Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Film Atlas (Hungary): The Round-Up


Country: Hungary
Film: The Round-Up / Szegénylegények (1966)
In the late 1860s the last of Lajos Kossuth's rebel forces led by famed highwayman Sandor Rozsa have been labeled common criminals, rounded up and imprisoned in a crude but effective open-air prison, the only structure in a vast sun-bleached steppe. It is known only as The Earthworks. The commanding officers are given no limits on the methods they may employ in the service of identifying guerrillas. Elaborate mind games and casual executions have become commonplace.


An old lady fingers Janos Gajdar as a hardened convict, but he is interrogated to no avail. He is asked to tie a rope, the murder weapon in a triple homicide, around his own neck and is locked in a room with the corpses of the victims overnight. The next day he confesses to their murders and several others. Janos is told he will be reprieved if he can lead them to a man whose crimes are worse than his own. Though the wardens have no intentions of honoring the deal, Janos helps identify several men. The first makes a futile run for it when local women bring the daily supplies in the morning and is executed before admitting to crimes sufficient enough to save Janos. The second, an important rebel lieutenant, is forced to watch his lover run a gauntlet until he and several followers leap to their deaths instead of revealing Sandor's whereabouts. After the resulting prison riot, Janos is moved into solitary confinement for his own protection. But that night he is used as bait and is killed: the guards intentionally leave random cell doors unlocked to see who will sneak out and execute informants.


The three suspects are Kobai Sr. and Jr., father and son, and ex-cavalry officer Torma. They survive several rounds of psychological torture before being saved by news the front: the war is going poorly and all the prisoners are to be conscripted. Kobai and Torma, because of their military experience, are asked to give a demonstration of their horsemanship and are told to assemble a cavalry unit from their pick of men. Kobai and Torma now admit that Sandor was never among the prisoners, but the commandant assures them it doesn't matter anyway and reads a proclamation from the emperor pardoning Sandor in absentia. The newly formed unit, Sandor's former regiment, no longer needs to shroud themselves in secrecy and break out into cheers. The proclamation goes on to say, however, that Sandor's men are to receive their just punishment: execution. Their cheers are abruptly cut short as black sacks are pulled over their heads.


The Round-up was the international breakthrough film of director Miklos Jancso, easily Hungary's best-regarded director, and it still feels impressive and original today. A highly atypical historical prison movie, Round-up was nevertheless a surprise hit, in part because its pessimistic deconstruction of power and manipulation was widely read as an allegory for the tightly-regulated regime of the era. It's style, especially the use of long takes in which the camera steadily roves and pans to let character apparently escape its gaze only to be caught again later on, was hugely influential, arguably defining the dominant mode of art cinema during the last 50 years. Jancso would go on to perfect the technique and Bela Tarr, Hungary's recently-retired next-generation luminary, would continue the legacy with carefully choreographed shots running several minutes in length, but Round-Up’s lighter touch is more accessible and less ostentatious.


What remains most notably distinctive in Jancso work as compared to later copycats is his handling of characters, specifically the total absence of not just heroes, but even protagonists, denying war's mythology of honor or personal glory. Janos, the closest thing to a central lead, is a craven troll (his lopsided cap and disheveled cape are brilliant examples of characterization through costuming) who only shows up 15 minutes in and 35 minutes later gets ignobly and offhandedly killed offscreen. Other characters anchor the camera for shorter or longer periods, but they are liable to die at any time; the audience isn't asked or expected to become attached to them. It's a disorienting and dehumanizing structure, one that parallels the dismally oppressive atmosphere of the prison's pitiless operation. Jancso took this idea to its logical extreme in his equally masterful anti-war follow-on, The Red and the White, in which the camera flows back and forth between interchangeable armies senselessly capturing, retreating and recapturing a strategically useless monastery.


My Favorites:
My Twentieth Century
Werckmeister Harmonies
Son of Saul
Son of the White Mare
The Round-up
The Fifth Seal
The Red and the White
The Annunciation
Satantango
Johnny Corncob
Mephisto
Father (1966)
Hugo the Hippo
Hyppolit the Butler
Adoption

Major Directors:
Zoltán Fábri, Miklós Jancsó, Marcell Jankovics, Marta Meszaros, Istvan Svabo, Bela Tarr


2 comments:

Patrick said...

The Red and the White! I think I remember that. That was impossible to follow for me, at least, because I couldn't figure out who was who and who was killing whom. I guess that was the point, but it was a challenge to follow the plot.

FilmWalrus said...

I'm comfortable admitting I very rarely follow Jancso films the first time through. I considered Round-Up a minor work the first time I saw it. It wasn't until my recent rewatch that I realized what all was going on... and what it all implied below the surface.