Since Jancso shows the Reds in a none too sympathetic light, perhaps not. Many Russians were less than keen on Hungarian involvement; some Hungarians are told that they don’t want them fighting their war. In many ways, The Red and the White summarises and reinforces the often fraught relationship the two countries have endured over much of the twentieth century.

One could argue that Jancso films with a policy of detachment. The Reds and the Whites are never named and are often indistinguishable, there is little in the way of characterisation, and his main cinematographic preference is for long takes with very little camera movement, often from distance. It’s as if the director doesn’t want to get too close to his subjects or attempt to analyse or empathise with them. He prefers to depict events as they occur and have little more input beyond this. This approach allows him to be impartial and not sensationalise or over dramatise the numerous shocking acts of violence he films, such as massacres of entire towns, allowing enemies a few seconds head start to run before being picked off, and coldly shooting enemies right between the eyes indiscriminately. Despite much of this violence being committed by the Whites, Jancso affords some of the counter-revolutionaries a conscience and a degree of moral integrity. When one White soldier attempts to rape a woman in a small town, his officer orders him to be executed for his dishonour. This captures the peculiar mindset of men at war; that when faced with your enemies, anything goes. Yet those who are innocent and uninvolved should be treated with respect and dignity. It’s strange just to be able to turn on and off like that.

Where there is anything like a narrative, I suppose it exists as much as concentrating on a few Hungarian Reds trying to avoid the Whites and escape capture. The unlucky escapees commit suicide before being captured, whilst the fortunate either ambush the Whites, hide in lakes whilst they pass, or pretend to be wounded Whites at a nearby infirmary. The nurses explain that there are no “Reds or Whites here, only patients”, reinforcing that these are men with much in common, separated by ideology (though interestingly we never hear any indications of the ideologies of these forces or why they’re fighting). The Whites arrive and ask for the Reds and the Whites to be separated, though this coincides with a major fight back by the Reds, culminating in a glorious and sweeping shot from distance of the two armies marching towards each other (which cannot be told apart) at approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes into the film. This resolution is open ended, with no judgements of any kind, or any indication of how events might pan out. Jancso sees the whole futility of this exercise and closes with a march towards death, with the forces fighting for no other reason than to fight.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Szerelem (Hungary, 1971, Karoly Makk)

Karoly Makk is considered one of the best post-war Hungarian directors, and is certainly one of the best cinematic commentators of the Communist experience in Eastern Europe. ‘Szerelem’ (translated as ‘Love’) is his best received film, and finally gets a Western release thanks to the sterling work of Second Run, who are steadily carving out a niche for themselves as distributors of great, unknown films from largely ignored national cinemas. Based on two short stories written by Tibor Dery, Makk’s film nominally focuses on the love a wife (Luca) and a mother have for a man (Janos) whom we never see until the final quarter of the film, and the relationship between the two women.

‘Szerelem’ is set in 1953, when Hungary was under the totalitarian rule of Mátyás Rákosi during which thousands of real and imagined foes were killed or arrested. Janos has been arrested on an unknown, but presumed fictitious charge, and is serving a nine year sentence. Luca is not permitted to see her husband and knows not whether he is alive, let alone in good physical health. Janos’ mother is looked after by Luca and a housekeeper. A seriously ill, bed-ridden woman, she does not know what has happened to her son. Since she does not have long to live, and that the shock of Janos’ arrest might kill her, Luca constructs a web of deceit, writing letters supposedly from Janos that tell of his great success as a film director in the United States. These are very elaborate letters, written in great detail, that even the housekeeper claims are beyond the realm of probability. So why doesn’t Janos’ mother suspect that not all is as it seems to be? Luca tells the housekeeper that she is ‘deaf and blind’ when it comes to Janos. Such is her love for her son that she will believe any news of his supposed success.

However, there is one idea that she wants to believe what Luca’s letters present, and gives the impression to believes it wholesale, but that she has some idea of the truth. Much of the narrative is composed of the memories and thoughts of Janos’ mother. When reading the prose of the letters Lucas has written, Makk visually presents her thoughts and intrerpretations. When she talks to Luca about her past, this is presented through a series of flashbacks. In one instance of reading a latter, Makk presents a series of random thoughts, but these are interspersed with flashes of the prison cell that we later see Janos has been imprisoned in. Therefore, should we determine that the inclusion of these shots suggests that Janos’ mother suspects what he really happened to him, and that she is deluding herself somewhat when Luca paints a picture of his success abroad?

Aware of her impending death, the mother tells Luca she has to see Janos again, possibly a tactic designed to confront Luca and force the truth out of her, though the mother backs down with this request when Luca says he would have to leave the film he is currently working on. She never gets her wish however, as she contracts pneumonia and only survives a few days after it’s diagnosed. As soon as he passes, Janos is released from prison, and Makk then shifts focus to Janos’ own feelings of disorientation and uncertainty. During his spell in prison, much has changed and he finds difficulty in coping and returning to a home he has not been part of, and a wife he has barely seen in the last several years. However, their love binds them together and sustains their marriage (which we assume, considering Makk has directed a sequel of sorts ‘A Long Weekend in Pest and Buda’ (2003) and also with their mutual declaration of an undying love).

For a film that is set during the most dangerous point in recent Hungarian history, and focuses on a man’s false imprisonment, Makk’s film is surprisingly lacking in political insight and bite. We don’t find out what Janos was arrested for, and the sole government officials we see are those overseeing his release, and possibly two men who claim to be from the telephone exchange. This is deliberate of course; partly because it was still filmed under Communism (albeit an era that had moved on from the terror of the Rákosi regime), but also because Makk obviously wishes to concentrate on the personal aspect; how living during these political conditions affects the everyday lives of people whose domestic bliss is shattered by them. It’s an approach that works for the better and remains free of simple moralising and judgement. A masterpiece by any yardstick.