To coincide with the DVD release of the film by the excellent Second Run Films (who have also previously released Jancsó's 'My Way Home' and 'The Red and The White'), the Curzon Mayfair cinema broadcast a special screening of 'The Round Up' on Friday 14 March, with Jancsó in attendance and participating in a Q&A with renowned critic/commentator Tony Rayns afterwards.
A little context. In 1848, the Habsburg Austrian Empire faced several revolutions from nationalist movements within its borders. One such revolution occured in Hungary, which was quickly and brutally supressed. 'The Round Up' concentrates on the authorities' attempts to track down the leaders of the rebellion; namely to find Sandor Rozsa and his men. Supported by the middle classes, the entire rural community were considered criminals and outlaws. This was a pitiless regime as Jancsó shows in the opening iconic scene that provides the film's title. A group of peasants are indiscriminately herded together; none directly suspected of being associates of Rozsa, but through applying psychological and physical pressure, it is hoped that the group will either expose itself or be exposed by others.
The tension and horror of the film resides in this approach. What disturbs us is just how "fair" the authorities are. Indiscriminate slaughter of the prisoners would be simple, but the more effective approach is interrogation, encouraging prisoners to inform on each other, and forcing them to watch other prisoners being psychologically or physically abused. It is a dehumanising and depersonalising process - these are less rounded human characters than mere symbols of oppression. One scene in which a naked young woman is repeatedly whipped by soldiers results in several prisoners jumping to their deaths as if they could take no more. One recurring image of psychological abuse is forcing prisoners to wear hoods. Seen now, it can only make one think of the famous image of the prisoner at Abu Ghraib. An inadvertent coincidence of course, but gives the film a frightening contemporary significance; that the means of undermining and abusing prisoners seldom changes through the ages.
The technical prowess which Jancsó was to become famous for was being well developed in 'The Round Up'. His stylistic trademark of long takes in deep focus are used frequently, as well as overhead shots as he observes the ritual dehumanisation of the prisoners. The camera is in perpetual movement, as are the actors within each scene. For instance, when two prisoners attack each other, as one accuses the other of betrayal, the camera swirls in a 360 degree motion as the actors do the same. Jancsó doesn't strike us as a director overly interested in the processes or psychology of acting. The prisoners are just pawns or props for his greater interest of choreographing the movements of human beings. Derek Malcolm's review of this film suggested that watching a Jancsó film was akin to watching ballet, and you see his point. Jancsó's framing of each scene is phenomenal.
It's possible to draw parallels between this film and events in Hungary just a decade before -the revolution of 1956, which was also supressed brutally. Jancsó was fairly cagey in terms of making a comparison. However, if the allegorical aspect of 'The Round Up' is apparent to us then would it not be apparent to the state authorities which allowed this film to be made? Jancsó was also fairly bemused by the fact that he was able to make films without state interference since they hardly conformed to Socialist orthodoxy. 'The Round Up' is a fascinating but clinical account of oppression and imprisonment; a directorial tour de force from Jancsó, though one needs to appreciate his intentions in making such a dehumanised piece of work. 4/5