Reviews and notes
The action of Jancso's THE ROUND-UP
takes place in the years between the collapse of the 1848 Revolution against the Hapsburgs and the subsequent compromise of 1867, and is loosely based on historical fact. Its anti-heroes are a group of "betyars" - impoverished peasants, often habitual criminals - brigands who after the defeat continued their isolated guerilla warfare. They became legendary characters: for a century songs, poems, folk-tales spoke about the tough, enduring character of these men, the hopelessness of their lonely existence, and the rough, coarse justice against the rich of their leader, Sandor Rozsa, a kind of Robin Hood of the Great Plain. When the action of the film starts, these groups have already been more or less rounded up, and a certain Count Raday is assigned by the Hapsburg authorities to find "the hopeless ones" - Sandor himself, and his own personal band.
Step by step the film traces the course of events. But instead of just telling a story, it looks at history as Dreyer or Bresson viewed Joan of Arc, creating a stylisation to match and release the real inner dimensions behind the story. The great, hot achievement of Jancso is that he has created a new, exciting vision for the important statements that he, indirectly, sets out to make. Form and content become inseparable, working with and against each other.
The scene is a desolate earthwork in the middle of a vast plain. There are two buildings, as spare as Dreyer's castle: a prison for the brigands, and the headquarters, serving as both interrogation and execution chamber. Both buildings have glaring white walls that gleam in the blazing, parching summer sun. There are no sounds except the soft wind, the curt words of command, and the birds singing. The dry, burned-out plain everywhere. No trace of the romantic, picturesque image of Hortobagy
. This is a Kafkaish no man's land, deprived of context, stylised yet so very real. Against this flat, white background Jancso manipulates his characters: the members of Raday's force in their black cloaks; a peasant woman with a black headsquare; a mass of tattered people with rugged, resigned, tired faces. Imagine a long horizontal line, with a white building on one side, and a few black dots, distant people, on the other.
The film is very consciously, though never self-consciously, composed for the wide screen, and is splendid in its sheer visual magnificence. But there is more to it than that. In composition and tonality this is a specifically Hungarian vision. The horizontal line was surely dictated by the land-scape, the domineering plain that left so rich a mark on the national character and literature. Its hard blacks against white suggest the toughness, the contrasts of this character: the rich fertility of summer as much as the tragedy, secretly maturing under the blazing heat. Out of these elements of light and dark, of fertile summer and reaping death, Jancso creates a rich texture of the suppression of men by men which smells of human sweat and leather belts. Oppression becomes as inevitable as the conflict between black and white, and the gap between the two buildings and their inhabitants as irreconcilable as these two colours.
The oppressor communicates with crisp, laconic commands. Troops come and go, emerging from an indifferent nothingness, fulfilling orders by commanders who appear and disappear, replaced from one scene to the next. Time passes, but we don't know how long. Doors open and close; unexplained shots are heard; suddenly a military band begins to play. No one is puzzled, no one asks questions. This is authority, owing explanation to nobody. Alignments change from one minute to the next. People become faceless, impersonal. And in the end everything suddenly falls into place, closing like a trap in the smooth, perfect, devilish machinery of the oppressor. Jancso adopts a deliberate, unemotional curtness. The Kafkaish insecurity, the disturbing atmosphere of intellectual angst and sheer animal fear, is heightened by his style, full of omissions, abrupt fadeouts, sudden outbursts of scorching violence followed by calm, submission, defeat.
Jancso's vision is founded on a leashed directness; the way he keeps a level head, observes without underlining, strips image and sound to bare necessity (there is little dialogue, and even that is strictly to the point, the idiom is contemporary; and no music until the very last minute, like Bresson's shattering drum-roll in Jeanne d' Arc). Take for instance the single shot when a prisoner tries to escape by running across a field towards a retreating line of women who have just brought parcels of food. Women and prisoner run away into the distance; the two guards watch the prisoner, undisturbed, unmoving. Quite a few seconds pass. Their passivity becomes strange and unexplained, the deserter is already far away. Then, suddenly, two horsemen appear at the side of the screen, and overtake the prisoner with contemptuous ease. In a single shot (and because the action is matter-of-factly told in this single shot), one feels the whole calm indifference, the implacable cocksureness of oppression.
Victims are shot and hanged; traitors lynched; soldiers stripped of rank; a naked girl is flogged to death; prisoners are driven to betrayal and suicide. But the film never dwells on these outward manifestations of violence. Typically, the first victim is shot in the back as he walks away from the camera, and falls as a small black point on the horizon. Instead, Jancso is concerned with the murder of the human spirit; with submission, betrayal; with the muffled psychological process of oppression, and its insatiable, parasitic hunger for more and more victims to keep the machinery going. The strange, disturbing tension of this film springs from the apparently inevitable success of this machinery. But oppression has its repercussions even on the oppressor. There can be no winner here, only losers.
However, the attempt to break the resistance and round up the hopeless ones ends in frightening success. One after the other, the brigands give in, betray one another. Friend turns against friend, literally with a whip. And in the end they walk blindly into the last trap. Throughout, Jancso quite consciously deprives these folk heroes of their aura of romance: they are shown not on horseback against the sunset, but as a bunch of miserable, lethargic, often depraved thugs who gradually resign themselves even to slavery .One has to destroy a few idols to make a real self-reckoning possible, and this is exactly what Jancso sets out to do. With a burning intellectual charge, he invites his viewers to throwaway the pleasant, comfortable dream of Hungary's romantic-heroic history and face up to reality: black as much as white, oppressor as much as oppressed. A challenge to self-analysis of a small and tragic country surrounded by so many different tensions in the middle of Europe.
It would be a mistake to seek any direct analogies in the action of the film, for its real political content is its adult, mature tone, and its determination to square accounts with the past, both recent and distant. This makes THE ROUND-UP
a historical film in the best sense of the word: a recreation of an episode from the past, viewed from the present, so that each impinges of the other.
-Robert Vas, Sight and Sound, Summer 1966.
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