The Red and the White

Miklos Jancso’s The Red and the White (Hungary, 1968) is a film so distanced, so formally structured, and so dehumanized, that the effect of watching it is positively hypnotic, or oneiric. I won’t say hallucinatory: this is not a film of hallucinations, but one where, to the contrary, you’re always expecting hallucinations to blossom forth, only they never do. Everything is contained, without release; and that is a large part of what gives the film its power and tension.

The Red and the White is set in 1919, in Ukraine, during the Russian Civil War. It’s the Reds — the Soviets, the Bolsheviks — against the Whites (the reactionaries, the Czarist revanchists). Besides the Russians, there are Hungarians fighting on the Red side; and the movie switches back and forth (as far as I can tell) between the Russian and Hungarian languages. (1919 seems to be an important year for Jancso, as Andrew James Horton points out; it was the year of Bela Kun’s Soviet Republic of Hungary).

Jancso’s historical re-creation seems scrupulously naturalistic, when it comes to things like costumes and uniforms, weapons, etc. And the film could be called “epic” in scope, with its long-shot visions of large numbers of troops sweeping across vast landscapes. Nonetheless, The Red and the White is not a film that gives us a broad view of History. Nor is it (like so much other Eastern European cinema) a film about individual lives swept up by historical forces that they have no power either to influence or to evade. Both the collective/historical level, and the individual/existential level, are strangely evacuated of their significance

On the level of the collective or the historical, Jancso gives us no context, no explanation, for the battles he makes us witness. There is nothing within the film that tells us who the Reds and the Whites are, and what they are fighting about, or for. And the knowledge we bring to the film from the outside — knowledge about 1919, and about the Russian Revolution and the history of Communism — really doesn’t explain or illuminate anything within the film, and doesn’t make anything more comprehensible than it would be to someone watching the film without any knowledge of this history. We might as well be watching scenes from a war on Mars. (There is, however, one exception to this general rejection of historical significance, which I will get to later).

The irrelevance of history and ideology is related to the absence — and the implied irrelevance — of any synoptic overview of the events of the film. We have no idea where the battle lines are drawn, what larger strategic elements are involved, or even which side is winning and which side losing (if this is meaningful at all). We get, instead, a large (compared to the scale of the individual) but rather restricted (compared to the scale of the battlefield as a whole) stretch of territory, over which detachments of troops seem to roam almost at random. There is no overall sense of advance and retreat, and no suggestion of an organized chain of command on either side; rather, groups of soldiers simply appear — often from off-frame with no prior warning — and then disappear (leave the frame) again.

Now, there’s a whole tradition of war (or rather, anti-war) literature and film which treats combat from the point of view of the individual soldier, and shows, not only the grotesquerie and horror of death in war, but also shows that soldier’s utter confusion and alienation, as he is entirely cut off from any knowledge of the larger strategic contours of the battle (let alone the war as a whole). This tradition goes back at least as far as Stendhal’s account of the Battle of Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma (1839). In film, the earliest example I can think of offhand is Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, adapted from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel); there have been many since.

What’s distinctive about The Red and the White, however, is that it doesn’t fit into this tradition, any more than it does into the tradition of glorious war epics. For the individual perspective is pretty much elided in The Red and the White. Though there are a few particular characters who show up again and again throughout the film, Jancso never shoots from any such character’s point of view. He doesn’t follow the story of any one protagonist. And he doesn’t give us the names, the backgrounds, the motivations, or the psychology of any characters within the film. Dialogue is sparse, and mostly functional — there are orders and commands and interrogations, but never any sort of personal expression. There would seem to be no time or place for this, amidst the continual hustle and bustle, and tension, of the war. Also, there are very few close-ups; the film is mostly long shots and very long takes, with the camera never getting close to the action, but making subtle movements of adjustment to keep things within the frame. The traditional cinematic empathy between audience and protagonist is never established; indeed, Jancso does everything in his power to prevent such empathy from arising. Instead, we get a strong sense of formal patterning, of the arrangement of human figures like chess or checkers pieces spread over space.

One might say (using Deleuze’s vocabulary) that The Red and the White is an entirely nomadic film; no territorialization ever takes place. The whole film seems like an exercise in landscape; human beings travel across the landscape (or above it: in one scene, the Red troops are attacked from above by one of those old World War I biplanes; this is the sole scene in which, as Krzysztof Rucinski notes, Jancso employs cross-cutting and jump cuts) but never get rooted within it, are never connected to the land. Occasionally, we meet peasant farmers; and there are abandoned buildings which have been requisitioned for military use. But for the most part, the landscape seems uninhabited. There are vast panoramas of grasslands with rivers running through them; occasionally, scenes take place in a forest. The landscape is almost entirely horizontal. Sometimes, there are long, gentle slopes heading down towards the river bed; but we never see any mountains, for instance (though the Urals are sometimes referred to verbally). Nature is present in the film as a vast plane, or surface, stretching horizontally in all directions, indefinitely, without limit. This Nature is utterly, placidly indifferent to the human carnage taking place upon it.

What’s more all the characters in the film seem to share this indifference. Everyon appears entirely Stoic and resigned. There is no hint of anguish before the threat and imminence of death (or, in the case of the few female characters, anguish before the threat and imminence of rape). Prisoners may try to escape if they see an opportunity; but once they are recaptured, or when they are lined up before a wall and faced with a firing squad, they show no reaction whatsoever. In one sequence, a group of White soldiers come upon a peasant family. They ask questions of the peasants, but nobody responds. The leader orders a young woman to disrobe; she does so, without enthusiasm, but also without resistance and without comment. Everything happens slowly; the ensign who orders the woman to strip, and who evidently will be the first to rape her, remains as stolid as his victim does, has her turn about and looks at her from various angles, shows no sign of enthusiasm or desire, and is evidently going to take his time. Then a higher White officer shows up, declares that local populations are not to be abused, tells the woman that she may get dressed again, and has the ensign shot. All this happens as calmly and affectlessly, on all sides, as the preparations for the rape did. The ensign utters not a word in complaint or self-justification. There’s no sign of humanitarian motivation on the part of the superior officer, no sign even that his command reflects a consistent policy. Rather, death and abuse seem entirely random and unmotivated, in this scene as throughout the film. Reversals of fortune, and changes of position from jailer to prisoner, or vice versa, happen without explanation, and without any signs of surprise or joy or relief or anguish on the part of the characters.

Often, death comes unexpectedly, from outside the frame, without any advance warning being given either to the audience or to the characters. There’s a striking sequence, early in the film, where a Red officer enters and explores an apparently empty building, on high alert, rifle at the ready. We see him search, go up the stairs,. search again. All at once, facing towards the camera, in utter silence (there is no nondiegetic music in the film) he raises his hand in surrender, and throws away his rifle. He’s been captured by White troops, who unbeknownst to him were already inside the building. But we don’t see the captors, because they are standing where the camera is, or behind it. And the camera cannot be said to give us the White soldiers’ POV: first, because we never get a reverse shot in which we would see them looking; second, because the camera has had, throughout the sequence, an impersonal, objective POV, and it’s only by chance, as it were, that, in the course of a long and elaborate tracking shot, the camera comes momentarily to occupy a spot from which these (presumed) soldiers are actually looking.

So Death usually comes from outside the frame. This means, in a certain sense, that it is always contingent and arbitrary; for it does not follow from any sort of narrative logic, nor even from any discernible chain of cause and effect. At the same time, though, this also means that Death is a fatality, an absolute Event that can only be affirmed, because it offers us no lines of defense, and no possibility of appeal. There is no freedom, and no transcendence, because there is nothing beyond the frame: nothing beyond the interminable landscape. The world is all that is the case. The destructive forces that enter the frame cannot be stopped, or prevented from entering, precisely because they can only be said to ‘exist’ insofar as they manifest themselves within the frame — and by then it is too late.

The Red and the White is therefore largely a work of formal patterns. One might even say that Jancso, or the film itself, were obsessed with formal patterns — except that this is doubtless too psycholgistic or intentionalistic a manner of speaking (even if one is referring to the director; all the more so if one is referring to the film ‘itself’). One must say even more, however: these patterns are not only the form of the film — constituting the icy beauty of Jancso’s arrangements of bodies before the camera, and long-distance framing — but also make up much of its content. Soldiers and prisoners are continually being given orders: we see them marching in formation, turning right and left, stepping forward and back, standing at attention or moving from side to side as they are divided into groups. In one oddly haunting scene, a group of nurses are taken by White officers into the forest, where they are ordered to dance, to the accompaniment of a military band. The women take each other as partners, and waltz amidst the trees, as the officers watch. The scene has no point, no meaning beyond itself: it just is, an evolution of formal patterns as arbitrary as random slaughter, or as military movement in strict formation.

Everything that happens in The Red and the White is sort of like a game: in the sense that, one definition of games (or of certain types of games) is a system of actions played in accordance with strict rules which have no meaning or use outside of the game situation itself. Such is indeed the case with the waltz scene that I have just described, as well as with most of the military activities (marching, standing at attention, etc.) that recur throughout the film. In addition, there are a number of scenes where White soldiers tell their captives (often after stripping them of some of their clothes) to run away, and then take turns shooting them as they try to escape. (In one case, the Whites give the prisoners 15 minutes to get away, and then come after them and pick them off one by one). It all seems very much like a “shooter” video game (even though such games had not yet been invented when Jancso made the film). The rules are as strictly enforced as they are arbitrary and meaningless; and human lives are the inconsequential stake.

The Red and the White, with its formal patterns spread out in long shots and in 2.35:1 widescreen, is an extraordinarily beautiful film: as beautiful as it is chilling. And the abyssal, inhuman arbitrariness, perfection, and “disinterestedness” of this beauty is very much the film’s point. Jancso takes the drive toward abstraction and formalization that is characteristic of most forms of 20th-century modernism, and pushes this drive to a nearly absurd extreme. Think of the exterminationist logic at work in Marinetti’s notorious praise of war as an aesthetic spectacle; or think of the overwhelming, brutal effect of a certain sort of modernist architecture. Of course it is unfair to reduce the complexity and multiplicity of modernist art and culture to these particularly horrible instances; but Jancso is very much pointing to this, I think, as the inescapable dead end of the fundamental modernist project. He pushes the modernist quest to the point where it implodes into a cold emptiness. And he refuses us any redemptionist escape from what he presents as modernism’s ultimate nihilism.

When humanist intimacy has become impossible, we are left with nothing but spectacle. And The Red and the White is a powerfully elaborated, but also unusually purified, sort of spectacle. It is spectacle raised to such an extreme degree as utterly to preclude any sort of affective involvement. As such, it becomes a counter-spectacle, criticizing, averting, and undermining the basis of spectacle in modern life: both the capitalist, Western (but now global) “society of the spectacle” (whose theory Guy Debord was working out at much the same time as Jancso was making this film), and what now appears as only a minor variant of it, the revolutionary or socialist spectacle that we see, for instance, in Eisenstein’s films of the Twenties. Even as Jancso utterly eschews Eisensteinian montage, so he demystifies and deconstructs the myth of the Masses that is central to Eisenstein’s theory and practice. It is important, I think, that we find in Jancso a socialist filmmaker who remains equally distant from Eisenstein and from “socialist realism.”

This is all summed up, I think, in another remarkable scene, nearly at the end of the film. The Red troops discover, or realize, that they are outnumbered and have nowhere to run. They are on the top of a hill or incline, at the bottom of which — near the river bed — White troops are gathered. (As I have already mentioned, this is one of the rare moments in the film when the landscape is not entirely flat). The Red troops take off their dark jackets, exposing their white shirts (which, I suppose, makes them better targets). They march down the hill, towards where the enemy troops are waiting to slaughter them, singing the Internationale (the Marxist anthem). The camera remains behind and above them, at a great distance. They shoot as they go, but only hit a few of the waiting White troops. Eventually, when they get close enough to the Whites, the latter start shooting, and the Reds all fall.

This is the one exception that I mentioned earlier to the generally decontextualized, non-ideological view of the war in the film. Can it be read (as one might expect of a Hungarian/Soviet coproduction, made at the height of the Cold War) as a heroic and tragic affirmation of the Red Army? Perhaps; it is likely part of the reason (together with Jancso’s art-house prestige in the West at the time) why the Hungarian regime allowed the film to be released (though apparently it was banned in the USSR). But at the same time, it is evidently nothing more than a futile gesture: distant from us, and swallowed into the immense indifference, of the landscape and of the “game” of war, that is the film’s major point of demonstration. The Internationale is a striking presence in the film, especially given the absence of any other markers. But it is also swallowed up by the void, without an echo. Jancso cannot affirm hope, without also affirming futility. The soldiers do not represent, or become, the Masses or the People. Instead, they are swallowed whole by the grim, contingent, and inhuman forces of what it would be too teleological, too order-imposing, to call History.

Jancso is an isolated figure in the history of cinema. He seems to have no followers, no history. His filmography is immense, and spans five decades; today, in his eighties, he is still actively directing films. But aside from The Red and the White, and a few other films from the late Sixties and early Seventies, none of his work is known, or available on video, outside of Hungary. (A rare collection of English-language discussions of his more recent work can be found here). Nonetheless, I find similarities between the Jancso of The Red and the White and two other directors working, in different countries, at nearly the same time. The slowness and distance of Jancso’s moving camera reminds me a bit of Antonioni, who similarly empties out modernist strategies in order to express a similarly poetic vision of anomie and alienation; although Antonioni’s characters are from the upper bourgeoisie, and they don’t dissolve in a multitude of actors, nor do they have even the negative relation to history that Jancso’s characters do. And then, perhaps more relevantly, there is Kubrick, whose cold formalism bears many similarities to Jancso. In a film like 2001, Kubrick (as Carl Freedman argues) empties out the genre of science fiction by means of a sort of “metageneric” reflection, which formalizes the genre and thereby reduces it to a self-confirming banality and emptiness (Freedman also mentions Barry Lyndon and The Shining as examples of how Kubrick does this with other genres). I think this process is quite similar to the one I am describing here in the case of Jancso. Both Jancso and Kubrick, working respectively from the socialist tradition in modernism and the capitalist one, deploy a sort of hyperformalism, which is at once the ne plus ultra and the reductio ad absurdum of modernist aesthetics, and perhaps of modernity altogether, as a social dynamic.

3 thoughts on “The Red and the White”

  1. Kubrick, by the way, was very critical of the Yugoslav government in the times of Tito. He considered Communism to be a totalitarianism. He did not allow the import of either SHINING or FULL METAL JACKET, so we got to see those films 20 years after they have been made – thanks to video.

  2. Excellent writeup of what I consider one of the greatest films of all time. Only Fires on the Plain matches it in its power as a war movie, I think. And Jancso, unlike Kubrick and Antonioni, never falls in love with his method; I find the failure of the latter two in their inability to /conceive/ of the absent other, so that the method becomes its own significance, canceling out the alienation they are trying to provoke.

    Jancso’s other films of the period, particular Red Psalm and The Round-Up, are nearly as amazing. I think he is severely underrated and should be up there with Godard and Tarkovsky.

  3. Thanks, Mr. Waggish. I agree with you that Jancso is severely underrated in the world cinema canon. I really need to see more of his films — both the other late 60s/early 70s work that is available on DVD; and, if I should ever get the chance, his more recent works as well, which do sound interesting albeit very different from The Red and the White et al.

    I’m inclined to agree with you as well, concerning Jancso vs Kubrick (I am less sure about your criticism of Antonioni, who I rate perhaps higher than you do). Yes, there is something about Kubrick’s technophilia, or what you call his falling in love with his own method, that has always bothered me a bit. I think you are pointing to the same thing that I am when I say that Kubrick sometimes seems to me to be too smug in his ironies. too self-congratulatory about not being himself implicated in the situations and systems that he is so coolly anatomizing and ridiculing. Because, in fact, it’s impossible NOT to be so implicated.

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