All three films I’ve seen by the Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó (subject of a Walter Reade mini-retro, today through Saturday) begin in long shot, with horses galloping in the distance. It’s a fitting opening for a politically engaged director, which Jancso certainly is, but while most filmmakers would be drawn to that shot’s dynamism — a sense of anticipation building with the clamor of the hooves, climaxing in a visceral demonstration of power — Jancsó keeps the horses remote, almost spectral figures on the expansive Hungarian plain. His dramatization of revolutionary episodes from Hungary’s recent past, in The Round-Up (pictured) and The Red and the White, is achieved abstractly, with narratives providing no clear figures of identification not just from sequence to sequence but — due to Jancsó’s long-take style, his frame sliding three-dimensionally through space to find new business within a set piece or to let a familiar face reenter — within a single shot. Unsurprising given the unfocalized nature of his narratives is their emotional detachment, the horrors of war dramatized with a desolate lack of inflection (also augmented by the obviously canned sound effects that stand in for gunfire and physical beatings). Coupled with the recurrent image of men and women marshaled into marching order (one’s called Round-Up, remember), often stripped naked, Jancsó’s vision of historical power dynamics is distinctly ritualistic. Round-Up takes place in the latter half of the 19th century, amid Austrian efforts to quell a Hungarian peasant rebellion; The Red and the White is about the involvement of Hungarian communists during the 1919 clashes between Bolshevik and tsarist troops. Of the two, the former’s Kafkan prison setting and depiction of authoritarian interrogation tactics is the more overtly political; the latter is the purer formal exercise. The distance makes the parallels to contemporaneous Hungarian politics seem haunting, as if the audience is reliving a ghostly past.
The Red and the White screens this evening; The Round-Up screens Thursday and Saturday evening. The former is also readily available on DVD.