(The Red and the White)
Director: Miklós Jancsó
Production: Mafilm Studios (Hungary) and Mosfilm (USSR); black and white, 35mm, Agascope; running time: 92 minutes, Russian version about 70 minutes; length: 2545 meters. Released November 1967, Hungary. Filmed 1967 in the Kostroma Region of central Soviet Russia.
Production managers: Jeno Götz, Yuri Rogozovskiy, Andras Nemeth, M. Shadur, Kirill Siruauev, and Istvan Daubner; screenplay: Georgiy Mdivani, Gyula Herńadi, and Miklós Jancsó; assistant directors: Zsolt Kezdi Kovacs, Ferenc Grunwalski, Vladimir Glazkov, and Liliya Kelshteyn; photography: Tamás Somló; editor: Zoltán Farkas;
Cast: József Madaras ( Hungarian Commander ); Tibor Molnár ( András ); András Kozák ( László ); Jácint Juhász ( István ); Anatoliy Yabbarov ( Captain Chelpanov ); Sergey Nikonenko ( Cossack officer ); Mikhail Kozakov ( Nestor ); Bolot Beyshenaliyev ( Chingiz ); Tatyana Konyukhova ( Yelizaveta, the matron ); Krystyna Mikolajewska ( Olga ); Viktor Avydyushko ( Sailor ); Gleb Strizhenov ( Colonel ); Nikita Mikhalkov ( White officer ).
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* * *
Mikló Jancsó's third feature was filmed in the Soviet Union as a co-production to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Revolution and, fittingly, features a group of Hungarians fighting alongside the Red forces. What Hungarians made of this only 11 years after the events of 1956 one can only guess; similarly, one wonders what the Soviet authorities made of Jancsó's refusal of any Manichean perspective here, since neither side is shown as morally superior to the other. The overall impression is of watching some vast, spectacular game of chess played to mysterious rules by remote, unseen forces utterly indifferent to human suffering. As Philip Strick has evocatively described it: "against rolling and impassive meadowland, the meaningless choreography of the huntsmen and their victims, interchangeable from one minute to the next, takes its cold and casual course. Punctuating the placid murmur of a country summer, horsemen gallop furiously with erratic purpose, men order each other repeatedly from one position to another, and snarling biplanes loom masterfully overhead. In an endless transition from idyll to nightmare, there are captures, interrogations and executions, while the obsessive, arbitrary selection of men to be shot is mercilessly pursued by both sides, indistinguishable as they are in uniform, in attitude or in action." What we have here is a chilling study in arbitrary authority and absolute power, in which hunter and hunted, executioner and prisoner display an equal degree of impassivity and indifference, each knowing that the tables will soon turn once more. As Penelope Houston has put it: "All the killings are completely casual, bloodless and emotionless: the man with the gun has the power, and his victim accepts that he has it, and there is no more than that to be said. There will be no lingering shots of corpses, no mashed limbs, no emphasis on death as a violent fact rather than another move in an endlessly repeated game." As a meditation on the waste and senselessness of warfare, The Red and the White takes some beating, not least because the film makes its points implicitly, apart from the moment when one of the Hungarians refuses to massacre a group of prisoners, saying that "it is possible to fight and still be human," and the scene in which a nurse at a field hospital states that "there are no Reds and Whites here, only patients." The terrifying arbitrariness of war is brilliantly communicated by the narrative's extraordinarily elliptical nature, whereby little is explained and events follow one another with bewildering rapidity but seemingly little causal connection. The feeling of watching men trapped inside some mighty and complex game played out by disinterested gods is strikingly conveyed by Jancsó's famous and characteristic geometric mise-en-scene. As Graham Petrie has noted, Jancsó's films make remarkable use of the Cinemascope screen, especially The Red and the White , in which "whenever groups of characters appear, they are systematically drawn into horizontal, vertical, or diagonal lines, or into patterns of circles, squares and triangles. . . . Lines of men are constantly shown extending across the width of the Cinemascope screen, or forming diagonals that intersect with the boundaries of the frame to create complex visual effects. Though many of these compositions are quite breathtaking in their own right, the effect is rarely purely gratuitous: normally, by their very formality, they accentuate the elements of coldness and inhumanity inherent in the actions taking place." Particularly striking here is the use of the long-shot, frequently in combination with the sequence-shot and a highly mobile camera, so that, as Petrie puts it, "the constant uncertainty, the to-and-fro pattern of the film as a whole, is crystallised within one single camera movement." Furthermore, the use of long-shot denies the audience any involvement in the acion and forces it to watch it more as some kind of preordained, hermetic ritual. In this respect Michel Estève has made an interesting contrast with Jancsó's earlier The Round-Up: "the 'geometry of terror' of The Round-Up finds here its equivalent in the evocation of a dilated space. The choice of the wide screen, the immense and bare landscapes of the Volga, the importance accorded to long-shots, to depth of field and to aerial views suggest not the fate of the prisoner suffocated by a tight, hellish circle from which he does not know how to escape, but rather the combatant lost in the immensity of space, constantly pursued by death, crushed by his destiny."
If The Red and the White presents us with an almost overwhelmingly bleak picture of the world, it does so with a remarkable sense of style, as Penelope Houston has pointed out: "the saving graces of this arid world include, as always, visual beauty: the play of light, compositions of black figures against white walls, the strong verticals of Jancsó's almost abstract patterns. Aesthetically, the paring down of content is inevitably satisfying: it has the lure of the cloister, the white habit, discipline and rigour, the Bressonian impression of spiritual geometry." On the other hand, however, some critics accused Jancsó of aestheticising the horrors of war—one called him "the master of artistic atrocity," for example. One might also complain that The Red and the White offers precious little explanation of the situation which it so strikingly lays out before us. Maybe that's why, with his next film, The Confrontation , Jancsó began what Petrie has termed a "systematic exploration of the morality of violence and whether good ends can ever justify the use of inhuman means to achieve them."