Imprisonment and torture

dir: Miklós Jancsó, Hungary 1966. Black and White, Agascope 2.35:1, with subtitles.

Screened at the Leeds International Film Festival

The film is set in Hungary in 1869. Events have followed on from the failed revolution of 1848 and there have been bands of rebellious peasants in the countryside. Part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the revolts are both about nationalism and about class. A new noble minister for law and order is determined to stamp out resistance, using whatever means is necessary.

The credits are shown over a series of graphic images: factories, mansions, prisons, and implements of torture whilst a voice over comments on the ‘enrichment of the bourgeoisie’. Then the film opens with a long sequence shot showing the actual round up of the title. Horsemen gallop across the flat, almost featureless plains, chase down peasants and herd them together. The action then moves to an enclosure and nearby buildings, predominately in white. The peasants are confined in an enclosure, Individuals are taken away to be pressurised or tortured. The latter includes a set of narrow and constricting cabins in which men are locked.

Women bring food and necessities to the imprisoned men. They are herded and attacked by the military. Their (presumed) husbands throw themselves from the walls of the enclosure. A woman is stripped and forced to run a gauntlet of flailing soldiers.

One peasant confesses to a two killing. He is then threatened with hanging unless he discovers a perpetrator who has killed more people. He is only partially successful when he finds a ‘victim’ he can only identify three of the names of the claimed victims. There is an execution.

The informer tries again. But locked in a cabin at night, he is found strangled next morning. Three men finally confess to arranging his death. The authorities questioning of the imprisoned suspects focuses on one of their leaders, Sandor.

Late in the film the remaining imprisoned peasants are forcibly enrolled in the army. Two claim to have riding experience with the rebel groups. They demonstrate their prowess. They are then allowed to select comrades from the ranks for a mounted battalion. Once gathered together they sing a song from their rebel days. But their enthusiasm is misplaced and they face punishment rather than service.

Jancsó’s films are strongly allegorical. Whilst individuals come to the fore for particular scenes, the characters are not psychologically drawn: they are symbolic of their class and their social position. The settings and the landscape are very important and add to the sense of parables about society and social relations. Stylistically he uses long shots, long takes and sequence shots, (though not to the degree found in later films like Red Psalm). He frequently places simultaneous action in different planes within the image. There is a strong emphasis on the framing and the camera movements: editing is simple though cuts are often abrupt.

Graham Petrie interviewed the director and commented on his approach to filming: “During filming, Jancsó’s major concern is with the use of space and, as Madaras suggests, with the rhythmic utilisation of that space through the moving camera. According to [János] Kende, the lengthy sequence shots which characterise his films are all worked out on location; cast and crew arrive knowing only the equipment and props (candles, rain-making machines and so on) that they are likely to need. The total space of the day’s shooting is laid out with tracks, and a starting-point for each shot – usually a close-up, of a face, a hand or a weapon – is established. The movements of the main actors, and much of their dialogue, are then built up, together with the appropriate camera movements, and finally the often numerous extras are integrated into the total pattern. With a particularly complicated shot, this can take up most of the day. As all the sound is post-synchronised, Jancsó may well still be shouting instructions to the cast and crew during the actual shooting. The first take, Kende says, is usually discarded, as there are still too many errors; by the third or fourth take, things have become too mechanically perfect. The second take, therefore, is usually the one used.” (In Red Psalm, Flicks Books, 1998).

By the 1960s the conventions of socialist realism were disappearing, though they still exercised some influence in Eastern European cinemas. At one level The Round Up offers a historical example of the ruling classes’ suppression of the resistance of the ordinary working people. However, there is less about the politics of the revolution than in, say, the later Red Psalm. Petrie comments “Neither side was completely pure or innocent; the victims could be manipulated into betraying or deserting their comrades, and former victims were perfectly capable of committing atrocities . . . the possibility of achieving social and political justice seemed extremely problematic.” It would seem that Jancsó’s films needs to be interpreted in the light of the concept of hegemony. Hence the importance of the opening titles where the power of the bourgeoisie is seen as embodied in the instrument of production and of torture, seeping into the social relations of all, even the oppressed.

We had a short introduction before the screening. The speaker emphasised the allegorical aspect of the film, which was made only eight years after the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He stressed, as do a number of writers, that the thematic centre of Jancsó’s films is the question of power: who controls it and how they use it. From this perspective The Round Up offers forensic study of a particular historical instance where the ruling class exercise power in an extreme fashion. But the generalised presentation of this encourages audiences to consider parallels with their own world – with obvious examples now in 2011.

Miklos Jancso’s later film, Red Psalm (1971), was also screened during the festival, but unfortunately not in a 35mm print due to the poor state of the existing copy.