Miklós Jancsó and the Wages of War: Close-Up on "The Red and the White"

The great Hungarian director choreographs a stunning dance of death upon the embattled landscape of the Russian civil war.
Jeremy Carr
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Miklós Jancsó's The Red and the White  (1967) will be showing January 21 - February 20, 2017 in the United States.
The opening shot of The Red and the White shows armed riders on horseback rushing gallantly toward the camera in slow motion. It is the type of heroic imagery one associates with a valiant depiction of soldiers heading off to battle, to fight the good fight for a lofty cause. But in this outstanding 1967 film from Miklós Jancsó, one of the great anti-war testaments, such iconic and potentially promotional action is never to be seen again. In its place are the callous and violent vagaries of cold barbarity, overzealously arbitrary authority, and the unremitting movement of people, sometimes strategically, sometimes on an apparently random whim. Made during a politically pivotal and formally transitory period in Jancsó’s career, The Red and the White is set in 1919, after the Russia Revolution, as an introductory title card states, and in the midst of a bitter civil war between the Tsarist Whites and the Communist Reds, the latter faction joined by foreign, primarily Hungarian, volunteers. This historical annotation of outside assistance is of particular importance to the intensely nationalistic Jancsó, a World War II veteran born in Vac, Hungary, and is a refrain heard throughout the film; the White soldiers persistently question who partakes in this conflict and who, by birthright, should.  
Initially milling in and around an abandoned monastery used as a field hospital, a garrison, and a stage for interrogation and manslaughter, the characters eventually move beyond these confines into the open arena of a barren landscape. The time in the monastery is key, though, as it establishes early the militaristic volley between these two warring sides, and visually assigns the Bolshevik Red army as a generally defensive and comparably less formal force. They are holed up and seem to be in a counter-cautious position, while the Whites move freely and vigorously, riding through streets proclaiming their rhetoric from the back of a car, for instance, or marching in unison on the battlefield. When the Whites take over the facility, a group of Red soldiers are ostensibly set free, only to then be confronted by the tactical entrapment of the dwelling’s labyrinthine design.  
Jancsó routinely plays on this simultaneously open/enclosed juxtaposition, a contrast emphasized by his extraordinary use of the widescreen. The Red soldiers appear safe in the monastery, but they are equally imprisoned; rounded up and set free, they are allowed to flee yet have nowhere to run. The paradox continues outdoors, where the vastness of the countryside generates the possibility for substantial mobility, but the fighting remains restricted, bordered nationally or blocked naturally (the Volga River is both a viable getaway and restrictive hindrance depending on its depth). Men, and the occasional group of women, are consistently on the move in The Red and the White, and are just as frequently prevented a full and complete escape. Such a teasing freedom is part of the film’s caustically cruel wargame, and it is indicative of Jancsó’s stance on the futility and specious systematization of wartime methodology. “Jancsó communicates an obvious humanist anger in the shock of the matter of fact violence and murder of warfare,” writes Adam Powell in the September 2015 edition of Senses of Cinema, “but more than this he also delivers a hallucinatory game of cat and mouse that largely ignores the specifics of history and politics to meditate on human nature.” Commissioned by the Soviet Union to mark the October Revolution’s golden anniversary, The Red and the White did not sit easy with the powers that be, primarily because of its ambivalent and adamant illustration of war’s absurdities and its harsh realities.  
So much of The Red and the White is about the one-or-the-other, us-versus-them distinction. Just as there is a repeated effort on the part of the Whites to separate the Russian Reds from the foreign volunteers—there is constant discussion about these outsiders abandoning a struggle that does not concern them—so too are the two factions themselves distinguished: the rigid Whites with their regalia and black uniforms and the Reds, who take on the appearance of a more spontaneous proletariat. But this division is repeatedly undercut. In spite of their conflicting approaches and appearances, a strong sense of nationalism unifies both sides. It is, after all, a civil war, and at stake either way is a country held dear by each party. When some of the men manage to seek refuge with a band of courageous nurses, in scenes that are essentially Jancsó’s only allotment for compassion and tenderness, a head nurse observes the unimportance of political allegiance when confronted by shared adversity. “There are no Reds or Whites here,” she says, “only patients.” They are there to tend to the wounded and shelter the hunted, regardless of loyalties, and this nurse is among the very few in the film who promote the ties that bind rather than the ideologies that sever.
Cinematography on The Red and the White is by Tamás Somló, who had already worked with Jancsó on such films as Cantata (1963), My Way Home (1965), and The Round-Up (1966), and was vital in establishing the director’s penchant for long, meandering camera movements (which would then be sustained and elaborated upon by cinematographer János Kende in some of the director’s best subsequent work, particularly 1972’s Red Psalm). In this form, The Red and the White often consists of one group of people rounding up and moving around another group of people, itself something of an analogy for Jancsó’s brand of filmmaking. In the context of the film, while this forced maneuvering suggests some sort of grand design, that the detainees are being told where to go for a certain purpose, more often than not, the pendulum swing of power, which can change within a single tracking shot, is a mocking depiction of authority with no clear objective. Often in a distanced wide shot, Jancsó’s roaming camera is constantly on the move, covering the whole of a surrounding environment and inducing any part of the setting to come into play. Then with this much established, his use of off-screen space serves both a visual and narrative function. His prolonged single takes yield inscrutability (when a general inexplicably surrenders to an unseen force behind the camera), unflinching violence (the procedural one-two-three, pop-pop-pop picking off of victims), and a protracted tension (as when a group of women are marched into the woods for an initially unstated purpose). Unlike Jancsó’s later films, though, which regularly have a musical orchestration of crowded choreography, the character movement and interaction in The Red and the White is a reserved, unceremonious dance of death upon the landscape.
Despite its aforementioned opening shot, as J. Hoberman writes in a 2006 issue of Film Comment, “Few war films have been so little concerned with heroics and so fascinated by the logistics of killing.” Indeed, The Red and the White is far more preoccupied with the cyclical, interminable procedure of war, its coldly capricious navigation of power, and the equally condemnatory presentation of its dueling forces. While the Reds may seem to have a more favorable portrayal, as Jancsó more emphatically reveals, in a war such as this, no side is wholly innocent. One of the Red soldiers named Laszlo (András Kozák) comments, “A man can fight and still be a human being.” While admirable, his suggestion of individual depth nevertheless rings hollow, for as Hoberman also states, “[Jancsó] remains resolutely outside his characters, noting merely their wariness, vulnerability, and resignation in the face of death.” Though this reappearing young man may get the final shot of The Red and the White, a rare close-up conveying exhaustion, bewilderment, and defiance, his face divided like the nation itself, the viewer has never really identified with he or any of the others. Even if he is arguably the main character of the film (and such a designation, as is often the case with Jancsó, becomes largely irrelevant in favor of a literal or symbolic mass), he is but one of many lost amongst the soulless carnage.
The Red and the White


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