Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Red and the White (Jancsó. 1967)

"No one can be forced into treason!"

The Red and the White is a movie that could have easily been named Gunshot. It purposely runs without any sort of central character, and almost everyone the audience meets is, at some point, shot to death. With very little important dialogue, it seems like Jancsó was more interested in letting guns do the talking. Which, considering the magnitude of his project, was a bold move.

Miklós Jancsó is a Hungarian filmmaker who was granted funding from the Soviet Union to make a tribute to the 1917 Russian Revolution. Rather than make a film that praised the Bolsheviks, Jancsó aimed his efforts toward a project that played no favorites. He wanted the audience to know that war is wrong, arbitrary and absurd.

The Red and the White takes place two years after the October Revolution, 1919, in the hills overlooking Volga. The “Red” Army is made up of Hungarians who support the communist movement. The “Whites” represent the Tsarist that is fighting to remain in power over Russia. There are no main characters in the film; Jancsó chose to show both sides represented through nameless men and women for the purpose of keeping the audience at the distance. It is a film without heroes, kind of like war.

As you might have imagined, a Russian-produced, anti-heroic film about the atrocities of war was not what the Soviet’s had in mind. The film was quickly reedited before its release in the Motherland, and then eventually banned for several years. Outside of the Union, The Red and the White went on to become Jancsó’s most praised and popular film.

The subject matter is grittier than your average war film from the time period. It features scenes of attempted rape, killing of innocent people, humiliation and death in abundance. In one scene, Hungarian men are forced, shoulder to shoulder, onto the ground and shot, one-by-one, in the head. Each time, the next person in line is forced to witness a comrade die. And that is just one example. Death is the theme. And for what? The audience never really knows….

One heavy criticism of The Red and the White is that it can be very difficult to follow at times. Characters are constantly being introduced, killed and replaced at an extremely rapid pace. It is impossible to become attached to anyone in the film because no person is alive long enough to develop an on-screen personality. For me, this is a perfect compliment to the feeling of despair that Jancsó was trying to achieve. I am of the anti-war sort. One interesting thing about war film is that, no matter how hard they try, a filmmaker will almost always make war look like fun. I highly doubt it is fun. The Red and the White looks awful, so it does its job. I do not need a hero, I need reality.

Aside from the daring concept, the film is also shot in a visually interesting style. The camera lenses get a hefty workout of quick-zooms in and out of focus. Some character’s deaths are sharply detached from the audience after an unexpected fade or blur. The black and white is crisp and clean (though I would like to see a Criterion release) with well placed shading and emotionally appropriate shadows over hauntingly violent moments. The looming insanity of war is palpable from the overcastting darkness of the open hills.

If I have to admit a flaw in The Red and the White I would say that there is not enough (any) blood. I am not sure if this was an artistic choice, a budget restriction or if it had something to do with the Soviet’s overhead – but with the amount of people being shot in the film, you’d think there’d be some blood.

Maybe I am a little too American in my taste for cinematic violence, but if you want to push the absurdity of wartime there is no better strategy than showing an audience exactly what happens during wartime. When a person is shot, their bones break, their muscles tear and blood spills out of the wound. There is a visible entry and exist wound. But not in The Red and the White. Rather, people merely grab their stomach in pain and fall to the ground. They kinda look like they have gas…

In terms of a “war film”, The Red and the White is a unique look through the eyes of soldiers. It is a strong anti-war statement that hides under the guise of a Soviet bandwagon film. Though it was dry at times, I still found it to be visually striking and emotionally compelling. It is black and white. It is in Russian/Hungarian. I recommend you watch it anyway.

The Red and the White: B+

1 comment:

  1. A good review of an excellent film but surely this film deserves an A rating. The direction alone is stunning, particularly the use of the camera, at times moving, at other times still but never obtrusive. It is hard at times to follow what is going on but this is surely deliberate - Jancso is trying to convey the confusion and futility of war. I'd like to read your other reviews when I have time. You might also be interested in some of my reviews at http://gemmovies.blogspot.co.uk. Cheers David