'I was walking, far from home, where the names were not burned along the wall...'
Miklós Jancsó, a director who could never be accused of not seeing the bigger picture, is a firm believer in the idea of a national cinema. Like the poet Attila József, Jancsó sought through his work to represent the courage and sprit of his homeland, which critic Penelope Houston definitively labels as "Jancsó's country". And it's the true mark of an auteur that, having previously seen only one of his films (1972's Red Psalm), I was able to identify within five minutes of My Way Home whose hand was guiding the camera. Jancsó, working with regular DP Tamás Somló, captures the vast landscape in breathtaking sequence shots, observing details both vital and incidental. For example, a scene where Jóska (András Kozák), a 17-year-old Hungarian, wanders through the war-torn plains, when suddenly enemy horses emerge from the top of the frame. The schoolboy finds cover behind a nearby bush and the camera, panning gently left, tracks the horses as they gallop by and slip over the horizon. The camera continues its journey until Jóska re-enters the frame, ending up on the exact same spot from which he fled. It feels like we've just witnessed an entire action sequence, but Jancsó executes the scene in just one graceful 360° movement. The plains were Jancsó's personal identification with Hungary, and with them he created a unique body of work.
For the first quarter of My Way Home Jóska is propelled through a series of short vignettes (the sequence where five prisoners are taken to collect water feels like an entirely self-contained short story) until he ends up in the custody of a young Russian soldier, Kolya (Sergei Nikonyenko). Their dynamic is an interesting one, basically playing out like a traditional coming-of-age tale. Jancsó denies us any specific date, but it seems clear that the film is set at the end of WWII. The boys should be enemies, and their inability to communicate (Jóska speaks a little German, but no Russian) means that they are forced to accept each other at face value. There's a wonderful scene where Jóska encounters a group of fugitive Hungarians, whom he refuses to join because Kolya would "get into trouble" if he escaped. A sense of empathy and understanding emerges between the boys as they realise that they are both prisoners of a larger, crueler system. Kolya, despite his youth, has come to understand the futility of war. He has been demoted to these isolated barracks (the boys' daily routine involves milking the several dozen cows which inhabit the surrounding fields) because of a war-related injury, suggesting that he has spent time in combat. I got the sense that both boys felt as lost as the other.
Eventually Jóska and Kolya become friends, and the scenes of them bonding, involving frog shooting and chasing skinny-dipping girls, are especially well handled by Jancsó, as he sidelines politics to focus on the theme of innocence lost. This is especially well represented by the heartbreaking ending. As Kolya grows weaker from his injury the boys' roles reverse and Jóska becomes his carer. The Hungarian desperately searches for a doctor to aid his friend, but by the time he finds one it's too late. Kolya has become just another casualty of war. This bleakness is also a mark of Jancsó's cinema, which film by film reveals itself as some of the most important of the 1960's. Few directors had such a profound social conscience and emotional scope. Jancsó's country is one I can't wait to revisit.
Crisp image and sound, lovingly presented in a 16:9 digital transfer. The accompanying booklet features an article by Penelope Houston, reprinted from a 1969 issue of Sight & Sound. It makes a particular focus of My Way Home and The Red And The White (1968), but Houston uses these films to discuss Jancsó's wider themes and stylistic approach. It's obviously very academic, but the article certainly provides food for thought. The sole disc extra is Máramaros (1994), the second film in Jancsó's Message of Stones documentary series, which I'll review separately at a later date.
My Way Home is released as part of the Miklós Jancsó Collection, on shelves Monday November 21st.