The Red and the White (1967) | Csillagosok, katonak | UCLSSEES Centenary

November 5th, 2015
Author: Meredith Taylor

Director: Miklos Jancso    Writer: Gyula Hernadi

Cast: Jozsef Madaras, Tibor Molnar, Andras Kozak, Jacint Juhasz, Tatyana Konyukhova, Nikita Mikhalkov

90min   Drama War  | Hungary/USSR

Miklos Jancso (1921-2014) was not only the leading Hungarian director of his generation – if not the greatest Hungarian director of all times (as Bela Tarr claims) – his films, which spanned over seven decades from 1958 to 2010, influenced European Art House cinema particularly in the 60s and 70s. and he went on to win the Director’s Prize at Cannes in 1972 for Red Psalm and the Golden Lion at Venice in 1990.

Most of his films rely on long takes; a choreography of movement which is vey much like a ballet and rural settings where horses often dominate humans in their impact and a very allegorical approach. Whilst he was accused of formalism and Nationalism under Stalinism, he was always very critical of his fellow countrymen, whom he accused of having chosen a brutal and radical path in their history, coupled with abuse of power. Scathing about the younger generation of post-Stalinist Hungary, he makes fun of their crass materialism in Lord’s Lantern in Budapest (1999).

The original title of THE RED AND THE WHITE, which reads in translation as “The Stars on their Caps”, expresses Jancso’s intention much more so than the English title. A co-production between the USSR and Hungary, the drama was supposed to be a triumphant celebration of the October Revolution of 1917. How anybody could expect Jancso to fulfil these expectations is astonishing – and the result was anything but a revolutionary triumph: Jancso set the film in 1919 during the Russian Civil War, when Hungarian volunteers served in the Red Army.

Set around a landscape near the Volga, the film starts with White Guards taking Red Army soldiers prisoner in a dilapidated palace full of Greek columns and featuring an orthodox church: representing a past era, which is gone forever. The Whites are not only satisfied with simply killing their prisoners, but they make a game of power of it: the prisoners have 15 minutes to escape, before the soldiers on horseback will chase them. The outcome is obvious, the first mass slaughter of The Red and the White reminds very much of The Hunger Games and other contemporary productions, were mass killings take the form of a pastime.

Women are the obvious victims of male violence: a young peasant women only just escapes being raped by a White Soldier. Later the nurses in a field hospital have to identify wounded communist soldiers to the Whites under duress. Violence is everywhere: the Red army soldiers are only marginally better off, they too have a lust for violence; killing not so much out of revolutionary fervour, but because they can. As usual, Jancso is not interested in individual psychological motivations, he paints a colossal picture of mass hysteria culminating in more and more revenge killings: the War is not the culprit here, but human nature. Whilst the fortunes of the fighters change, their only goal seems to be revenge once they are in control of the situation. THE RED AND THE WHITE is simply not an anti-war film, but a documentation of human failure: they crave power only to express themselves in violent behaviour.

Aesthetically Jancso creates the opposite of realism: the world shown is very much a beautiful nightmare, in which soldiers and horses run in and out the frame, sometimes even entering it from behind the camera. The long takes are choreographed like ballet scenes. We often see certain actions, but from somewhere else voices tell a different story, and there is the ambient sound  hear of different fights. There is an elegiac, enigmatic atmosphere of a nether-world, particularly in gentle scenes which end with  senseless violence: the officers of the White Guard ask the nurses to dance with them in the delicate rhythm of a beech wood – for a moment human relations are civilised again. This mystic scene in the middle of Hieronymus Bosch-like on-goings, shows for a moment the human soul. AS

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