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DIRECTED BY: Miklós Jancsó
FEATURING: Krystyna Mikolajewska, József Madaras
PLOT: During the Russian Civil War (1918-1920), the Reds and the Whites battle over a monastery on the banks of the Volga that keeps switching hands.
COMMENTS: The Red and the White begins with a regiment of horsemen, sabres and rifles raised, charging in slow-motion directly at the camera as a martial trumpet fanfare plays. This stirring sight creates an expectation of an epic about proud Hungarian volunteers coming to the aid of their Soviet brothers against the meddling, foreign-sponsored counter-revolutionary Whites. And that was, indeed, the propagandistic picture producers envisioned for this Soviet-Hungarian co-production, commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution. But Miklós Jancsó instead delivered a virulent anti-war/anti-authority classic, with only the slightest ironic hints of patriotic sentiment. (Some accounts say the completed film was screened in Russia only in a severely edited form, while others report it was banned outright).
It’s hard to tell who is who in The Red and the White. The Whites’ officers have more elaborate uniforms festooned with medals and insignia, but that’s about it for distinguishing the two sides. Perhaps contemporary audiences were able to identify the rivals more easily, but there’s every reason to think that the lack of clarity is entirely intentional, and contemporary confusion only heightens the effect. The movie is told as a series of vignettes, which play out to an individual climax but then follow a new character into the next story (five years before The Phantom of Liberty). Sometimes, characters will return in later episodes, giving the movie a mild sense of narrative continuity, but the general effect is to immerse the viewer into the fog of war. Time often seems to expand within a single scene, and fortunes reverse in an instant: a Red officer goes to investigate why his sentry isn’t responding and is suddenly ambushed, and when the camera circles back the Whites now control the territory. The narrative style and lack of characterization is disorienting, but forces us to identify more with groups than individuals. Soldiers on both sides spend more time bullying civilians and prisoners of war than they do fighting each other. (At one point, POWs are set loose to play a round of “The Most Dangerous Game“). Jancsó particularly loves scenes where the ascendant side forces their captives to strip as a way of asserting dominance. (Although we see nothing, rape is suggested as an inevitable offscreen event.) Due to the lack of an identifiable protagonist, our sympathies are drawn to the innocent pawns in these power games as a group: local farmers, a band of nurses who tend the injured of either side, and the poor conscripts and Hungarian volunteers, who are constantly being captured and liberated in an endless reshuffling of pieces. The Reds play the same cards as the Whites, and Jancsó’s vision conveys an implicit message of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” that could not have been pleasing to Soviet authorities.
The scenarios are repetitive in their cruelty, but purposefully so. Jancsó invests each anecdote with its own level of suspense (captives are arbitrarily toyed with and freed or toyed with and executed, so you can never be sure who will live and who will die). Occasionally the adventures travel into the absurd, as when one group of interrogees are led into a white birch forest to perform a waltz accompanied by a military band. The rest of the time, the audience enjoys the spectacular long tracking shots that brought Jancsó renown. The flowing camera reinforces the sense of constantly changing front lines on a battlefield where an individual soldier never knows what is happening meters away: one man is executed on the banks of the Volga, while we can see his comrade hiding nearby in the reeds. One battle sequence has the outnumbered Reds singing “The Internationale” before charging a superior White position, only to be mowed down. It’s a maneuver only slightly more effective than lining up against a wall to be shot, but it’s the type of scene that could be sold to the Soviet backers as a portrait of heroic sacrifice. In full context, however, it’s just another example of how the common man finds himself cast into a no-win situation in service to one camp or another of brutes more united by sadism than divided by ideology.
In 2022, Kino Classics re-released its Jancsó catalog on Blu-ray for the first time. The Miklós Jancsó Collection includes The Round-Up, The Red and the White, The Confrontation, Winter Wind, Red Psalm, and Electra My Love, along with a host of supplements and short films. About half of those had never been released on home video in North America, or were hard to find. If you just want the essential Jancsó, they released his two most popular films, The Round-Up and The Red and the White, in a separate 2-disc package, with the seven short films also included. Kino restored all six films in 4K for these releases.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: