‘The Round-Up’ is a 1965 Hungarian film directed by Miklos Jancso. It was well received in its home country, and was its director’s first film to receive international acclaim. This is one of the most influential films and considered as masterpiece for its unusual treatment with its theme on Prisoners of War. The film is full of powerful paradoxes. What we see and hear has less impact in a emptiness than the cumulative nature of beholding constant atrocities greater than mere physical death. The Round-Up is pure, one-sided psychological warfare and one the greatest films to come out of Hungary.
The director Miklos Jancso’s ‘The Round-Up’ is a work of overwhelming magnificence, the splendor of this film is inexplicably enough, cultivated from the isolated, barren land of nothingness, otherwise known as the Hungarian Plain. However, one could easily mistake it for the earthly embodiment of nuisance with its vast expanses of negative space, sediments of hopelessness and broken souls.
The film was seen by over a million people in its theatrical run in a country with a population of around ten million at the time. The film was selected as the Hungarian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 39th Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee.
The story is based on the true facts of history- Set in a prison camp, on some God-forsaken stretch of land on the Hungarian Plain (Puszta) following the suppression of Lajos Kossuth’s 1848 revolution against Habsburg rule in Hungary. The prison camps were set up for people suspected of being Kossuth’s supporters. Around 20 years later, some members of highwayman Sandor Rozsa’s guerrilla band, believed to be some of Kossuth’s last supporters, are known to be interned among the prisoners in a camp. The prison staffs try to identify the rebels and find out if Sandor is among them using various means of mental and physical torture and trickery. When one of the guerrillas, Janos Gajdar, is identified as a murderer by an old woman, he starts aiding his captors by acting as an informant. Gajdar is told that if he can show his captors a man who has killed more people than him, will be spared. Fearing his life, he turns in several people his captors had been looking for by name, but could not identify among the prisoners.
In the end, Gajdar becomes an outcast among the prisoners, and is murdered at night by some of his fellow inmates while in solitary confinement. The prison guards easily discover suspects, people whose cells had been left unlocked for the night, and start interrogating them with hope of finding Sandor himself. The suspects are tricked into revealing the remaining guerrillas when they are given a chance to form a new military unit out of former bandits and informed that Sandor, who was not among the prisoners, has been pardoned. However, the celebrating guerrillas are then told that those who previously fought under him will still face execution.
This film depicts the profuse of psychological torture. People are promised not to be executed if they can find others who killed more people than they did. Or the guards pretend that a guerilla leader will be pardoned which makes his followers cheer. Of course they have been set up and that was a means to find out who they are. Besides humiliation is part of the tactics used. We see how one officer is stripped of his rank, how the guards rip all the insignia from his uniform and while they do not harm him, it feels extremely violent. One girl is stripped and whipped until she dies. Watching the whipping of the girl triggers a flood of suicides. Later men are stripped too. These scenes are humiliating and use of mental torture looks less violent, but the visuals are absolutely stunning and the cinematography by Tamas Somlo is exceptional and magnificent, the thoughtful and introspective long takes focusing on the character’s quandary, and the cavernous emotions illustrated are nerve-wracking
As a purely visual experience, it is extraordinaire. Personally, I cannot think of any other film in which cinema scope is used so expertly. There are always little things going on in the background or to the sides, which provides more proof of Jancso’s clear knowledge of the medium in general. Still, it is hard to not want something more personal out of such an accomplished filmmaker. We should note that the backdrop of POW’s are complicit in these manipulation tactics, the characters are more than willing to lie, cheat and steal their way to liberty, apparently ignorant of the comprehensive emptiness around them. In short it’s nothing but false hopes and empty promises.
The film does thou’ use Jancsó’s favorite setting in the Hungarian puszta (steppe), shot in characteristically oppressive sunlight. The film has little dialogue and rarely shows any emotion in its characters. It has been called by one critic as “a total absorption of content into form”.
I give credit to Miklos Jancso’s endeavor to describe the historical specifics in a very linear style of exposition, at periods he irritates the audience with his opinions. But in this case, it is legitimately helpful. In my opinion, it seems important for one to worry as little as possible about what exactly is going on Jancsó’s films and instead, focus primarily on the narrative, to no surprise. This is clearly the intention as the story follows a rather unpredictable route in establishing characters, and then disposing of them. This dithering sensibility does keep things interesting. The director’s craft and his use of brilliant scaffolding is in the scene wherein the camera slowly approaches the entrance, the doors open to reveal the prisoners walking in a circle, sacks over their heads clutching a rope with no end perfectly encapsulates the film and the prisoners current state of “existence”.
Yes it’s a Power of persuasion- I always loved the rebellious signature that Jancso’s pragmatic methods epitomize the meaningless execution of “justice” of military authorities. His ‘pass of torch’ in most of his films is symbolic. Truly Jancsó arrived with this film. He went to make other memorable films like ‘The Red and the White’ (1967) and Red Psalm (1971) to name a few.
The director and cinematographer combination of the visual story telling ability is also very widespread; this approach and technical coherence is learning to all the budding film enthusiasts. The films landscape is undeniably an essential to its wandering narrative. Establishing shots of the surrounding nothingness are peppered into a series of tight, close-up frames, as if reminding the viewer that these prisoners are nowhere, slowly eroding into the land through the systematic manipulation of an authoritative regime.
Jancso’s films are characterized by visual stylization, elegantly choreographed shots, long takes, historical periods, rural settings, and a lack of psychoanalyzing. A frequent theme of his films is the abuse of power. His works are often allegorical commentaries on Hungary under Communism and the Soviet occupation, although some critics prefer to stress the universal dimensions of Jancsó’s explorations. Towards the end of the 1960s and especially into the 1970s, Jancsó’s work became increasingly stylized and explicitly symbolic.
Just to share the trivia ‘The Round-Up’ was Jancsó’s first film to also receive international attention. In 1966, it was the first of five films by the director to be entered in the competition category of the Cannes Film Festival, but failed to win any awards. The brutal, dictatorial methods depicted in the film were read by local audiences as a partial allegory for the clampdown that happened following Hungary’s failed 1956 uprising against Soviet Russia. Therefore before Jancsó was allowed to screen the film in Cannes, he had to make a declaration stating the film had nothing to do with the recent events in the country, even though he later said that “everybody knew it wasn’t true”. Later in 1966, the film was released in the United Kingdom, and in 1969, it received a limited release in the United States. This movie was included in Derek Malcolm’s The Century of Films, a list of 100 of the critic’s favorite films from the 20th century.
- Directed by Miklós Jancsó
- Written by Gyula Hernádi
- Starring: Janos Görbe; Zoltán Latinovit & Tibor Molnár
- Cinematography by Tamas Somlo
- Editing by Zoltán Farkas
- Release year:1965
- Run time of 95 minutes
- Country: Hungary
- Language: Hungarian