Wednesday, 25 June 2014

1,001 Films: "The Red and the Black/Csillagosok, Katonak" (1967)

Impenetrable as I find the Czech filmmaker František Vláčil's 1967 epic Marketa Lazarova, that film was supposed to have made sense on a narrative level - and perhaps might have done, if you'd already read the book. Released the very same year, the conceptual war drama The Red and the Black, made by the Hungarian Miklós Jancsó, pushes Lazarova's representation of conflict even further into abstraction and (vaguely comic) absurdity. The title sounds deliberately arbitrary, and could equally have been Shirts and Skins or Masculine Feminine or The Power and the Glory: any two interchangeable forces will do.

We're in 1919, at the arse-end of the Russian Revolution, when any stray Bolsheviks (the Reds) were being rounded up by counterrevolutionary Cossacks (the Whites). The latter are on top as we join the action, taking a large number of Reds prisoner in a holding pen somewhere in the countryside - but the film's primary theme is the instability of history, so we watch as the Reds (now stripped shirtless) hatch an escape plan; after liberating themselves, they're pursued through surrounding streets and fields that look very much as though they weren't supposed to be shot on, weren't expecting this sudden cacophony.

Jancso has a scientist's eye for chaos breaking out: the chase will envelop both a family of war widows living a peaceful life in a neighboring village and a hospital staffed solely by nurses, bringing with it that particular threat that follows whenever desperate men arrive among women. Yet the recurring idea here - you could very nearly call it a gag - is that just when each faction thinks it's gained supremacy, it falters: someone's always riding in to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat (or vice versa), and however broad the parameters, the battlefield keeps expanding, creating only more misery and mayhem.

The result cues another of Eastern European cinema's investigations into how war might be photographed - though in a departure from the tight formalism of Jancso's previous The Round-Up, The Red and the White opts for a heightened depth of field, so the combatants can tear off any which way, and the camera is liberated to follow them through every battle charge, an apparent last stand, and a final victory that can only ever be provisional. In doing so, the film covers an unusual amount of ground: you might well be led to the conclusion this particular uprising is meant to stand for all uprisings. 

Half an hour in, I realised there was something eerily familiar about these fields and forests on the banks of the Volga: they're not so far removed - both geographically and topographically, in their eternal stillness and sun-shaded atrocities - from those on which Claude Lanzmann was to mark out the perimeters of the Holocaust some twenty years later in his landmark documentary Shoah. History keeps on circling round, refusing us the upper hand, finding new victims for itself. 

The Red and the White is available on DVD through Second Run.

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