War Games

By Owen Armstrong

round-up-miklos-jancso.jpgThe Round-Up, 1965

Celebrating the work of Hungarian director Miklos Jancso, The Round-Up screens as the first of a short series of films from his prolific 58 year-long career. Hosted by Curzon Cinemas, the event also featured Jancso in conversation and marked the film’s first release on DVD courtesy of Second Run.

Set during the years following the 1848 revolution, in which the combined forces of Habsburg Austria and Tsarist Russia defeated the Hungarian insurgent army, Jancso’s film concentrates more specifically on the remaining resistance groups that had retreated to the Hungarian countryside and eventually, became the subject of an anti-insurgent campaign led by Austrian commander Gedeon Raday. Although not entirely occupied by Austria, the period of political transition that came in the wake of the revolution left Hungary divided – those that stood alongside the premise of a Dual Monarchy, and those that opposed it. Jancso addresses this division of loyalties with clinical effect, as it is revealed that both oppressor and oppressed are of Hungarian descent. Detailing the movements and activities within an unspecified detention camp amidst the sprawling landscapes of the Hungarian Plain, The Round-Up follows the final struggle of a band of fighters known as the Sandor Rozsa as they attempt to evade the newly instated Hungarian authorities.

Jancso’s depiction of political instability and rebellion in such remote and baron settings recalls the absurd environment of Passolini’s Salo, pitting authoritarian game play against a resistance of farmers and so-called ‘self-seekers’. Both also share the same preoccupation with the state as sinister interrogator working to dehumanise its subordinate ranks. Despite the officials’ vague motives to identify the supporters of the Sandor Rozsa, Jancso increasingly arouses suspicion with regard to how much they already know, suggesting that each interrogation is simply a further act of entrapment. Though considerably tamer in comparison to Pasolini’s circus of debauchery, The Round-Up is as relevant and acute an examination of the torturous manner in which political power has been and still is manipulated to the ends of state prosperity. In this respect, it is also symptomatic of a wave of 1960s cinema which helped to generate a new avenue for discussion – a voice for the disenfranchised, misrepresented and oppressed. 

round-up-miklos-jancso-2.jpgThe Round-Up, 1965

Reputed to have informed the work of both Sergio Leone and fellow countryman Bela Tarr, Jancso’s use of space within the frame becomes a powerful expression of the futility of his characters’ environment. Rather than the openness of the Hungarian Plains representing freedom, instead they are a metaphor for the authoritarian abuse of power. This is beautifully illustrated in one of the films earlier sequences in which a prisoner is told he is free to leave the confines of the stockade and, on wandering into the deserted landscape, is shot in the back. Perhaps more poignant than his execution though are the few moments before it. Looking out from the door of the stockade outhouse, the vastness of the Plains loses its sense of latent salvation, instead becoming an image of utter hopelessness.

As The Round-Up’s most central character, Janos Gajdor represents this dichotomy of freedom and imprisonment, continually offered the promise of absolution by his captors in exchange for the names of prisoners attached to the clandestine Sandor Rozsa. In attempting to identify prisoners guilty of more murders than he is, Janos becomes an ally of the state, undermining the trust of his fellow captives in hope of an unobtainable emancipation. Mirroring his own beliefs, Jancso has orchestrated a situation wherein oppression incites betrayal and deception amongst the united few. In addition to this, and with the exception of Janos, Gyula Hernadi’s relatively minimal screenplay avoids excessive familiarity with any one character, allowing Jancso to maintain the image and ideal of War as an almost anonymous act of senseless oppression.

round-up-miklos-jancso-3.jpgThe Round-Up, 1965

Culminating in a final sequence that somewhat approximates the 1867 settlement known as the Great Compromise, guards announce to those on partial release that all members of the Sandor Rozsa are to be pardoned, only to be beaten as soon as they reveal themselves. The fact that Jancso chooses to end his film at this point is perhaps a telling sign of his own resentment toward the notion of compromise after such a brutal and torturous occupation of his fatherland. With the exception of Janos’ perpetual conniving, Jancso echoes his own patriotism through the actions of his protagonists, the majority of whom will endure any degree of interrogation and torture before surrendering allegiance to their cause. As each method of debasement becomes more extreme than the last, captives are forced to watch a young girl – found to be an ally of the Sandor Rozsa – being flogged until dead. For some onlookers, this proves to have exceeded the brutality so far only visited upon them, prompting a small number to throw themselves from the wall on which they are sat – a lasting symbol of the defiance of the Sandor Rozsa.

Featured on the newly released DVD is also an interview with Jancso which, despite his recently less polemic run of work, reveals his awareness of the fragility of Hungary’s political environment even in the mid 1960’s. He stresses that although The Round-Up ostensibly documents the period of time following the fall of the 1948 revolution, its nondescript location alludes to the film as a tale of resistance applicable to several periods throughout Hungarian history. Certainly at the time of its release, The Round-Up was widely regarded as a response to the repression that followed the Hungarian uprising in 1956 – an eventually doomed rebellion against the impending threat of Russian imposed Communism.

round-up-miklos-jancso-4.jpgThe Round-Up, 1965

Separate from its historical significance, The Round-Up is a warning – a cautionary tale about the misconduct of authority and the corruption of human rights. In bringing these issues to the fore Jancso’s film remains part of the vanguard of increasingly challenging cinema that appeared during the 1960s – a time of remarkable social, political and cultural change. It is the admonition of the savagery of dehumanisation within a particular historical context that imbues the film with a sense of social realism.

The Round-Up is available from Second Run DVD

Owen Armstrong is a projectionist and filmmaker. He lives in London.