Release Date(s)1966, 1967 (April 12, 2022)
Studio(s)Mafilm/Mosfilm (Kino Lorber)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: See Below
- Audio Grade: See Below
- Extras Grade: B+
- Overall Grade: A+
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, 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 to elicit information, and they rely on informants to try to 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.
Cinematographer Tamas Somlo shot both The Round-Up and The Red and the White on 35 mm film using Arriflex cameras with anamorphic Agascope lenses, framed at 2.35:1 for their theatrical releases. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray version uses a 4K digital restoration performed in 2020 by The National Film Institute of Hungary, in collaboration with the Hungarian Society of Cinematographers. The Agascope lenses had some 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.
Audio for both films is offered in Hungarian 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with removable English subtitles. Both presentations are similar, with The Red and the White having a bit more background noise than The Round-Up. Regardless, the dialogue is still clear. (Jancso’s films were generally post-synced, the better to facilitate the complexities of shooting long takes.) There’s little music in both films aside from the credit sequences, with the interplay between the dialogue and the background sound effects creating its own rhythms in sync with the camerawork and editing.
THE ROUND-UP (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): A+/A/B+
THE RED AND THE WHITE (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): A+/A-/B
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of The Round-Up and The Red and the White is a two-disc set that features each film on its own disc, as well as a collection of different short films by Jancso spread between the two. (Kino is also releasing a separate four-disc set called The Miklos Jancso Collection, which contains the same two discs, plus two more that include The Confrontation, Winter Wind, Red Psalm, and Electra, My Love.) 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 others 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 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 barked orders at his actors all throughout those takes, so it’s easy to see why any dialogue had to be post-synced.
Since both The Round-Up and The Red and the White are essential additions to any film buff’s library, the only question is which version to choose. Those who are unfamiliar with Jancso may be best served by this two-disc set, as these films are probably more accessible than some of his later work. On the other hand, the four-disc set is a bargain at any price for fans of Jancso. You can’t go wrong either way.
- Stephen Bjork