The Red and the White (1967)

“For a while I was famous for my ‘long takes’, these sequence shots that last several minutes. At that time it was really special. Within these sequence shots there were close-ups and long shots – everything. Film-making is really over that now. With the influence of commercials and music, editing has become snappier. Unavoidably in a long shot you have empty moments, and it can be boring today. But, for example, Bela Tarr uses them to say something.”

‘The Red and the White’, directed by Miklós Jancsó in 1967, is a Hungarian movie set during the Russian Civil War in 1919. Two opposing forces: the Tsarist forces. The ‘Whites’ and the ‘Reds’, Hungarians who supported the revolution. The film follows a sequence of encounters between them in the towns and countryside near the Volga river as they struggle for supremacy. This film feels like a transitional piece between Jancsó’s earlier and more narrative based style in ‘The Round-Up’ and the poetically symbolic style in ‘Red Psalm’ five years later. It is often unclear which group of soldiers is which, the focus of the film shifts between individuals without really defining them. Actions are repeated, most notably small scale skirmishes between forces followed by the (presumably symbolic) removal of clothes and brutal executions. The lack of clarity seems to be on purpose given that Jancsó is clearly not telling a story but rather creating an atmosphere and trying to say something about the nature of war itself. In this movie, war comes across like a futile pageant or even a dance: characters orbit one another, groups of soldiers, shot from a distance on the grassy plains, are shown to move in every increasingly structured patterns. Jancsó takes the act of fighting from something chaotic and vicious to something stylised and ritualistic. The real skill of this is the way Jancsó choreographs his cast, controls the framing of his shots and uses the long, unbroken takes to immerse the audience in the action. He uses the expansive plains of the Hungarian landscape as a kind of giant theatre stage, and, uncannily, has just as much control over the movement of his actors as a stage director.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s dense and confusing, but purposely so. If watched with ‘Red Psalm’ you get a real sense of where Jancsó is heading as a director and a better sense of how he sees warfare.

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