Obituary: Miklós Jancsó (1921-2014)

A scene from the highly symbolic Még kér a nép< (Red Psalm, 1972).
Még kér a nép (Red Psalm, 1972)

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.

Miklós Jancsó 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).

Így jöttem (My Way Home, 1964)

I only started this blog just over a month ago, but one of the sites I followed early on was Movie Lottery. The author on that site is using, well, a lottery in order to decide which films to watch, as a response to her having a large collection of unwatched movies. I too have many DVDs and boxsets I’ve bought over the years currently gathering dust, some of them I bought because I’d seen them and loved them, some are films I’ve not yet even seen. Therefore, I’m trying out her lottery method of getting through them: I’ve written the titles on slips of paper, put them in a hat, and on Saturday evening, I pulled one out at random. The difference is just that my DVDs include a lot more European arthouse films (purchased in those enthusiastic years when I was fresh out of a film studies major), as you may have guessed already from some of the bias in my reviews.

PS I’m always willing to try other ideas for getting more of a range of films reviewed on this site that aren’t new releases, so if you’ve got a good idea (or just some recommendations for films you’d like me to watch and, inevitably, review), let me know!

The Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó came to prominence for English-speaking viewers in the 1960s with films like this one, though more famously its follow-up Szegénylegények (The Round-Up, 1965), and even now, pushing into his 90s, is still active in his native land. However, those 60s and early-70s films are quite different from the few of his more recent films I’ve seen, and it may be their peculiar thematic focus on the way that punishment and oppression are doled out almost arbitrarily by those in power that endeared them to those febrile politically-engaged times. But cinematic fashions fade over time, and like Michelangelo Antonioni who inspired him, Jancsó has lost much of his mid-60s cachet, though his style has in turn more recently inspired his compatriot Béla Tarr. There’s no reason, though, why Jancsó’s way with steely-eyed widescreen power plays shouldn’t at least be of as much interest to the politically conscious as they are to those of a cinephiliac bent.

To those latter viewers (which I hope includes some of my present readership), what’s most striking about this imperial phase of Jancsó’s art — which My Way Home to some extent kicks off — is his way with the sinuous long-take tracking shot. It’s not just empty stylistics as it might be with many directors, but in his best works is used as a way of capturing character dynamics, and specifically the power relationships amongst them. There are some signs of this engagement even in this early work, as the unnamed central character (played by András Kozák), a 17-year-old Hungarian schoolboy, flees the Nazi-controlled front towards the end of World War II. Jancsó’s long-take long shot picks him out against the vastness of the landscape, moving in as he weaves around the trees, only for a new set of antagonists (Russians) to literally encroach from the sides of the frame to take him captive. This motif is repeated later in this film (and more prominently in subsequent films), and is only built upon, for it encapsulates the heart of his thematic dynamic: the arbitrariness of power.

Prominent too is the undulating Hungarian landscape, particularly its extensive plains, not least due to Jancsó’s use of the long shot, with human figures often reduced to specks framed by the vastness of nature. One particularly favoured technique is the helicopter shot, framing (often running) figures against the ground, flattening them and making them seem minuscule and helpless, another way of encoding power dynamics within the cinematic screen.

If this all seems like it could come across to the viewer as a little arid, especially when combined with the stark black-and-white imagery, then to a certain extent it is. Yet viewer identification with the protagonists isn’t eschewed to the extent it is in Jancsó’s later films, where there are often no readily identifiable individuals and where much of the meaning is telegraphed via frequently opaque symbolism. No, in My Way Home, there is at the heart a story of two young men from either side of conflict (the Hungarian youth I’ve already mentioned, and his Russian captor tasked in this bleak agrarian outpost with looking after a herd of cows). They do not speak the other’s language, yet come to trust and care for one another, in what is identifiably a human story. It ends up being a nice little film, at the edges of which brew the caustic criticisms of power that Jancsó would later come to focus on.

My Way Home film posterCREDITS
Director Miklós Jancsó; Writers Gyula Hernádi and Imre Vadász; Cinematographer Tamás Somló; Starring András Kozák, Sergey Nikonenko Серге́й Никоненко; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Monday 18 August 2003 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 27 April 2013).