High plains visionary: Miklós Jancsó, 1921-2014

Remembering the unique deep-space and -time cinema of the man Béla Tarr calls Hungary’s greatest director.

Michael Brooke
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Season of Monsters, Miklós Jancsó’s 1987 follow-up to his 1968 student-revolution drama The Confrontation

Season of Monsters, Miklós Jancsó’s 1987 follow-up to his 1968 student-revolution drama The Confrontation

Open almost any issue of Sight & Sound between the mid 1960s and mid 70s and you’d be left in little doubt that Miklós Jancsó, who died on 31 January at the age of 92, ranked among cinema’s immortals. If the synopses of his films make them sound forbiddingly parochial (since they almost invariably revolved around aspects of his native Hungary’s history), their visual and visceral impact could hardly be more immediate.

The language that Jancsó forged, drawn as much from dance choreography as conventional dramaturgy, remains utterly distinctive to this day. This is partly because he has had hardly any imitators (long-take maestros Theo Angelopoulos and Béla Tarr were closest to being Jancsó acolytes, but each had a powerfully independent vision of his own), but mostly because it was drawn from the very particular circumstances that he enjoyed as a Hungarian filmmaker. Not only was he able to make regular use of the puszta, that great featureless plain so characteristic of his country’s topography (and which has few equivalents elsewhere in Europe, making a British or French Jancsó scarcely imaginable), but as an internationally recognised artist in a Communist country he was granted access to dozens, sometimes hundreds and occasionally even thousands of extras – and horses – with which to populate his increasingly extravagant visions. And if censorship frequently forced him into allegory and symbolism, that was often to the film’s advantage, not least in appealing to non-Hungarian audiences who might not otherwise grasp the political and cultural nuances.

Jancsó’s film career spanned six full decades, from his newsreel-directing debut in 1950 (he quipped that making newsreels under Stalin was an admirable training-ground for making fiction later) to his final feature in 2010. He was dauntingly prolific and there are hardly any significant intervals in his filmography.

Even when, like most eastern European filmmakers, he struggled to make features in the cash-strapped post-communist 1990s, he simply returned to documentary filmmaking before enjoying an unlikely career revival with six raucous low-budget comedies (1999-2006). These featured two gravediggers, Pepe (Zoltán Mucsi) and Kapa (Péter Scherer), copious references to Hungarian history and culture, and a great deal of postmodern self-referentiality – Jancsó himself appeared on camera as ‘Uncle Miki’, garnering a cult following among younger Hungarian audiences who had never heard of him before.

Jancsó on the set of The Red and the White (Csillagosok, Katonák, 1967)

Jancsó on the set of The Red and the White (Csillagosok, Katonák, 1967)

Those who attended the Q&As he gave in London, Cambridge and Edinburgh in 2008 will vividly recall an 86-year-old with the energy and vitality of a man at least 20 years younger. Four decades earlier, he was roaming the outdoor set of The Red and the White (Csillagosok, Katonák, 1967) wearing nothing but figure-hugging shorts while his cast sweated in rivulets under their army uniforms. This vision of the alpha male in excelsis was preserved by the documentary In Costroma with a Camera (included as an extra on the Hungarian DVD of The Red and the White), which also reveals that Jancsó talked to his cast and crew almost non-stop during the shooting of one of his elaborate extended takes, like an old silent-era director. (Since realism was never remotely Jancsó’s aim, the unavoidable post-dubbing of his soundtracks seems entirely at one with the artificiality elsewhere).

Jancsó was born on 27 September 1921 in Vác, just north of Budapest, to Hungarian and Romanian parents: he would comment later that he was the living embodiment of differing political sides. He initially studied law, then art history and ethnography, interrupted by military service that included several months (April-November 1945) as a prisoner of war.

In 1946, he joined the Communist Party and began training as a film director at Budapest’s Academy of Theatre and Film Arts. He was married in 1949 and graduated the following year. The next decade would be dominated by newsreels and documentaries, although he made a little-seen and subsequently disowned fiction feature debut in 1958, The Bells Have Gone to Rome (A Harangok Rómába Mentek).

That year, he married his second wife, Márta Mészáros, who would become a major force in Hungarian cinema in her own right (they divorced in 1968), and in 1959 he met the writer Gyula Hernádi, who would become his closest creative partner.

Cantata (Oldas es Kötes, 1962)

Cantata (Oldas es Kötes, 1962)

Although a very minor work compared with what followed, Jancsó’s second feature, Cantata (Oldas es Kötes, 1962), was nonetheless a personal milestone. While he cheerfully owned up to being massively influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni in general and the previous year’s La notte in particular, the film nonetheless contains several glimmerings of Jancsó’s mature style. This is particularly in evidence when his disillusioned protagonist (Zoltán Latinovits, Hungary’s Marcello Mastroianni) abandons the hospital where he works in favour of what would soon become identified as Jancsó country: vast, empty plains only occasionally studded with buildings, often shot from a high angle to emphasise the sense of isolation and distance, with the characters filmed in deep-focus takes averaging nearly three minutes.

The opening of My Way Home (Igy Jöttem, 1964) is quintessential Jancsó: towards the tail-end of World War II, 17-year-old Jóska (András Kozák) is captured first by Hungarian fascists and then by mounted Cossacks. These scenes established a key Jancsó theme, in which human relationships inevitably involve the exertion of power over somebody else, and the ultimate arbiter of that power might change at any moment.

My Way Home (Igy Jöttem, 1964)

My Way Home (Igy Jöttem, 1964)

The director also started to view humanity in terms of large groups of people, corralled and herded, although My Way Home also has a touching central friendship between Jóska and a Russian soldier, Kolya (Sergei Nikonyenko), that flourishes despite the lack of a common language. Much of the film is almost wordless, with Tamás Somló’s eloquent, mobile camera filling in the gaps.

By this point Jancsó had already received some festival attention, but it was his fourth feature The Round-Up (Szegénylegények, 1965) that propelled him to the front rank of European filmmakers. It was as pivotal in his creative development as the Eroica Symphony was in Beethoven’s or Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in Picasso’s (extra-cinematic parallels seem singularly appropriate when discussing Jancsó’s work).

Its opening shot features two lines of horsemen thundering past the camera in what initially appears to be a widescreen western, although John Ford never made anything remotely like this. (Today’s first-time viewer might note superficial similarities with the work of Sergio Leone, but Leone had only made the far less accomplished A Fistful of Dollars at the time.)

The Round-Up (Szegénylegények, 1965)

The Round-Up (Szegénylegények, 1965)

Despite being dominated by exterior shots, The Round-Up is as oppressively claustrophobic as anything by Kafka – indeed, the overarching metaphor, which comes to a head in the very last shot, is of a trap systematically closing on its hapless victims. Monthly Film Bulletin’s ‘P.J.S.’ (Philip Strick), on the basis of a single exposure to the film, wrote:

“What makes [Jancsó] stand out from his contemporaries is an exact and unerring sense of timing and situation (both dramatic and locational), a seemingly instinctive knowledge – like that of Bresson – of where to make one shot last an eternity and another a mere instant, and a complete understanding of the points at which narrative can be at its most explicit by what is not shown and not said.”

By now a name to conjure with, Jancsó secured Soviet backing for The Red and the White, ostensibly made to mark the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution. However, an internal memo to Mosfilm executives issued prior to shooting warned:

“Miklós Jancsó is a typical representative of auteur filmmaking. This movement is much more extreme in Hungary than in our country. Any kind of screenplay we work out together, he will deviate from when it comes to shooting. Even at this point we regret to disappoint those comrades who expect a huge celebratory film for the anniversary. This will not happen.”

The Red and the White (Csillagosok, Katonák, 1967)

The Red and the White (Csillagosok, Katonák, 1967)

Indeed it didn’t: Jancsó set his film during the 1919 Russian Civil War, and drew no particular distinction between Bolsheviks (Reds) and Tsarists (Whites). Hardly anyone is identified by name, there’s little dialogue aside from barked orders, and both sides are equally capable of committing atrocities as a means of gaining the (usually temporary) upper hand.

In the closing moments, when the camera retreats to the far distance to watch hundreds of tiny figures being mown down by even more minuscule opponents, Jancsó seems to be anticipating the passionless mass slaughter of hi-tech modern warfare and computer games, but with no one bothering to keep score. Unfortunately, Soviet citizens weren’t given the chance to see it: in the USSR, the film was first butchered in a doomed attempt to get it to match the original brief, and then banned.

Made the same year as The Red and the White and also set in 1919, Silence and Cry (Csend és Kiáltás, 1967) was more of a chamber piece: there’s just one primary location and only a handful of characters, and they’re much more to the fore (indeed, it starred Latinovits and Mari Töröcsik, another of Hungary’s biggest stars).

On paper, it looks like a love-triangle melodrama, but the treatment saw Jancsó refining his style yet further. With fewer than 40 shots in the entire film, János Kende’s camera circles the endlessly pacing characters, while the birdsong on the soundtrack (by then a familiar Jancsó motif) is offset by the constant sound of wind, which chills even the occasional romantic encounters to the marrow.

The Confrontation (Fényes Szelek, 1968)

The Confrontation (Fényes Szelek, 1968)

Jancsó then began filming in colour, ushering in a new, more openly political, phase. The Confrontation (Fényes Szelek, 1968) was one of his most striking creations, with red-shirted student idealists in the early years of the Hungarian Communist state (who would have been Jancsó’s exact contemporary) rapidly falling out with each other on ideological grounds.

But Sirocco (Sirokko, 1969) and Agnus Dei (Égi Bárány, 1970) were much less acclaimed, as were the Italian productions La Pacifista (1971), starring Antonioni’s muse Monica Vitti, and Technique and Rite (La tecnica ed il rito, 1971). Even though nobody else was making films remotely like this (in this respect Jancsó had much in common with his near-contemporary Federico Fellini) and despite the fact that individual sequences were as dazzling as ever (you could watch almost any shot in Agnus Dei and be convinced that it was taken from a masterpiece), there was a feeling that he was beginning to nudge self-parody.

Red Psalm (Még Kér a Nép, 1971)

Red Psalm (Még Kér a Nép, 1971)

However, Red Psalm (Még Kér a Nép, 1971) and Elektreia (aka Electra, My Love, 1975) saw a substantial return to form. The first is one of Jancsó’s most wholly successful conceits, turning an archetypal story of 19th-century peasants versus landowners and assorted authority figures into a near full-scale musical, albeit far removed from the kitschy Marxist song-and-dance romps of which Stalin was so fond. The music here is drawn from Hungarian, Russian, French and even American folksongs, their politicised lyrics seamlessly sewn into the overall texture alongside numerous highly symbolic dances. The film’s formal virtuosity (János Kende needed more than the usual number of camera assistants just to keep things in focus) won it the Best Director prize at Cannes.

Elektreia delved even further back, to the ancient Greek myth about Agamemnon’s daughter Elektra, although the puszta setting, the frequent recourse to Hungarian folksong (and Béla Bartók’s pounding ‘Allegro barbaro’) and the climactic appearance of a red helicopter (symbolising permanent revolution) made it far closer kin to Jancsó’s other films than its source might suggest. Like Sirocco, the film featured just 12 shots across its entire running time.

Private Vices, Public Virtues (Privatni Poroci, Vrline Javne, 1976)

Private Vices, Public Virtues (Privatni Poroci, Vrline Javne, 1976)

The Italian-Yugoslav co-production Private Vices, Public Virtues (Privatni Poroci, Vrline Javne, 1976) – a highly eroticised retelling of the murder-suicide of the late 19th-century crown prince of Austria and his lover in the so-called Mayerling Incident – repelled as many as it attracted. But its cynical marketing as an upmarket sex film (it’s almost certainly the only Jancsó film to air on the Playboy Channel) has tended to overshadow its considerable virtues as an analysis both of the ennui that accompanies immense wealth and privilege, of the parallels between sexual licentiousness and political radicalism, and of the conspiracy theories that undermined one of central Europe’s great families. It was the last of Jancsó’s films to secure a prominent international profile.

He then made the first two parts of a never-finished trilogy, Hungarian Rhapsody (Magyar Rapszódia) and Allegro Barbaro (both 1978), the Renaissance costume drama The Tyrant’s Heart (A Zsarnok Sziva Avagy Boccaccio Magyarorszagon, 1981), and numerous documentaries, including Omega, Omega (1984), a profile of the Hungarian rock group Omega. This was perhaps the most eccentric entry in Jancsó’s filmography, although by all accounts it achieves a surprisingly successful fusion between Omega’s well-established stage act and Jancsó’s own perennial obsessions. (Not long afterwards, Lindsay Anderson made a film about Wham!: the mid-80s was a tough time for visionary, politically radical auteurs).

Omega, Omega (1984)

Omega, Omega (1984)

The director bookended the collapse of Communism with an explicitly political quartet. Season of Monsters (Szórnyek Évadja, 1987, pictured at top) returned to the territory of The Confrontation, not least by reviving many of its characters (and actors). Reunited at their former professor’s birthday party, their impassioned advocacy of conflicting ideologies strike ferocious sparks that are abetted by a Loch Ness-style monster.

Jesus Christ’s Horoscope (Jezus Krisztus Horoszkópia, 1988) examined the dying days of Communism through the journey of a poet named Josef Kaffka [sic] and a group of Stalin nostalgists. By contrast, God Walks Backwards (Isten Hátrafelé Megy, 1991) offers a dystopian vision of a post-Communist world following Mikhail Gorbachev’s execution, in which Stalinists take over Hungary and can only be expelled with the help of the Red Army. Contrary to appearances, this was Jancsó’s first out-and-out comedy, and pointed the way towards many of his final features, not least in featuring both Jancsó and Gyula Hernádi onscreen (at least up to the point of their own execution).

Jesus Christ’s Horoscope (Jezus Krisztus Horoszkópia, 1988)

Jesus Christ’s Horoscope (Jezus Krisztus Horoszkópia, 1988)

Blue Danube Waltz (Kék Duna Keringö, 1991) continued exploring the theme of post-Communist Hungary via a Borgesian political thriller in which the prime minister is assassinated after attempting to sell off a factory to a rich expatriate opportunist, and the assassin is then advised to plead guilty on the grounds of it being a justifiable crime passionnel.

Hungarian politics aside, the most intriguing thread running through many of Jancsó’s late works (including 1986’s French-Israeli drama Dawn (L’Aube)) is a fascination with themes of Jewishness – although Jancsó himself was not Jewish, he often expressed solidarity with Jewish people, notably through the multi-part documentaries Presence (1965-85) and Message of Stone – Budapest (Kövek üzenete – Budapest, 1994). Indeed, in the fourth Pepe and Kapa film, Wake Up Mate, Don’t You Sleep (Kelj Fel, Komam, Ne Aludjal, 2003), Jancsó’s ‘Uncle Miki’ dies and the gravediggers debate whether it’s appropriate to bury him in a Jewish cemetery.

Wake Up Mate, Don’t You Sleep (Kelj Fel, Komam, Ne Aludjal, 2003)

Wake Up Mate, Don’t You Sleep (Kelj Fel, Komam, Ne Aludjal, 2003)

The real-life Jancsó would live another decade, making two more Pepe and Kapa films before his 2010 swansong So Much for Justice! (Oda az igazság), a look at the reign of 15th-century Hungarian king Mátyás Corvinus, whose humanist views proved at odds with the wealthy noblemen who first appointed him.

Although there was still little international interest in his most recent films bar occasional festival exposure, Jancsó lived to see his 1960s and 70s masterpieces undergo a substantial revival thanks to the efforts of DVD companies such as Second Run in the UK and Clavis in France.

Reacting to his death, Béla Tarr called him the greatest Hungarian director of all time, and if that view wasn’t always shared by his compatriots (unsurprisingly, since Jancsó’s natural inclination was to be provocative and divisive), there’s no doubt that for a great many cinephiles, Jancsó was Hungarian cinema. Seldom has the cliché “we shall not see his like again” been more appropriate: even if a new Jancsó emerged today, how would he even get started?

(I am indebted to Jaromír Blažejovský and György Báron for their detailed accounts of, respectively, Jancsó’s largely inaccessible 1980s and 90s feature films and the theme of Jewishness in his work.)

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