I’m not generally one for marking obituaries, as I tend to be a bit phobic to thinking about death. However, it’s important to mark the passing of those we love and admire. In the field of filmmaking, one such is the Hungarian film director Miklós Jancsó, who died today at the age of 92.
I’ve only reviewed one of his films (so far) on this site, Így jöttem (My Way Home), probably his first major film, made in 1964, but throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s he went on to make some of my favourite features. He certainly didn’t retire at that point, though he easily could have, but went on to continue making films, which admittedly didn’t tend to make much of a mark outside his native Hungary. His last feature appears to have been released in 2010.
What marks his high period of the late-1960s is a sinuous camera style. Jancsó was above all a master of the long take sequence shot, and in any of his greatest films — Szegénylegények (The Round-Up, 1966), Csillagosok, katonák (The Red and the White, 1967), Fényes szelek (The Confrontation, 1969), Még kér a nép (Red Psalm, 1972) and Szerelmém Elektra (Beloved Elektra, 1974) — are breathtaking examples of his art. At its best, his camera seemed free to roam across the wide plains of his native land, weaving in and around the action, behind buildings, as characters enter and leave from the frame in sometimes surprising ways. Beloved Elektra (or Electra, My Love as it is also sometimes known) is famous for having among the longest average shot lengths of any film.
Alongside this technical virtuosity were stories that became progressively more symbolic in their construction. His 1960s films are relatively accessible, with stark monochrome cinematography matched to scenarios drawn from his country’s history, emphasising the broad sweep of historical forces over individual psychology (it took me several viewings of The Red and the White, for example, before I was able to even pick out some of the individuals who recur throughout the film; however, I recommend the investment of time). By the 1970s, he was far more heavily reliant on colours and images to convey meaning rather than more conventional narrative means (dialogue, character, action), which makes films like Red Psalm and Beloved Elektra at best beautifully opaque (but verging on the oblique at times), though they still clearly deal with similar issues, particularly the abuse of power by the state against its people.
I was lucky enough to see some of his more recent films at a retrospective at the 2003 Edinburgh Film Festival, and it’s fair to say his style was rather less in evidence in later films like Jézus Krisztus horoszkópja (Jesus Christ’s Horoscope, 1989) and Kék Duna keringö (Blue Danube Waltz, 1992), though there are still flashes of his technical command, even if the stories are still heavily invested in challenging layers of idiosyncratic meaning.
However, I don’t mean by this to put people off investigating Jancsó’s films, for at their best they are invigorating and bold works that hold up alongside the best of the 1960s new wave filmmaking of, say, Michelangelo Antonioni or Jean-Luc Godard, and which have influenced his compatriot Béla Tarr (amongst others). Needless to say, the film world has lost a great talent with his passing.
RIP Miklós Jancsó, film director, 27 September 1921 – 31 January 2014
Many of Jancsó’s key films are available through exemplary British label Second Run and I strongly recommend checking them out (they offer a 3-DVD set [Amazon link], for example, which is excellent value).