Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 3 
17 Feb
2003

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Miklos Jancso's Allegro Barbaro (1978) HUNGARY
The denial of oppression
Miklós Jancsó's Szerelmem, Elektra (Elektreia, 1974),
Magyar rapszódia
(Hungarian Rhapsody, 1978) and
Allegro Barbaro (1978)

Jancsó's Hungarian films of the 1970s continued the extreme stylisation that had featured in his work of the previous decade but moved further away from naturalism and realism. Peter Hames undertakes a detailed analysis of three of them.


A member of the old guard?

For British cinephiles of the 1960s and 70s, London's Academy Cinemas in Oxford Street were a key port of call. Alongside a regular diet of Bergman, Fellini, and Antonioni, Academy Three always seemed to be running a film by Miklós Jancsó. As an occasional visitor from the provinces, it was there that I saw Igy jöttem (My Way Home, 1964), Szegénylegények (The Round Up aka The Hopeless Ones, 1965), Fényes szelek (The Confrontation, 1968), Égi Bárány (Agnus Dei, 1970) and Még kér a nép (Red Psalm aka The People Still Ask, 1971). When the Academy Cinemas closed in 1986, it marked the end of English access to the works of Jancsó. Of course, Georg Höllering, who ran the cinema from 1944 until his death in 1980, had directed the important Hungarian film Hortobágy (1936) (as well as the English production of T S Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral in the 50s). Film-makers need their champions.

For the new generation of radical film critics of the 70s, the Academy Cinemas represented the establishment and were associated with elitist and "bourgeois" taste. But, with the former editor of Screen, Sam Rohdie, now having written books on Antonioni and Fellini, a complete retrospective of Bergman at the National Film Theatre in London, and a season of Jancsó at the Riverside Studios, it looks as if the swing against so-called "art cinema" may be coming to an end.

For Jancsó, who had high hopes of both the May events in Paris and the Prague Spring in 1968, an association with the forces of reaction seems at best misplaced. But, of all the directors I have mentioned, he is undoubtedly the most "difficult". Apart from a struggle with what has been called the ambiguous nature of the "art film" narrative, the viewer was often left with the sense that he or she may well have not understood the film at all. In other words, there are not merely ambiguous characters, endings, or elements in his work, ambiguity is omnipresent.

Ballet of oppression

Miklos Jancso's Szerelmem, Elektra (Elektreia, 1974)
Szerelmem, Elektra: A mere 12 shots
The dominating factor of Jancsó's work in this period was, of course, his style and, in particular, his use of the sequence shot—a long take, in which a whole sequence is enacted without cutting. Notoriously, Fényes szelek contains only 31 shots, Még kér a nép 28 shots, and Szerelmem, Elektra (Elektreia aka My Love, Elektra, 1974) only 12. The changes of viewpoint normally achieved through conventional editing can, of course, be approached by the panning, tracking, craning, and zooming characteristic of Jancsó. But Jancsó's approach constructs new levels of ambiguity.

A second major factor is might be termed the balletic nature of his work (particularly evident in Szerelmem, Elektra). In a number of scenes, characters break into dance, but the overall approach could more accurately be described as one of stylised movement. Frequently, individual figures "perform" in front of a "corps de ballet" or groups, whether they be constituted of men on horseback, white shirted male figures, naked female figures or mixed combinations. It is rather like a theatrical construction freed from the normal constraints of time and space, an apparently endless and evolving pageant.

The films could, perhaps, be likened to revolutionary street pageants. The individual is presented in relation to a group, a class, a state—a social context of power and repression that is always present. But if the rhetoric of revolution is frequently heard, it is in the context of a style that questions the realities and achievements portrayed. The long take and the use of "dance" allow an escape from the one-to-one readings of conventional narrative. If the elements of Jancsó's style are already apparent in Szegénylegények, it is consistently refined in his subsequent films through to the production of Szerelmem, Elektra in 1975.

From stage to screen

Miklos Jancso's Szerelmem, Elektra (Elektreia, 1974)
Törőcsik in the lead role of Szerelmem, Elektra
Based on László Gyurkó's play which was, in turn, based on the Electra myth, Szerelmem, Elektra is set 15 years after the murder of King Agamemnon. Elektra (Mari Törőcsik) still believes that her brother Orestes will return to kill the tyrant Aegisthos (Jószef Madaras). Aegisthos orders his people to celebrate and announces the death of Orestes. The body he displays, though, is that of someone else. A messenger (György Cserhalmi) arrives with news of the death of Orestes and Elektra kills him. Resurrected, he turns out to be Orestes and, together with Elektra, provides the focal point for the people's revolt against tyranny. Their role is to die and be reborn like the phoenix, the firebird and symbol of revolution.

In Gyurkó's original play, Elektra was an avenger and wanted to kill all those complicit in the murder of Agamemnon and the furtherance of Aegisthos's tyranny, while Orestes had preached universal reconciliation. As a result of their disagreement, he kills her. However, in Jancsó's version, Elektra becomes a militant revolutionary and the people are not held guilty for their sins.Thus Jancsó returns once again to a reflection on the dialectics of power and oppression.

The film's basis in theatre makes its meaning much more transparent than films such as Égi bárány and Még kér a nép. Thus, the film begins with Elektra's discourse on tyranny:

Truth speaks, and law
Accursed be every tyrant and blessed every man who resists tyranny.
Blessed be every man whom a tyrant destroys.

Its conclusion provides its testament to the firebird:

Brighter than the sun,
More lovely than a jewel,
It was born of man's eternal dreams,
Its father was liberty,
Its mother happiness.

When landlords and factory owners have passed into history, when there is no longer bourgeoisie or proletariat, only then will man have a life of liberty, joy, and peace.

Yet the firebird shall still fly above us and perish daily,
to be born yet more lovely on the morrow.
Blessed be your name—revolution.

Miklos Jancso's Szerelmem, Elektra (Elektreia, 1974)
Jószef Madaras (centre in black) as the tyrant
If these examples of revolutionary rhetoric may seem conventional, they remain entirely appropriate to their subject. Furthermore, the conclusion seems to advocate not merely the spread of revolution but its reinvention, suggesting the need for permanent struggle. While Szerelmem, Elektra provides a compelling account of a classical theme, its debates are not without their contemporary relevance. Aegisthos justifies his tyranny: blood brings order, government is based on the mutual fear of ruler and ruled, the law is a reminder of permanent guilt. As a result, the people are happy. Elektra, the teller of truth, presents her alternative to the people:

You're happy. I want pain.
You prefer a life of lies to speaking the truth once.
You've kissed the killer's feet. Where has it got you?
You've lied the stars down. Where has it got you?
You bought happiness and got terror. Where has it got you?
You only got fear. Tell me, was it worth it?

Miklos Jancso's Szerelmem, Elektra (Elektreia, 1974)It is certainly possible to relate all of this to the compromises faced under Hungarian "socialism". Not only is the film's physical setting that of Hungary but, one suspects, as always, that the film's succession of Hungarian folk songs make its meaning much more evident to a Hungarian audience. At the most obvious, the use of the folk song Leszállott a páva (The Peacock has Alighted) —immortalised by both Kodály and Bartók—for the overthrow of Aegisthos and also the film's ending provides a fairly explicit Hungarian linkage. (In fact, a real peacock also accompanies Elektra's opening speech and the liberation by Orestes). Bartók's Allegro Barbaro follows Orestes's shooting of Aegisthos. When Elektra and Orestes ascend in a red-painted helicopter in the last scenes, this is not a clumsy portrayal of the firebird but an essential breaking of the film's aesthetic distance. It is not about the Greeks, it is about the present.

In a single take

Jancsó's methods of filming have been well-documented and, for all the films discussed here, he was working with his regular collaborators, Gyula Hernádi, on script, and János Kende, on camera. Hernádi was apparently first introduced to Jancsó as a "worker-writer" (he was then employed in a shipyard) in order to keep him on the right track. In fact, Hernádi's vision proved to be even more deviant, creating a major fuss with his first novel , the existentialist A péntek lépcsőin (On the Stairs of Friday). However, both he and Jancsó were middle class, members of "the gentry," small Hungarian nobles. "Then came private schools, the priests: Cistercian for Jancsó, Benedictine for me. Although neither of us was in the war, we were both prisoners in Russia. We were both then members of that movement of young university students evoked in Fényes szelek."[1]

Miklos Jancso's Szerelmem, Elektra (Elektreia, 1974)Their scripts were never screenplays in the conventional sense, but outlines and sketches. If the dialogues in Szegénylegények were based on tape discussions between Jancsó and Hernádi, these seemed to have changed little by the time of their work on Magyar rapszódia (Hungarian Rhapsody, 1978) and Allegro Barbaro (1978), some thirteen years later. "After twenty years, Jancsó and I understand each other quickly," Hernádi said around the time of Magyar rapszódia, "it's a game of ping pong. At the Marina hotel, where we stayed during the shooting, we decided in the evening what we would do the next day."[2].

While extensive camera tracks were laid out prior to shooting, the actual shots were worked out on location, which may seem odd given the detailed preparation necessary for the long take. Writing during the shooting of Szerelmem, Elektra, Gideon Bachmann noted that movement was "orchestrated for the camera in a ballet of calculated fabrication...Lines are spoken, but in whisper tones; they will be dubbed in later at the correct levels. The whole thing is a military operation of exacting accuracy."[3]

Jancsó's method was therefore one of precision based on improvisation but with the precision largely determined by the constraints and advantages of the long take. His reasons for adopting his characteristic style seem to be various. In a recent interview, he notes: "I used long takes because I wanted films without cuts. I'm simply inept at cutting. I always hated flashbacks, empty passages and cuts. Each shot took as long as there was material in the camera—ten minutes. All my films were made up of eight, ten, maximum sixteen shots."[4] Another factor of relevance is, perhaps, the fact that his films could be quickly and cheaply made

Miklos Jancso's Szerelmem, Elektra (Elektreia, 1974)
György Cserhalmi as Orestes
Ideologically, he has linked himself to the traditions of "revolutionary" film-making by rejecting the traditional story film. "A story, if the film is a good one, carries the spectator away on its wings, it is an evasion." Jancsó's films, on the contrary, encourage an active engagement. "...while the film is being projected the spectator racks his brains trying to order the things he is seeing, he sees himself obliged to, he is active."[5] He also saw his style as being particularly attuned to the "movement of ideas".

The second shot of Szerelmem, Elektra provides a fairly elaborate example of his approach. Basically the camera moves through three acting "spaces" to the left, right and in front of Elektra, but its constant movement removes any sense of geographical precision. It begins by moving up the tail of a peacock to Elektra and her sister as Elektra walks back into the scene, towards the camera, away from it, to the right and back again to the left.

As she begins to walk, she passes white-clad women with candles who turn away as she passes, walks between two ranks of prostrate male figures, who then roll away from her as she retreats, and through white figures and horsemen to the right before returning to her original position. Black figures also move in from the rear of the scene and horsemen in the left background, providing a background of constant patterning and movement. This section of the scene comprises the statement on tyranny and Elektra's discussion of justice and memory, which is presented as a monologue.

The camera then leaves Elektra, for a space on the left via a line of black-clad women cracking whips and follows a procession moving from the ruined building that constitutes the film's background. It comprises naked women, a flag, hawks and a dog. The procession arrives at Aegisthos and his chief courtier, who are seen in close up. Dwarves move to the right and Aegisthos hands the courtier a ceremonial knife. As the courtier moves to the left, he moves to a position that is roughly in front of the location for Elektra's opening words.

The camera cranes up to take in women dancing down a candle-covered hillock and then moves back as the courtier moves in from the right and Elektra moves to meet him from the left. Dancers move in front of her and the courtier joins the line. Aegisthos then appears from the left (ie the opposite direction from which one might have expected), and the three of them move around each other, finally approaching the camera. In this section of the scene, we learn that this is a ceremony commemorating the murder of Agamemnon. She cannot kill Aegisthos but equally he has no power over her because she personifies justice.

Elektra walks back to the earlier space where she had walked between the prostrate men, backing away from the camera. A row of horsemen has replaced the earlier black figures and "the body of Orestes" lies before them. Aegisthos and the courtier are in the foreground. Elektra walks left into the space where the procession began. A hand grasping a sword appears in front of her as she turns towards the camera. A bare-chested male dancer holds the sword and retreats behind her into the landscape. In the mid-distance, a white horse is led from the right.

All of which takes place in a single shot.

The scene therefore comprises three separate dramatic events, interwoven with a background "cast" into which characters can retreat and emerge with the totality united by a continuous camera movement. The scene begins and ends with a song. The scene's formal coherence, however, avoids the narrative and spatial certainties that one would expect in a mainstream film.

A peasantist past

After Szerelmem, Elektra, Jancsó made the Italian-Yugoslav Vizi privati, pubbliche virtú (Private Vices, Public Virtues, 1976), loosely based on the Mayerling affair, which, apart from its then controversial mix of the erotic and the political, also signified a new stylistic approach.[See Rolland Man's article "Private truths, public lies" in this issue] He moved from twelve shots in Szerelmem, Elektra to 343. In one contemporary interview, he suggested that he had been in something of an impasse, that the use of the long take was restricting his audience and was primarily suitable for "ideological cinema." However, he was soon to seek the reassurance of his more usual form in Magyar rapszódia and Allegro Barbaro (both 1978), which formed the first two parts of a planned but uncompleted trilogy, Vitam et sanguinem. According to Jancsó, the films left the Party ideologist, György Aczél, "distraught and desperate."[6]

Before discussing the films, it is worth noting a number of more general points. First, Jancsó has always been preoccupied with "what Hungarians are really like." "Here is this small nation in Europe, with its strange and contradictory history, with its senseless nostalgias and unrealistic dreams... [a] people who seldom waged a fight for a sensible purpose..."[7] During the Second World War, Jancsó was also "in touch with" the National Peasant Party, though rejecting their notions on the primacy of Hungarian nationality. His influences included Bakunin, "the creator of revolutionary mentality" (Venturi), with his emphasis on solidarity, and Elemer Muharay and his theatrical and folk dance group, who had also been linked to the left wing of the Peasant Party.

From right to left

While intended as a reflection on 20th-century Hungarian history, the film's focus on a single character, Istvan Zsadányi (György Cserhalmi), provided a new departure. The films were fairly transparently based on the life of Endre Bajcsy-Zilinsky, who had begun as a spokesman for the right but ended up being identified with the opposition to Nazism. A minor aristocrat who had been hostile to the pre-1914 peasant movements, he later became a leader of the Independent Smallholders Party which, together with the Socialists, led the opposition to the government in the early 1940s. In 1943, he noted that the government might do better to fight the Germans rather than the British. The Hungarian Front organising the resistance against the Germans was organised in early 1944 and, in November, Bajcsy-Zilinsky led the Liberation Committee for the Hungarian National Uprising. He and its other leaders were betrayed and executed by the Arrow Cross, the right-wing Hungarian movement.

Miklos Jancso's Magyar rapszodia (Hungarian Rhapsody, 1978)
György Cserhalmi (left)
as "Istvan Zsadányi"
While the life of Bajcsy-Zilinsky provided a model for the films, it seems unlikely that there are particularly close parallels, and his conflicts are soon transferred on to a symbolic level. In particular, the figure of Mari Bankós, his god-daughter, and an enigmatic figure in Magyar rapszódia, grows up to become his "life partner" in the promotion of revolution in Allegro Barbaro. His relatives and friends become symbolic figures in Horthy's interwar governments, ending with an explicit association with the Nazis. The two films feature the contradictions of Hungarian patriotism and a continued suppression of the hopes and demands of the people (or in Jancsó's case, the peasants).

Magyar rapszódia begins with the pre-credit image of a lake, a low mansion and fireworks. An unidentified off-screen voice declaims:

Gentlemen, a thousand years have passed since Hungarians settled here.
Heroically, they fought for the land, they shed their blood.
...if we were not Hungarians, we would wish to be Hungarians.
But why need I praise us?
History speaks for me.

A bugle call announces the title Magyar rapszódia, to be followed by images of coaches and horsemen against a church background, and a close-up of soldiers who announce their allegiance "For country, till death." To the accompaniment of the Radetzky March, the camera moves to a large open-sided barn-like structure, which will provide the focus for many of the film's key scenes. The ranks of society assemble, fashionable ladies prominent, and horses ride in from behind the camera, which cranes back to take in the wider landscape and figures aligned outside the barn.

We are celebrating the election of Zsadányi's father as MP for the National Party. The drunken Zsadányi welcomes his two sons, István and Gábor, but István turns away in disgust. After the barn has emptied, white shirted men descend from the rafters like the acrobatic actors in Eisenstein's Stachka (Strike, 1925). István reveals his alienation from his own people.

A political death

The nationalist cause is immediately matched by a plea for socialism as one of István's tenants, Andras Baksa (Jószef Madaras), delivers a lecture to a group of white-shirted young men who sit, surrounding him, in the woods. The scene shifts to the barn, where the white-shirted men march forward and sing:

The stars are marching, stars with bayonets
Towards the mansions of the rich...
May those who do not give bread to the poor
Suffer calloused hands like them.

Miklos Jancso's Magyar rapszodia (Hungarian Rhapsody, 1978)Mari Bakós arrives, riding on her father's shoulders and shouts, "Andras Baksa is our man." Baksa speaks of an ideal past that has been destroyed by the gentry, the fundamental instability of the current society and the future "spring of the poor" that can be created through their own efforts. His followers soon have a solution for "those who do not give their bread to the poor." They take a water pump to the Zsadányi house and hose them down. While some of the ladies obligingly disrobe and join in the spirit of the occasion, István's parents are relentlessly soaked. His mother notes that she had always warned her husband against politics and that, eventually, the peasants will kill him.

István goes to Baksa's house to demand satisfaction but, in the ensuing fight, he is beaten. Gábor hands him a pistol and Istvan shoots through the closed door of the house and his brother through the window, killing Baksa. The figure of Mari Bankós is again highlighted in these scenes.

God has betrayed us, my friends
His face is a silver medal on the jacket of a gendarme.

We later learn that István and Gábor are accused of murder and cleared by the courts but, for István, this is the key experience that will turn him against his class. Throughout the remainder of the film (and also Allegro Barbaro), they will provide a constant point of reference.

A question of sanity

The key political events of the time—the First World War, Béla Kun's short-lived Communist Republic of 1919 and the White Terror that followed—are presented virtually off screen. We see István lead his cavalry across a lake, he forms a corps to fight the Reds and a telegram announces the defeat of the revolution. However, we are shown the preparations for war. Within the symbolic barn setting, society again parades itself as naked men line up to be examined by medical orderlies. They sing the song:

The sun shines down on the Crown Inn at Pápa
The noble officers have arrived
It was the finest moment in my life
When I was recruited at the Crown Inn at Pápa.

Miklos Jancso's Magyar rapszodia (Hungarian Rhapsody, 1978)István himself engineers a conflict of wills in which the peasant, Szeles-Tóth, is challenged to shoot him, and then compelled to shoot his own horse. At the end of the war, after praising Szeles-Tóth for his bravery (unfortunately, he cannot be decorated as he is not an officer), István orders the execution of many of his men for cowardice (an order that is not carried out). He lectures them on the Hungarian virtues of courage, while recognising that the possession of land may be a factor in this equation.

Shortly after, István is lecturing his friend, Count Héderváry, who has been made prime minister. Even if they drive out the "Red bandits", he argues that land should be given to the peasants and that they also should be given their stake in Hungarian national ideals. Héderváry condemns him as a "White Jacobin," but without their defining characteristics of "the pursuit of order and obedience." Héderváry argues that it would mean the end of Hungarian culture and the Hungarian state. The discussion is followed by the telegram announcing the defeat of the revolution.

Miklos Jancso's Magyar rapszodia (Hungarian Rhapsody, 1978)Héderváry eventually offers István the post of Minister of Agriculture ("We need someone who thinks as we do"). István is also urged to take the post by the peasants as he can introduce gradual land reform as the occasion demands. The accusation of the murder of Baksa pursues him from both sides and the government threatens to charge him if he doesn't accept. Much of the last section of the film emphasises ideas and fantasy, with a discourse on István's mental health.

At the end of the film, Mari again comes to him and asks, "Don't you remember me, godfather?" It leads into a scene in which István fights young Baksa (also played by Madaras). Inconclusive, it leads to a long-held close-up of István as he makes his key decision. There is a return to the barn setting as István joins the people at a table:

We were reared for a life of cares
We are the red-dot exclamation mark
A thousand years of lordly pride and torpor
Shall no longer weigh upon this folk
We boldly call out to the heavens
We shall be tomorrow's free men.
A marriage of companions

In Allegro Barbaro, no time is wasted on soul searching. We learn immediately that Héderváry is visiting Hitler while, in the second scene, István orders the release of the adult Mari (Györgyi Tarján), who has been arrested as a Communist. The allegiances are clear. István visits Héderváry and his brother only twice. On the first occasion, he announces that he has come to kill Héderváry, and is criticised for his peasant appearance (a white shirt). He retorts, "I and my land belong to the peasants and will always belong to them. On the second occasion, he does, in fact, kill Héderváry.

Miklos Jancso's Allegro Barbaro (1978)The rest of the action is set in and around István's farm, where he establishes some kind of agricultural or socialist collective (it is never clear what, except that Héderváry describes it as some kind of "half-Bolshevik" nonsense). The centrepiece is the "wedding" of István and Mari when the peasants adopt a resolution that Mari is to become the lifetime companion of "the one-time gentleman and exploiter, István Zsadányi, who joined our ranks with his whole heart." This is not without opposition from her father, Old Bankós, who points out that István will always be an aristocrat: "Look at the way his hands move, at the way his eyes flash. He knows how to command, he is not long-suffering, not patient."

The ceremonies have only just begun when Gábor and the gendarmes arrive to arrest Old Bankós, provoking a confrontation in which István again challenges his "inferiors" (the gendarmes) to shoot at him. Gábor draws his pistol (the one that had killed Baksa). They are driven off and the celebrations continue, only for Héderváry to arrive with an announcement that István is to be retried for Baksa's murder. Before leaving, he comments, with reference to Mari, that it would not have been so bad had he restricted himself to whoring. Orders are given that István must evacuate his house as it now falls within a military area "as defined by the Hungarian and German High Commands." István determines to kill Héderváry but not without advice from Mari and Old Bankós. She is against it, because the sentence can only be carried out through revolution. He is for it, because of the need for sacrifice and example. When István kills Héderváry, the establishment pass the whole episode off as a hunting accident and Gábor is appointed prime minister.

Miklos Jancso's Allegro Barbaro (1978)The response is to accuse Mari and her friends for the murder of four people at István's farm (including a Hungarian and a German officer). A key figure in the last section of the film is Count István Komáry who, in Magyar rapszódia, had been described as someone who "scuttled to Vienna." Here, it is Berlin. István describes him here as a "past master in conspiracy" and he certainly displays a facility with words, justifications and the "philosophies" of power politics. He urges István to appeal to his brother for clemency, in the meantime telling Mari that she is certain to hang and urging her to attempt an escape so that he can shoot her in the back. Even Komáry is in for a surprise since the conspirators are condemned to death in their absence.

Mari's last wish is that she be allowed to make love and her two fellow accused are designated for that purpose. In fact, she asks them to kill her as a shock to the oppressors' world of power. She reasons that they will feel it is the end of their world. She is killed but Komáry orders his men to shoot her in the back and fake an attempted escape. The two men are executed.

István returns with the Hungarian flag.

Framed by fantasy

Miklos Jancso's Allegro Barbaro (1978)Allegro Barbaro begins and ends with a red sports car and Bartók's piano composition of the same name, also used in Szerelmem, Elektra. In the final scene, Mari is seen to be in the rear seat. Presumably, the red car is a late descendant of the helicopter in Szerelmem, Elektra, a further symbol of the permanence of revolution, but here forming part of the new technological age. If Magyar rapszódia is dominated by the cultural legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (the sounds of Strauss waltzes and marches), we have now moved to a different world. Like the helicopter at the end of Szerelmem, Elektra, the red car seems out of place, particularly when Jancsó's particular motif of horses first cross behind it. But alongside the familiar patterns of movement, of human figures and horsemen, we find motor cycles, a roundabout, Nazi troops, barbed-wire barriers and execution by machine gun.

In effect, the two films feature the same characters and are a continuation of the same story—of István, his conversion to socialism, and changing relationship to the world of the ruling powers. Both films use ritual and ceremony, and both use songs, folksongs, and psalms to punctuate and reinforce their action. Both tell the story of one man and his symbolic relationship with power.

A return to style

Contemporary international responses seemed to prefer Allegro Barbaro to Magyar rapszódia. One fairly obvious reason is the fact that the first film centres on a hero who is by no means sympathetic. István comes across as paranoid and violent and the reverse of a positive hero. Equally, the film focuses more than Allegro Barbaro on his story told over an extended period. Although Cserhalmi carries these character traits over into the second film, István has now committed himself to the cause and shares screen time with Mari. A sequence of re-enacted scenes (Magyar rapszódia) is replaced by symbolic conflicts conducted within a limited time span (Allegro Barbaro).

However, there is no doubt that the graphic tension between characters and background that makes Szerelmem, Elektra so impressive is lessened by the film's setting within a realist (albeit stylised) context. The chronological nature of the narrative also escapes the single situation upon which Szerelmem, Elektra is based.

The second factor relates to a change in style. Focussed much more on one building and location, Allegro Barbaro approaches the same unity of place present in Szerelmem, Elektra. Whereas, in Magyar rapszódia, he uses a modified version of the Jancsó style, typically takes of one minute or less with three minutes for key scenes, in Allegro Barbaro, Jancsó uses takes of approximately five to nine minutes for his key scenes. This allows the fluidity of János Kende's camerawork to dominate, exchanging a total of approximately 96 shots for 15. The other elements of the film are no more or less comprehensible or "surreal" than in Magyar rapszódia, and this demonstrates the importance of the style. There is no doubting that the rhythm and movement of the long take create an almost physical involvement with the film.

The scene of the "wedding" is one of the most impressive. In one sense, it is not dissimilar from the second shot of Szerelmem, Elektra, in that is based on three dramatic movements. However, Jancsó here chooses to use five shots in place of one, reducing the formal complexity of the exercise. The first shot begins with a close-up of István and Mari as a piano with candles moves behind them holding young Baksa. The piano continues on its unbroken course only to pass them again (technically impossible, unless the actors have moved round behind the camera). They then move away from the camera with groups of women dancing in the background and men dancing round human pyramids. The rest of the shot is devoted to the confrontation of Mari and Old Bankós as they dispute István's suitability as a match. They move in choreographed movements from left to right as figures trail a white sheet and men walk on stilts. There is a brief cut to dancers before the second major section.

Miklos Jancso's Allegro Barbaro (1978)
"Wedding" rituals for István and Mari
In the third shot, István and Mari embrace in public before dancing figures and pass to the left past horseless carts bearing flags. As they pass naked women and men grouped around a red flag and back away from the camera, a cart with a red flag detaches itself and moves from left to right. The camera continues past Bankós standing between two gendarmes. Gábor and the gendarmes have arrived to arrest Bankós. Chairs are brought out into the open and there are more circular movements as the action centres on István and the new arrivals (with Bankós in the background). The main dramatic exchange is between István and one of the gendarmes (in close-up), in which he seeks to impose the aristocratic will spoken of by Bankós in the conversation with his daughter. The shot ends with the firing of guns at the feet of the intruders, the cracking of whips and the burning of a guy. There is a cut to a two-minute shot of István and Mari and a mystical procession moving into the lake.

In the fifth shot, István and Mari are linked regardless. He retreats to the left under a white cover as she is ceremonially disrobed. István carries her naked to an open air bed where they are covered in white cloth. A woman sings and, behind them, men walk on stilts, turn cartwheels and ride bikes with the national colours. The bed is surrounded by white shirted men with candles. A coach passes in front (off screen) and behind as Héderváry and his colleagues arrive. István moves to the right followed by the whiteshirts (ie fellow peasants). A continuing dialogue exchange leads Héderváry to the left for his comment on Mari and whoring. After his departure, Szeles-Toth returns to István and Mari, and the final image has the three of them united in solidarity.

Speaking for three million beggars

But style is not all. Magyar rapszódia gives a powerful account of the aristocratic world of pre-war Hungary, where the aristocracy is the nation and the peasants unrecognised. For a Jancsó film, Cserhalmi's performance is certainly anguished, suggesting someone at odds with his times. Allegro Barbaro shows the "patriots" of the earlier film capitulating to the Germans and ultimately identifying with them. The political "realities" and the suppression of "conspiracy" amount not to the defence of the nation but the preservation of power. And, of course, as indicated earlier, the use of songs is not a mere stylistic quirk. The situation of the peasants, familiar from many a Socialist Realist epic, also needs to be set against the realities of the time. As Jancsó says, he identified with the extreme left after the war: "As many others of my generation, I believed in change, in the possibility of turning the world round by tomorrow. Anyone who rejects this now does not know what the caste system of the Horthy era was like, what those three million beggars meant."[8]

Miklos Jancso's Allegro Barbaro (1978)Magyar rapszódia and Allegro Barbaro are ironic in their attitude towards nationalism—in their titles, the use of the flag, and so forth. There are also strong links to Elektreia in the notion that a revolutionary (or the spirit of revolution) cannot be killed. Baksa survives in the sense that his son is played by the same actor, and Mari reappears after her death, at the end of the film. Perhaps nothing has been true. Despite their closer links with the "movement" of Hungarian history, the characters still function in a symbolic manner and folkloric multiplicity suggests a range of interpretations. If it is the function of symbolism to work on levels other than the "realistic", then it is their stimulus and a range of possibilities to which the audience should respond.

The contemporary relevance of Jancsó's films survives. Speaking of his experience of the post-Communist transition, he remarks: "

The "greatness" of the transition lies in that it opened our eyes: showed us the world as it really is. Eighty per cent of humans live under the poverty level, the rest, twenty per cent, own and control everything. Under the previous regime, we did not have the chance to experience this in its raw brutality.[9]

Jancsó admires the work of Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni ("the dry architect"), Andrei Tarkovsky, Marco Ferreri and Andrzej Wajda and—among newer directors—Emir Kusturica, Lars von Trier, Mike Leigh, Danny Boyle and Quentin Tarantino. In recent films such as Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten (The Lord's Lantern in Budapest,1998), he has completely abandoned his earlier style in favour of a black comedy, starring the comedians Zoltán Mucsi and Péter Scherer. This, and the subsequent Utolsó vacsora az arabs szükénél (Last Supper at the Arabian Grey Horse, 2001), are rooted very much in their own improvisations. While he is sometimes a little deprecating about his earlier films, noting that motion pictures have moved on from his earlier style and "Hernádi's somewhat surrealistic ideas," their strength will remain for generations that have seen nothing like them.

Undoubtedly, they grew from a particular context. Talking of his work in Kádár's Hungary, he has said:

I wanted to talk about the questions that intrigued me, so I invented a style, a film idiom, which allowed me to express myself, if only in a roundabout manner. (Perhaps in a manner no longer comprehensible to audiences today). I may have avoided real answers. But my work, I hope, did offer a decipherable message, and the problems these films dealt with could be translated into the current context...They are not concrete analyses of anything, rather sequences of visions, or let's say, sermons. Fake ballets. Their point of departure is the denial of oppression, presented in a somewhat utopian manner.[10]

Even Jancsó's detractors recognise the beauty of his images and many have argued that his approach deserves to be viewed as a breakthrough in film art. Szegénylegények and Még kér a nép remain the critically favoured titles. His best films could not have been made outside of a publicly funded industry and probably not outside of Hungary (the films made during his Italian years are not in the same class). Of course, there are other formalists (from Antonioni to Leone) but the sole contemporary equivalent is Greek director Theo Angelopoulos—but that is another story.

Peter Hames

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About the author

Peter HamesPeter Hames is author of The Czechoslovak New Wave and editor of Dark Alchemy: The Films of Jan Švankmajer. He is an honorary research associate at Staffordshire University, programme director of Stoke Film Theatre and programme adviser to the London Film Festival.

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Footnotes

1. Gyula Hernádi, quoted in Jean-Pierre Jeancolas, L'Oeil Hongrois: Quatre décennies de cinéma á Budapest 1963-2000 (Budapest: Magyar Filmunió, 2001): 109.return to text

2. Ibid.return to text

3. Gideon Bachmann, "Jancsó Plain," Sight and Sound 43:4 (Autumn 1974): 220-221.return to text

4. Miklos Jancsó, "Making Films is my Only Pleasure" (interviewed by András Gervai), The Hungarian Quarterly XLII: 163 (Autumn 2001): 158.return to text

5. Jancsó, interviewed by István Zsugan, Cinéma 72, no 165 (April 1972), quoted in Roy Armes, The Ambiguous Image: Narrative Style in Modern European Cinema (London, Secker and Warburg, 1976): 150.return to text

6. Jancsó, "Making Films is My Only Pleasure": 154.return to text

7. Jancsó, interviewed by István Zsugan, Hungarofilm Bulletin No 3 (1966), quoted in Armes: 146.return to text

8. Jancsó, "Making Films is My Only Pleasure": 152-153.return to text

9. Ibid: 160.return to text

10. Ibid: 158.return to text

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