Archive for February, 2010


The Red and the White

February 17, 2010

‘The Red and the White’
Miklós Jancsó | Hungary/Soviet Union | 1967 | 90 mins

The only thing black and white about this film is the photography, which along with the title, ironically keys us in to the central motif of greyness. Narratively, the film fluidly shifts its eye from the Reds to the Whites and back to the Reds and so on as each side cyclically lose and gain control of the area. This messy, repetitive shifting in narrative perfectly illustrates the futility of war. And yet it’s not so messy to the point where we become confused as to who’s fighting for who, but it wouldn’t matter if we did. The battles here are anything but grand, melodramatic and inspiring in the most horrid Hollywood fashion; Jancsó doesn’t choose a side but rather puts them on an equal level. These men and women aren’t heroes patriotically dying for their country, though a few are shown that they believe just this, but figures running about the countryside getting swiftly and senselessly killed. Thus too explains the lack of a main protagonist, and of any unnecessary character details.

While the futility of war is a well-trodden theme, rarely has it been expressed so distinctly. It’s not a message hypocritically slapped onto the end following some “cool” battle sequences as with many war films, nor are we reminded of it periodically throughout -it is the film from start to finish, pushed right to the forefront. What’s really impressive is how it uses mise-en-scène to enhance this feeling of cold, senseless action. The film is a series of long takes. In the same one take a soldier is ogling a woman bathing in a river, who swims around to a pier while in the foreground an enemy has been discovered hiding, is forced to sing, then help the woman out of the water, to which he is pushed into and bayonetted, leaving the woman to cower naked and alone. We’d met this “enemy” previously and thought of him as a possible protagonist, so his offscreen capture and distant execution is somewhat surprising.

Jancsó doesn’t let us get attached to anything, and so the staging in these long takes consists of people unexpectedly coming out from any part of the frame, to which the camera then reacts in flowing observation. No anticipation. Stuff happens and we watch, or we hear it happen offscreen. So many actions and changes of fortune can occur in a single take and we subconsciously (or consciously, why not?) feel the futility of it all, precisely because they are so condensed. With so few cuts the viewer understands that time doesn’t stop for any of the depicted, and Jancsó appropriately refuses to allow the characters to emote much, resulting in distancing, unmanipulative succinctness. I wonder if Alfonso Cuarón watched this in preparation for Children of Men, for it uses similar cinematographic techniques, albeit with a desire for crafting a great deal more tension than found here.

Getting back to the greyness, there’s a repeated action of stripping clothes throughout that seems significant. Mainly it’s in the systematic releasing of prisoners forced to strip themselves of their uniform in shame before running naked to the hills. It seems to reinforce the fact that the uniform is practically the only indicator of which country these men allegedly serve and that underneath the flimsy mask are men of equal standing. But then, women too strip down to nothing in the film, often forced by soldiers, indicating the constant misuse of military power. I greatly look forward to seeing the rest of Jancsó’s work to learn more about his political self, but more so for his intelligent and impressive skills as an artist.