A contemporary of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, the late, prolific Hungarian auteur Miklós Jancsó (1921-2014) could (at his best) match those art-house doyens in rigorous technique and modernist inquiry. In a career that spanned six decades and encompassed war tragedies (My Way Home), unrelenting parables (Silence and Cry), quasi-musical pageants (Red Psalm), pansexual bacchanalias (Private Vices, Public Virtues) and playful meta-portraits (Lord’s Lantern in Budapest), he gravitated toward tales of oppression. His camera was as astonishingly fluid as Max Ophüls’, yet the sense of movement was always at the mercy of an atmosphere of encroaching entrapment, of inescapable persecution. In few of Jancsó’s films is that paradox more crystalline than in The Round-Up, the 1966 release that first brought international attention not only to its director, but also to Hungary’s film industry.
The Round-Up (the original title, Szegénylegények, translates to The Hopeless Ones) begins with a succinct lecture, a terse description of the fallout of the Kossuth Revolution of 1848 played over a montage of engravings. As the narrator outlines the protracted clashes between the imperial Austrian authorities and dispersed Hungarian guerillas, sketches of industrial vistas alternate with drawings of sabers, cannons, and torture apparatus. Then the first image—a long shot of figures on horsebacks dotting a low horizon beneath a looming gray sky, a sort of amalgam of John Ford and Aleksandr Dovzhenko—establishes Jancsó’s favorite theme: human ruthlessness and vulnerability on the monumental landscapes of history. The year is 1868, and the newly appointed Habsburg commissar (who, we’re told, “wasn’t particular about his methods”) is on the hunt for outlaw revolutionaries. The setting is a military compound surrounded by the endless grassy plain, where a group of suspects are imprisoned.
Behind the blank stone walls, suspicion reigns. Sándor Rózsa, the legendary real-life folk hero, is rumored to be among the prisoners, so the authorities encourage the comrades to betray each other. Since Jancsó, like Sergei Eisenstein, is far less interested in individual protagonists than in collective forces, the matter of identification becomes a deliberately thorny one. Early on, one of the prisoners (János Görbe) is singled out as a potential informant—accused of murdering a family of farmers, he’s offered freedom if he can find someone more guilty than him. His frenzied search, laced with blackly comic irony, gives the audience the closest thing to a guide through these murky machinations, a human face that registers the horrific absurdity all around while struggling for survival. But then, with a good third of the film still to go, Jancsó unceremoniously snuffs out the character and switches the focus to a trio of captives, including a father and his son, who are also being manipulated. The feeling of fierce, Kafkaesque disorientation is carried all the way to the cruel end, when the eponymous round-up is completed.
The severe vistas and close-ups of battered faces have at times a hint of Sergio Leone, but the Western director The Round-Up most brings to mind might be Budd Boetticher. As in Boetticher’s showdowns and bullfights, there’s a sense of concentrated bluff and counter-bluff, of power shifts raised to ritualistic levels. Also like the auteur of The Tall T, Jancsó is at once virtuosic and austere: His camera can glide with startling fluency every which way, crafting an elaborate choreography of time and space, yet all these tracking shots serve the story’s strict grids of paranoia and desperation. Later the camera’s floating eye veers towards abstraction, often grouping characters into patterns as geometrical as the ones Busby Berkeley filmed with chorines in his 1930s musicals. Here, however, formalist bravura never overpowers the plight of people caught in the grip of a tyrannical regime. When people are found dead in their solitary cells or a peasant woman is stripped and flogged to death, the Spartan visual technique heightens the human dreadfulness onscreen.
Moving from the sound of howling wind and creaking doors to ubiquitous military bugles and drums, the film has the inescapable, strangulating logic of a nightmare. The vastness of the widescreen, where flatlands stretch into the distance, only contributes to the feel of a noose being tightened, scene after scene, around the collective neck of the Hungarian rebels. Jancsó would mellow considerably in subsequent works, imbuing his allegories of political struggle with doses of humor, sensuality, and hope. It’s the bleakness of The Round-Up, however, that most strikingly encapsulates the filmmaker’s existential view of personal morality within bruising systems. An unmistakable influence on the cinema of Stanley Kubrick, Béla Tarr and Sergei Loznitsa, it’s a 19th-century narrative that gazes back at the Soviet occupation of Hungary and ahead to Guantanamo Bay.