Miklós Jancsó Collection (Kino Lorber, NR)

The work of Miklós Jancsó is not that well known in the U.S., outside of cinephile circles, but this Kino Lorber Blu-ray release of some of his best works, all in remastered editions, should help to remedy that. Jancsó is a modern master, important both for his cinematic style and for the subject matter of his films—the latter is often political, but his take is never obvious.

The Round-Up (1966; the Hungarian title translates as “Poor Young Men”) begins 15-20 years after the 1848 Revolution, led by Lajos Kossuth, which failed to free Hungary from Hapsburg rule (a fact signaled by the Austro-Hungarian hymn to the Emperor Francis heard at the film’s opening). The film opens with a satirical illustrated lecture about life in 1860’s Budapest: “The spirit of 1848 has become a mere empty phrase. The welfare of the bourgeoisie is all that matters” while in the countryside many people live in poverty. Some have become “outlaws” or highwaymen, who are regarded as criminals by the ruling powers but are “hailed as freedom fighters” by the Hungarian people.  

Much of the action in The Round-Up takes place in a prison in the Hungarian steppes, where peasants are confined en masse and officials are keen to discover if guerilla leader Sándor Rózsa is among them. One of the prisoners, János Gajdar (János Görbe) becomes an informant, which makes him no friends among his fellow prisoners. Despite the violent (and patriotic) subject matter, Jancsó avoids courting emotional response from the audience, instead creating abstract widescreen black-and-white compositions, often shot from a distance (cinematography by Tamás Somló). The Round-Up, the Hungarian nomination for the Foreign Language Oscar in 1966, was Jáncso’s breakthrough film, and Béla Tarr included it on his list of the 10 greatest films of all time.

The Red and the White (1967), a Soviet-Hungarian co-production set during the Russian Civil War, focuses on a group of Hungarians fighting for the Bolsheviks (“Reds”) against the Tsarists (“Whites”). It’s a far more spacious film than The Round-Up, with much of the action taking place on open plains, and with so many gun battles on horseback that you might think you were watching an American Western. Tamás Somló’s black-and-white Cinemascope cinematography is stunning, and there are more occasions to identify with specific characters than in The Round-Up, but the mood overall remains chilly and abstract compared to the typical American war film. That’s part of Jancsó’s point—war is brutal and often brings out the worst in people, so using cinematic tricks to celebrate one side or the other misses the point of making an antiwar film in the first place. The Red and the White was popular in Hungary, but displeased the authorities in the Soviet Union, who had been expecting a celebration of their noble cause rather than a coldly sober presentation of how awful the experience of war actually is.

The Confrontation (1969) is set in 1947, shortly after the Communist Party took power in Hungary. It’s Jancsó’s first color film, and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Tamás Somló, proves as masterful in that medium as in black and white. It’s also rare among the films in this collection in being set in an urban area, which imdb.com assures me is Veszprém. The main action involves a group of revolutionary students challenging a group of reformist students to debate issues such as “What is the role of the individual in history?” and “Is the world knowable?” The revolutionaries, both male and female, are brightly clad (their leader wears a red shirt that positively pops off the screen) and assertive, while the all-male reformists are dressed in drab blue and grey uniforms, and are not interested in taking part in the revolutionaries’ merry pranks. It’s a very stylized film, and while there is some dialogue between the two groups, there’s a lot more singing of revolutionary songs, dancing of Russian-inspired dances, and performance of theatrical political actions. There’s no attempt to be historically accurate, and the revolutionary students’ political tactics, as well as their costumes, reflect more the time in which the film was made than the period in which it is set.

Winter Wind (1969) opens with black-and-white newsreel footage and voiceover narration setting the context: it’s 1934 and Croatian separtists are plotting the assassination of Alexander, King of Yugoslavia. This prologue closes with the proviso that the film is meant as a warning “because right-wing terrorists are still plotting all over the world.” Winter Wind then shifts to storytelling, and to color. The plot centers on an invented character, Marko Lazar (Jacques Charrier, the film’s producer), whose idealism has brought him into a separatist group planning the assassination. Winter Wind is a more conventional film than some others in this set, in terms of inviting the audience to identify with particular characters, but it remains above all a miracle of fluid camera work and long takes, courtesy of cinematographer János Kende.

Red Psalm (1972), whose Hungarian title translates as ”And the people still ask,” is set in the 1890s in rural Hungary, where the local agricultural workers, bolstered by ideals of utopian socialism, stage a rebellion. The workers are presented as a collective more than as distinct individual characters, and the whole film is highly stylized, with a minimum of straightforward dialogue but lots of music and dancing, some magical realism, and no small amount of female nudity (the latter is meant as a symbol of rebellion, but no doubt also increased the popularity of this film back in the day). Red Psalm is the kind of film that makes more sense if you step back from any immediate considerations of storytelling and plot, and at any rate you can admire it as a masterpiece of imagery, blocking, and cinematography—the whole film contains only 26 shots (or 27 or 28 according to some), showing off the ability of Jancsó and cinematographer János Kende to choreograph action without cuts and move the camera with effortless fluidity. Jancsó won Best Director at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival for Red Psalm, which was also nominated for the Palme d’Or.

Electra, My Love (1974) is based on a play by Laszló Gyurkó, which is in turn based on the ancient legend of Electra that you learned about in English class. As the film begins, it’s been fifteen years since Aegisthus (Jószef Madaras) murdered Agamemnon, Electra’s father, and exiled Orestes (György Cserhalmi), Electra’s brother, and Electra (Mari Töröcsik) seems to be the only one who hasn’t moved on. She’s not worried about being a holdout in the “forgive and forget” department, however, because, as she puts it, “While one person lives who doesn’t forget, no one can forget.” Electra, My Love is set in the mythical world of No Time and No Place, underscoring the fact that tyranny and revenge can exist anywhere and at any time, and also giving Jancsó and his technical team a chance to get highly creating with costuming and props and such. Jancsó is known for long takes, but this is his most economical film in terms of cuts, with an average shot length of 350 seconds. | Sarah Boslaugh

The Miklós Jancsó Collection is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. All films are presented in new 4K restorations. Extras include an illustrated booklet with an introduction by Martin Scorsese (he’s a fan), audio commentaries by film historians Michael Brooke (The Round-Up, Jonathan Owen (The Red and the White), Kat Elliger (The Confrontation and Red Psalm) and Samm Deighan (Winter Wind and Electra, My Love) and three short films by Jancsó: “Autum in Badacsony” (1954), “Harvest in Orosháza” (1953), and “With a Camera in Kostroma” (1967).

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