Miklos Jancso, The Red and the White (Hungary, 1968).
Jancso’s The Red and the White of 1968, Hungary, is a film that treats form and content with great deals of experimentation. Hungary, of all the Eastern European countries that were involved or affected by the Warsaw Pact had the unique possibility among them to experience the greatest extents on both sides of Soviet oppression. The film takes place in 1919 in Russian/Ukrainian territory during the Bolshevik Revolution and at a time when Hungary was Communist. After 1919 Hungary became Right Wing Nationalist and allied with the Nazis in World War II. After WWII and by 1948 Hungary was Communist again as a result of strong Soviet influence. Throughout the era of Stalin Hungary was the harshest dictatorship outside of the Soviet Union. Whereas for many countries 1956 marked the beginning of liberalization, the year meant a very different thing for Hungary. In Fall of 1956 the Hungarian Revolution overthrew the Communist regime and withdrew the country from the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet reaction to the revolution was to enter with crushing force, put out the successor, liberal government and instate a harsher oppression than most other Warsaw Pact countries were subjected to at the time. However, with the increasing liberalization of Communist countries into the 1960s, Hungary too became increasingly liberalized despite the Soviet backlash of ’56. By the late 60s Hungary enjoyed a greater degree of artistic freedom than did any other eastern European country, except for Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring. Artistic freedom in the late 60s made possible the production and release of more experimental film such as The Red and the White.
With such a turbulent history it is not altogether surprising that Hungarian art during a period of liberalization would look back critically on the events that were to shape the countries future. It is a film that criticizes war. The Red and the White uses the genre of the war film to criticize war by turning the genre on its head. It is a film that is intimately involved with its own form, so much so that the content is relegated to a level of obviously less importance. The only continuity in the film at all is through form. The similarity of shot sequences and their repetition throughout the film mirror the supposed ritualization of military order and rigid form. Though the action that is represented in the film, like its form, seem ruled and rigid, they also seem irrational. The film does give an insight into the rules and rigidity of military order through shots of the patterns and formations that the soldiers must organize into, always shot as through the shots themselves were also patterned according to a strict set of rules. However, the rules and their close adherence, both in the case of the warring soldiers as well as in the filmmaking itself, begin to appear illogical and completely absurd, as though they are totally arbitrary. There are apparently two sides in combat, supposedly the Reds and the Whites, but they are indistinguishable from one another. Furthermore it is constantly almost impossible to tell who is winning. Power and success constantly change hands, so quickly, that “winning” becomes meaningless and irrelevant. Moreover, because the camera deliberately and continuously misses the action that leads to success and power, the ideas of who’s who and who has the upper hand are made even more opaque. The action that in the war genre is traditionally most significant in The Red and the White constantly occurs off camera. Of course, this makes the action of what is indeed depicted on the screen even harder to follow. The film’s continuity and narrative are abstracted and obstructed. The only thing that is certain is that people are dying. In almost every scene multiple people are shot. The patterning of the cinematography and the soldier’s illogically murderous behavior are the only elements in the film that give it any unity or continuity. It is as though the entire film is made up of themes. These, though, are only fragmentary, and the result is that throughout the film the spectator is basically seeing the same thing over and over. Furthermore, like the placing of the most significant battle/war-action off camera, so the convention of the war-hero is also abolished. War films traditionally heroicize certain figures. In The Red and the White not only is nobody heroicized but there are no characters, certainly none of any significance. Almost all the shots are long and this total lack of close ups impedes identification with the characters. Emotional attachments which are often so important and central to war films are not allowed at all in Jancso’s film. The arbitrary, self-imposed rules that the film seems to follow are by no means conventional of filmmaking and they render the plot very difficult to approach or follow. Likewise, the arbitrary rules of war are rendered completely absurd and indeed meaningless. In war there are no good guys, no moments of valiant heroicism, no glories, no goals, no winners, no points, no understanding, no logic and no meanings. By turning the genre upside down, The Red and the White suggests a very different approach to war, that war cannot be measured in terms of positives, but rather that war should be measured in terms of inconclusive, fragmentary, meaningless negatives. The Red and the White is an anti war film and as such it does a phenomenal job of capturing the inherent absurdity and irrationality of war.