Miklos Jancso Collection, The (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: May 18, 2022
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Miklos Jancso Collection, The (Blu-ray Review)

Director

Miklos Jancso

Release Date(s)

Various (May 10, 2022)

Studio(s)

Kino Classics
  • Film/Program Grade: See Below
  • Video Grade: See Below
  • Audio Grade: See Below
  • Extras Grade: B+
  • Overall Grade: A+

The Miklos Jancso Collection (Blu-ray)

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Review

Miklos Jancso was a Hungarian filmmaker who rose to international prominence during the Sixties, and he remained an idiosyncratic cinematic voice until his death in 1994. The Hungarian film industry had been nationalized in 1919, with most of its output confined to unremarkable propaganda efforts, but there was an artistic revival in the early Fifties—a renaissance that was curtailed after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Yet by the early Sixties, there was another revival, one from which Jancso benefited. He had started his career by making newsreels under Stalinist control during the Fifties, an experience that he later dryly referred to as a training ground for making fictional films. He essentially disowned his own feature debut from 1958, The Bells Have Gone to Rome (aka A harangok Romaba mentek), but he took greater creative control with his second film Cantata (aka Oldas es kotes), and he never looked back. His works blend film form with content, and cinematic style with politics, all filmed using elaborately-staged lengthy takes, frequently set against the distinctive landscapes of the Hungarian Puszta (an enormous grasslands).

The Round-Up (aka Szegenylegenyek) was Jancso’s fourth feature film, but it was the first that garnered significant international attention, and it cemented his stature as one of the most important filmmakers in European cinema. It was written by frequent Jancso collaborator Gyula Hernadi, though he received no on-screen credit after falling out of political favor. The Round-Up is set two decades after the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1848, when Hungary had returned to Austrian rule. As a result, the Hungarian people have fallen into poverty, and outlaws like Sandor Rozsa have become a thorn in the Austrian side. The barren countryside is dotted with prison camps, where anyone suspected of being a rebel is interned. The prison staff employs a wide variety of psychological tricks to try and elicit information, relying on informants to try and identify if Rozsa is among the prisoners. Yet both coercion and resistance amount to little in the end.

The Round-Up established Jancso’s fatalistic worldview, where superiority is ephemeral, and the same fate overtakes all. It can be read as an allegorical take on the more recent unsuccessful Revolution of 1956, but its themes are far more universal than that, and they remain relevant today. Power is inevitably abused, and so captivity dehumanizes both oppressor and oppressed, with everyone acting as pawns in a futile game. Jancso reinforces that idea visually with compositions that show people as insignificant insects against the vast, featureless plain. Yet the scope of those epic visuals provides no relief from the claustrophobic nature of the prison camp setting, with the prisoners trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare from which there is little hope of escape. Again, with Jancso, form and content are inextricably intertwined. While there are fewer lengthy takes in The Round-Up than in his later films, it still displays his trademarked precision camerawork, all of which is used to reinforce the nature of the story—there are no empty visual flourishes in Jancso’s films. Everything works toward creating a unified whole.

The Red and the White (aka Csillagosok, katonak) was Jancso’s fifth feature, released the year following The Round-Up. The screenplay was written by Gyula Hernadi (who did receive credit this time), Giorgi Mdivani, and Jancso, with contributions from Luca Karall and Valeri Karen. The Red and the White was a Soviet/Hungarian co-production, intended to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, but Jancso had other ideas, setting his story two years later in 1919. The film follows various Hungarian soldiers and civilians caught between the Bolshevik and Tsarist forces (the Reds and the Whites of the title), both of which treat the Hungarians as pawns in their brutal games.

Jancso drew little distinction between the two sides of the conflict, showing both of them as capable of egregious brutality. The Red and the White is an intricate dance between extremes, with both sides vying for dominance, but physical superiority is always transitory, and neither side has the moral high ground. Life and death in The Red and the White is arbitrary, and those who hold power over it are capricious and cruel. That dance is conveyed perfectly by Jancso’s extraordinary camerawork, this time employing many of the long takes that would make him famous—the tides of war often turn within a single shot. The fascinating thing is that those lengthy takes don’t draw attention to themselves, but instead work organically within the story. It’s bravura filmmaking that may not even be noticeable when watching the film for the first time; viewers can be unaware that they’re being caught up in the dance.

Interestingly, officials at the Soviet studio Mosfilm were quite aware of what they were getting with Jancso, yet they didn’t try to stop him. They even issued an internal memorandum prior to shooting, which warned that those who were hoping for a huge celebration of the anniversary were going to be disappointed. To their credit, they still backed the film, but they did try to re-edit the final product into a more positive portrayal of the Bolsheviks, and eventually banned the film altogether. Fortunately, the film was released uncut in Hungary and abroad, and this is the version of The Red and the White that we have today. It’s one of the most singular masterpieces in the history of cinema, and it’s lost none of its power in the half century since its original release. Like The Round-Up, it’s actually gained relevance over time. The more that things change, the more that universal truths remain the same.

The Confrontation (aka Fenyes szelek) was Jancso’s seventh feature, his first in color, and his final collaboration with cinematographer Tamas Somlo. (Jancso felt that Somlo was not as gifted working in color as he was with black-and-white.) It was written by Gyula Hernadi along with Jancso, and is set in 1947, shortly after the Communist party had taken power in Hungary. The film follows a group of students at the People’s College, who find themselves in opposition with the local Catholic seminary students, but lack clear direction among themselves. There are different factions within the group, and their infighting constantly interferes with their ability to take decisive action. Revolutionary ideals are hamstrung by disagreements on the best way to implement them, as an exchange between two students demonstrates:

The end justifies the means.”

“Careful, Terez. The Jesuits did that. The wrong means can distort the aims.”

Just as The Round-Up can be seen as an allegory for the unsuccessful Hungarian Revolution of 1956, The Confrontation is a clear commentary on the student revolutions that had taken place in 1968. For Jancso, history was fluid and circular. Actually, everything is circular in his films, quite literally so in The Confrontation. The circular dance between extremes that are vying for power is represented visually in the circular patterns of the students dancing and singing throughout the film. Jancso’s camerawork is circular as well, with his trademarked fluid long takes dancing around his characters, and just like them, it never settles in one place for long. The instability of their ideals is represented by the instability of his camera, and once again for Jancso, form and content are inextricably intertwined. It’s all a dance.

Winter Wind (aka Sirokko) was Jancso’s eighth feature, his first with cinematographer Janos Kende, who would become as much of a key collaborator as Tamas Somlo had been. It was a French/Hungarian co-production, with a screenplay by Gyula Hernadi and Jancso, along with Francis Girod and Jacques Rouffio. Winter Wind is set in 1934, shortly before the assassination of Yugoslavia’s King Alexander. Marko Lazar (played by the film’s French producer, Jacques Charrier) is the leader of a group of Croatian separatists who are seeking independence from Yugoslavia. Yet Lazar’s youthful idealism is fading, and he finds himself a virtual prisoner of his own supporters, vying for superiority, with no one knowing who to trust. Everyone is caught up in the fickle winds of history, with ideals being swept away by harsh reality.

Winter Wind opens with a montage explaining the complicated political situation, yet even that’s not as simple as it may seem on the surface. It looks like stock footage and actual still photographs, but some of it consists of carefully recreated shots featuring the film’s actors. History itself can’t always be trusted. Winter Wind is a dance of suspicions and mistrust; in a world filled with betrayal, no one can feel safe, especially Lazar. Jancso’s camera is an active participant in that dance, with the entire film consisting of just 12 single shots, each of them swirling around the actors just like the winter wind swirls around the characters. In the end, even their idealism isn’t sufficient to withstand its icy blast.

Red Psalm (aka Meg ker a nep) was Jancso’s eleventh feature (not counting his segment in Decameron ‘69), and it’s a clear demonstration of the ways in which his formalism became less naturalistic and more abstract during the Seventies. The screenplay by Gyula Hernadi borrows the structure of a passion play, set during a Hungarian peasant revolt during the Nineteenth century. There’s no real narrative, but the historical setting provides a way to both examine and even critique socialist ideals, though ultimately in a hopeful fashion—an accurate translation of the film’s Hungarian title would be “And the people still ask.”

The peasants in Red Psalm express themselves through folk songs and dance, with their arms linked in solidarity throughout. Their rebellion is expressed both literally and symbolically—they even break the fourth wall and directly address the camera at key points. Even the nudity in the film is an expression of rebellion, with some of the women baring their breasts as an act of empowerment, rather than degradation. Taking control over their own sexuality removes it from the hands of the authority structure that oppresses them. The tension between oppressor and oppressed becomes a dance of its own, with the soldiers occasionally joining in and linking arms with the peasants. In this dance, however, there’s little doubt about which side will retain power in the conflict. Yet Red Psalm still ends on a hopeful note, with a symbolic act of defiance to show that the struggle will continue.

Electra, My Love (aka Szerelmem, Elektra) was Jancso’s twelfth feature film, and by this point in his career, he had fully embraced abstraction and theatricality. Literally so in this case, as Electra, My Love is an adaptation of a play, staged against the stark backdrop of the Hungarian Puszta. Despite the subject matter, it’s not an adaptation of any of the versions of the Electra story as chronicled by Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides, but rather the 1968 play by Laszlo Gyurko. The adaptation by Gyula Hernadi follows the basic contours of the Electra story, with Electra under the thumb of the tyrannical king Aegisthus, who had murdered her father Agamemnon to seize the throne. Electra plots revenge while awaiting the return of her brother Orestes, who does come back, but in disguise as a messenger falsely reporting that Orestes has been killed. From there, the narrative increasingly moves away from classical Greek myth, introducing metaphors of death and rebirth to reflect the revolutionary impulse.

The circularity which had been a recurring theme in Jancso’s films finds its ultimate expression in Electra, My Love, with form and content becoming so inseparable that it’s impossible to imagine the story being told in any other manner. Once again, the entire film unfolds in just twelve single shots, with the camera dancing circles along with the characters. Jancso described Electra, My Love as a “parable for the idea that revolutionaries must continually renew themselves.” It takes place in a mythic setting that combines Greco-Roman elements with the distinctively Hungarian landscapes, pagan rituals with religious symbolism, and the past with the future. Near the conclusion of the film, Electra relates the story of the Firebird, which is represented literally on-screen in the form of a blood red helicopter that appears to take them away. Yet the cycle must continue, so the helicopter returns, and the revolution is renewed. Jancso’s circular dance can never end.

All of the films in The Miklos Jancso Collection feature gorgeous 4K digital restorations performed in 2020 by The National Film Institute of Hungary, in collaboration with the Hungarian Society of Cinematographers. They used both the original 35 mm negatives and positive print elements, as well as the original optical and magnetic sound elements for restoring the soundtracks. For purposes of analyzing the video quality, the films can be roughly grouped into pairs.

Cinematographer Tamas Somlo shot both The Round-Up and The Red and the White using Arriflex cameras with anamorphic Agascope lenses, framed at 2.35:1 for their theatrical releases. The Agascope lenses had significant flaws, especially in terms of edge-to-edge consistency. The right and left sides of the frame can appear slightly squeezed, while the center can look stretched. The effect is especially noticeable during lateral pans, as objects moving across the frame can shift from squeezed to stretched. That’s all inherent to the original cinematography, and not a flaw in the masters. With that caveat out of the way, these are both stunningly beautiful restorations, easily trumping any and all previous releases. The contrast range is outstanding, with deep black levels, and flawless grayscales. Everything is as clear and detailed as it can be, given the lenses and stocks that Somlo had at his disposal. The Red and the White does have a few minor defects, such as a blemish on the top left side of the frame in a shot at 10:10, and some shimmering in another shot at 23:10, but both of those likely exist on the negative itself, and they’re pretty insignificant issues compared to the strengths of the transfer as a whole. Somlo contributed some of the finest black-and-white widescreen cinematography in cinematic history, and his efforts are exquisitely represented here. (Note that there may be an issue with some combinations of players and displays that creates a slight color cast, rather than pure black-and-white, but it wasn’t noticeable with an Oppo UDP-205 feeding a JVC RS2000.)

Both The Confrontation and Winter Wind were also shot using Arriflex cameras with anamorphic Agascope lenses, framed at 2.35:1 for their theatrical releases. While Somlo shot the former and Jancso switched to Janos Kende for the latter, both of these early color efforts share similar characteristics. There’s a bit less distortion at the sides of the frame than in the earlier Agascope films, but The Confrontation has some noticeable softness along the top of the image. Winter Wind has even less of both, though it does have some small translucent oval blemishes that remain in the same positions throughout each individual shot—possibly imperfections on the lenses or filters. Again, all of these kinds of defects are inherent to the original cinematography. Otherwise, the color balance on these transfers is excellent, with solid contrast, natural-looking grain, and as much detail as the lenses and stocks could offer.

Janos Kende shot both Red Psalm and Electra, My Love, this time using Arriflex cameras with spherical lenses. Electra, My Love is framed at its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1, but Red Psalm is a bit more complicated. Most sources list its original aspect ratio as 1.37:1, but this version is framed at 1.78:1. There was a 2011 DVD release in the UK with a director-approved transfer at 1.85:1, so it appears that Jancso accepted the cropped version. The compositions look good at 1.78:1, without any noticeable cramping of the image at the top and bottom of the frame. Both films look wonderful in these restorations, with slightly more saturated colors than either The Confrontation or Winter Wind, and nary a blemish in sight. The grain gets heavier during more dimly lit sequences, especially toward the end of Red Psalm, but that’s due to Kende using faster stocks, or else pushing his primary stock. Short of an actual 4K Ultra HD release, it’s difficult to imagine these films looking any better than they do here.

Audio for all films is offered in Hungarian 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with removable English subtitles. There are only minor variances between the various tracks. The Red and the White has a bit more background noise; The Confrontation sounds a little harsh at some points, especially with effects like whistling or breaking glass; and Winter Wind has excessive sibilance in some of the dialogue. Both Red Psalm and Electra, My Love sound the most robust, and are smoother overall than the earlier films. Regardless, the dialogue is still clear throughout the set. (Jancso’s films were sometimes post-synced, the better to facilitate the complexities of shooting long takes.) Jancso used musical scoring sparingly, with the interplay between the dialogue and the background sound effects creating its own rhythms in sync with the camerawork and editing. Most of the music was in the form of on-screen singing, especially in his later works.

THE ROUND-UP (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): A+/A/B+
THE RED AND THE WHITE (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): A+/A-/B
THE CONFRONTATION (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): A-/A-/B-
WINTER WIND (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): A-/A-/B
RED PSALM (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): A/A/A-
ELECTRA, MY LOVE (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): A+/A/A-

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of The Miklos Jansco Collection is a four-disc set that includes a twelve-page booklet featuring an introduction by Martin Scorsese, as well as synopses of all six films. (Kino is also releasing a separate two-disc set with just The Round-Up and The Red and the White.) The following extras are included, all in HD:

DISC ONE: THE ROUND-UP

  • Audio Commentary by Michael Brooke
  • The Indian Story (1961) (12:11)
  • Presence (1965) (8:05)
  • Second Presence (1978) (10:15)
  • Third Presence (1986) (13:57)
  • Repertory Trailer (1:22)

Film historian Michael Brooke gets off to the races from the opening credits, wasting little time in squeezing as much information into the track as he possibly can. That includes giving some historical background; identifying the exact version of Haydn’s Kaiser Hymne that’s sung over the opening titles (which is significant); analyzing the opening credit sequence; and explaining the difference between the original Hungarian title and the ones used worldwide. All that before the credits even finish, and Brooke is just getting warmed up. He provides detailed biographies for Jancso and most of the major actors in the film, as well as technical information about the production. He also analyzes the style and themes of the film, including the parallels to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and details the reception that the film received in 1966. He approvingly quotes Penelope Huston’s assessment of Jancso in Sight and Sound from 1969: Jancso’s films present a “total absorption of content into form.” Brooke’s commentary is a dizzying one in some respects, but it’s packed with valuable information.

The short films on both discs were also restored by the NFI in Hungary, though they’re in rougher shape, with visible damage like scratches, as well as some occasional instability. The Indian Story and Presence are both presented in black-and-white at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, while Second Presence and Third Presence are both in color at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The Indian Story is the kind of newsreel short subjects that Jancso made early in his career, and while it doesn’t bear any of his hallmarks as a director, it’s still interesting—an examination of the way that Native Americans were displaced by white settlers in North America, from a critical outsider’s perspective. The three Presence films are more in keeping with his later work, and are lyrical explorations of Jewish faith and ritual. (Jancso wasn’t Jewish, but he felt a solidarity with the Jewish people.)

DISC TWO: THE RED AND THE WHITE

  • Audio Commentary by Jonathan Owen
  • Autumn in Badascony (1954) (18:06)
  • Harvest in Oroshaza (1953) (17:52)
  • With a Camera in Kostroma (1967) (13:17)
  • Repertory Trailer (1:22)

Film historian Jonathan Owen provides a bit more of a sedate commentary than Brooke does, but it’s no less filled with information. He analyzes the history of the historical conflict presented in The Red and the White, as well as a history of the Soviet/Hungarian co-production of the film itself—the Soviet officials seemed resigned to the fact that it wouldn’t present the revolution in an entirely positive light. Like Brooke, he looks at the original Hungarian title compared to the international ones. He analyzes Jancso’s methodology in the film, especially the ways that the director uses the camera to withhold and slowly reveal information, and how that’s an example of what’s been dubbed “interior montage”—using framing within the long takes to provide the equivalent of editing. He covers some of the differences between the Soviet and the Hungarian versions of The Red and the White, and reads excerpts from some surprisingly negative reviews of the international release of the Hungarian version in 1967.

The short films on this disc are all presented in black-and-white at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Autumn in Badascony and Harvest in Oroshaza are early newsreel efforts from Jancso (both heavily staged), while With a Camera in Kostroma was filmed on the set of The Red and the White. It includes some interesting behind-the-scenes footage, including Jancso choreographing some of his elaborate long takes. He barks orders at his actors all throughout those takes, so it’s easy to see why any dialogue had to be post-synced.

DISC THREE: THE CONFRONTATION & WINTER WIND

  • The Confrontation Commentary by Kat Ellinger
  • Winter Wind Commentary by Samm Deighan
  • Repertory Trailer (1:22)

Film historian Kat Ellinger opens her commentary by relating what happened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1968, where Jean-Luc Godard and others shut down the event in a foolish and somewhat hypocritical statement of solidarity with the student protests that year. Ironically, it prevented Eastern Block filmmakers like Jancso from gaining more international exposure. Ellinger goes on to provide some historical context for The Confrontation, and she compares Hungarian cinema to the Czech New Wave. She discusses Jancso’s use of music and dance, including the way that the students act as a sort of a Greek chorus, and also analyzes the way that he used costuming and even nudity in a symbolic fashion. Ellinger stresses how understanding the cultural context in which these films were made is crucial to help western audiences appreciate their impact.

Film historian Samm Deighan discusses the ways that state control forced directors to take two different approaches to subverting it: either surrealism, or else using historical settings allegorically. She demonstrates how Jancso effectively did both, with his non-linear narratives and later abstract, formalist musicals but both set in identifiable historical contexts. She spends some time explaining the complicated historical context underpinning Winter Wind, and examines the progression of Jancso’s films through the Sixties and Seventies. She calls him a master at exploring the rich tapestry of history on different levels, and while viewers do need to be well-read about the historical backgrounds in order to unravel all the threads, they can still enjoy his films on a purely visual level.

DISC FOUR: RED PSALM & ELECTRA, MY LOVE

  • Red Psalm Commentary by Kat Ellinger
  • Electra, My Love Commentary by Samm Deighan
  • Repertory Trailer (1:22)

Ellinger kicks off this commentary on a personal note by describing her own relationship with Jancso’s films, as a way of providing a contrast to how Jancso is dismissed as being impenetrable in some film circles. Her gateway into Jancso’s filmography was via her love of Eurocult cinema, with Private Vices, Public Virtues becoming her point of entry. As a result, she finds an emotional resonance in his films that others often miss—expectations can lead to misinterpretations, because Jancso breaks the rules of western cinema. It’s a great reminder that trying to assess things in an impersonal, “objective” fashion can sometimes miss the forest for the trees. All points of view are subjective, so chasing objectivity can be a fool’s errand. Ellinger also explains that she loves Jancso because there can be infinite readings of his works, and recent events have proven that real history is just as circular as the way that it’s presented in his films.

Deighan describes Electra, My Love as representing the second stage of Jancso’s career. His early films focused on Hungary in a more concrete fashion, but there was a fantastical, almost surrealistic quality to his works of the Seventies. Yet they’re not directly related to the Surrealist movement as represented by filmmakers like Jean Cocteau, as there’s no element of whimsy to this surrealism. Instead, it illustrates a harsh, cruel world. She spends time discussing the ways in which the film deviates from the Electra myth, and how that fed into Jancso’s hopeful examination of revolutionary rebirth. Deighan characterizes the conclusion of Electra, My Love as being one of the most truly celebratory endings in any of Jancso’s films. It’s a fitting way to close not just this commentary, but the entire collection as well.

The Miklos Jancso Collection is an essential addition to any film buff’s library. Since The Round-Up and The Red and the White are Jancso’s most accessible films, Kino’s two-disc set might be the best choice for those who are unfamiliar with his works, but it’s hard to pass up on the remarkable value provided by their six-film set. It’s a true film school in a box, with gorgeous presentations of some of the most important films in the history of cinema, accompanied by thoughtful commentaries. You can’t go wrong either way, but the full Miklos Jancso Collection gets the highest possible recommendation—it’s an A++.

- Stephen Bjork

(You can follow Stephen on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook.)

 

Tags

1953, 1954, 1961, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1972, 1974, 1978, 1986, Adrienne Csengery, Agardy Gabor, Anatoli Yabbarov, And the People Still Ask, Andras Balint, Andras Kozak, Andrea Drahota, Autumn in Badascony, Balazs Galko, Bela Barsi, Blu-ray, Blu-ray Disc, Bolot Bejshenaliyev, Csillagosok katonak, Electra My Love, Fenyes szelek, Ferenc Deak B, Gabi Jobba, Gabor Agardy, Gleb Strizhenov, Gyorgy Cserhalmi, Gyorgy Delianisz, Gyula Hernadi, Harvest in Oroshaza, Hungarian, Hungary, Istvan Avar, Istvan Uri, Jacint Juhasz, Janos Gorbe, Janos Kende, Janos Koltai, Jenoe Goetz, Jonathan Owen, Jozsef Bajusz, Jozsef Bige, Jozsef Madaras, Kat Ellinger, Kati Kovacs, Kino Classics, Kino Lorber, Krystyna Mikolajewska, Lajos Balazsovits, Lajos Oze, Laszlo Gyurko, Laszlo Pelsoczy, Mafilm, Mari Torocsik, Maria Bajcsay, Martin Scorsese, Meg ker a nep, Michael Brooke, Mikhail Kozakov, Miklos Csanyi, Miklos Jancso, Miklos Jancso Collection, Mosfilm, Nikita Mikhalkov, Otto Fold, Poor young men, Presence, Red Psalm, review, Russian, Russian Civil War, Samm Deighan, Savely Kramarov, Second Presence, Sergei Nikonenko, Stars on their Caps, Stars soldiers, Stephen Bjork, Szegenylegenyek, Szerelmem Elektra, Tamas Cseh, Tamas Somlo, Tatiana Koniukova, Tatyana Konyukhova, The Confrontation, The Digital Bits, The Indian Story, The Miklos Jancso Collection, The Red and the White, The Round-Up, Third Presence, Tibor Molnar, Tibor Orban, Viktor Avdyushko, With a Camera in Kostroma, world cinema, Zoltan Farkas, Zoltan Latinovits

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