Jancsó explores systems of torture in his political drama, The Round-Up (1966)
"The regime is pitiless. It seeks the outlaws and highwaymen everywhere. They are the last vestige of active resistance. They are criminals in the eyes of officials, they are freedom fighters in folk songs."
These words, which play over a gallery of illustrations - sheathed blades, cocked revolvers, cannons and gallows - at the beginning of Miklós Jancsó The Round-Up, provide the sharpest and most explicitly stated insight into the filmmaker's thematic focus. His films (especially 1968's The Red And The White and 1972's Red Psalm) portray constant shifts in power between opposing political factions, with the camera lucidly moving across both sides of the conflict. His war-torn landscapes are formidable, dwarfing those who roam them, and they often bear witness to acts of cold, random violence. His protagonists are vagabond types, fighting for a cause, but it's unusual that they will succeed against the bureaucratic forces. An alternative title for this film is The Hopeless Ones, and perhaps it too proves fitting as a label, for hope is not visible on the scorched political plains of Jancsó's Hungary.
Set in 1869, the film picks up at a Hungarian detention centre where prisoner Gajdar János (János Görbe) is coerced into aiding his captors identify Sándor Rózsa's remaining guerilla troops, who are holed up at the same location. What follows is a sort of satire, poking fun at the ridiculous nature of political torture, which results in as many lies as it endeavors to find answers to. The smart screenplay, once again authored by Gyula Hernádi, underlines the point that people will say anything when a rope is put around their neck, and therefore the validity of these methods is put under scrutiny. The genius of the screenplay, however, is that it makes this point without fastening it to 1869 which, as Jancsó points out in the accompanying notes, could double for 1956; viewers may even find a reading about the Iraq conflict within the peeling interiors of this prison camp. This is a drama of futility, and one which isn't afraid to take risks - Gajdar is murdered by a prison mob just after the halfway point, and the remainder of the film focuses on the search for his killer, in which authorities use the exact same means for which he was brought to death.
Finally, it's interesting to note The Round-Up for its influence on Once Upon A Time In The West. Jancsó and Leone shared an incredible command of the Cinemascope lens, filling the widescreen frame with images few directors could even imagine. It's also obvious, contrasting the two films, that they both preferred to shoot houses from the extreme right or left of the frame, with the camera peeking out from their corners to observe the wealth of the landscape. In her S&S notes (included with the release of My Way Home, 1965) Penelope Houston also draws comparison between Jancsó and Ichikawa Kon, director of The Burmese Harp (1958). It's remarkable at this point in his career that Jancsó could sit so comfortably in such lofty company. But studying his earliest masterpiece, it's also easy to see why.
Another flawless restoration job from Second Run, who really put a lot of care into their transfers. The accompanying booklet, authored by John Cunningham (Hungarian Cinema: From Coffee House To Multiplex, 2004), provides a mini biography and career overview for Jancsó, and also a deeper contextual examination of The Round-Up, considering especially its political relation to post-1956 Hungary. On the disc there's a 19-minute interview with Jancsó, who discusses the film with fondness and intelligence. It proves quite revealing, which is perhaps unsurprising when we consider that it was shot by his sons. A solid package.
The Round-Up is released as part of the Miklós Jancsó Collection, on shelves Monday November 21st.