In his latest novel Lush Life, Richard Price frequently depicts the NYPD’s “Quality of Life Task Force” doing some “Night Fishing on Delancey”—pulling over suspect-looking cars and drivers, and on discovery of some infraction or other, dangling a carrot in front of their catches—give us a gun, they say, and you can walk. Some act like the cops are crazy—I don’t know anybody with a gun. Others play ball, depending on what’s facing them if they don’t.It’s not often that a Hungarian film from the mid-‘60s brings Richard Price to mind, but the universal truth that some methods of police work are eternal came home while watching Miklos Jancso’s 1966 film set in a detention camp in 1869. A good portion of the film sees the prison’s masters goading the troll-like prisoner Janos Gajdar (played by Janos Gorbe, whose head is shaped like that of no other figure’s in cinema—see screen cap below; he's the one in the hat) to give him someone who’s killed more people than he has, whereupon they’ll go easy on him. That is, they won’t hang him.
With a desperation that nonetheless turns desultory at times, he scrambles to find someone to betray. Does he really believe he’ll be rewarded? Do we? The film’s original Hungarian title is Szegenylegenyek, which translates as “The Hopeless Ones.”In a brief prologue, during which pencil drawings of prison implements and one human individual are displayed on the screen, the historical background and context of the picture is laid out. In Szeged, a commissar named Gedeon Raday is put in charge of hunting down resistance leader/outlaw king Sandor Rosza. Raday, the narrator notes, “wasn’t particular about his methods.” This is the sole note of drollery Jancso’s film will strike. From hereon in we experience a series of amazing widescreen visions of often deeply ironic misery. A young woman is stripped, forced to run a gauntlet in which two lines of men lash her with reeds. A couple of men wait in a yard to be hanged as a marching band passes by, playing loudly. Jancso’s restless camera prowls, itself seeming anxious and frustrated whenever it’s enclosed within the stark white walls of the camp. Men on horses course through a bleached landscape, evoking the peculiar idea of a science fiction Eastern Western.
And yet for all the dread and wretched irony of the film’s subject matter, and stories it tells, The Round Up is a peculiarly exhilarating film to watch. Jancso’s eye for the grotesque, his strong but never ostentatious exercise of his visual imagination, engage the viewer sharply throughout. This is a tight, masterful work, and the Region 2 DVD from the great UK concern Second Run does it honor—the DVD looks terrific, the video interview with the now-nearly-90 Jancso is delightful and illuminating, and the booklet’s essay by John Cunningham is thorough. Terrific stuff all around.