Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Red and the White

The Red and the White is a 1967 Hungarian Soviet co-production made by Hungarian director Miklos Jancso to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Russian revolution. It was banned in the Soviet Union but shown in Hungary and received recognition by various film appreciation societies, mostly for its direction.

The film concerns a company of Hungarian volunteers fighting alongside the Reds during the civil war perhaps some time in 1918 somewhere south of Moscow near the Volga river, although the film was actually shot, I believe, in the Hungarian countryside.

Anyone interested in the craft of film direction should gain from watching this film. It's comprised of long takes, typically up to 3 minutes in length, which are extremely intricate, showing actions that might start in deep background, approach the camera, switch attention to another character or set of characters all the while panning, tracking and zooming. It shows great control and vision, and is all the more impressive as many of its characters are on horseback. It's amazing to think that over the course of a 3 minute scene an actor (and his horse) can make his entrance, hit his mark, deliver his line, and move along as the camera takes up with another set of actors on another piece of faultlessly executed business.

Like many war films of East Europe and the Soviet Union, The Red and the White is an antiwar film. It may be the most uncompromising antiwar film I've seen. What makes it different from others is the lack of character and narrative. We see faces (no names though) get to recognize them, but they never have anything to say to us and very little to each other. They are almost invariably killed either off screen or in the background. There is not much in the way of battle scenes either. There is so much fluidity to the situation that in one scene the Whites will be subjecting their captive Reds to humiliations and in the next scene, the tables are turned and the roles are reversed. All without much or any shooting, much less explanation. Both sides mistreat the civilian population, themselves and each other; there's really not a lot to distinguish one army from the other. Without narrative or character, an absurd aimlessness is all that remains.

The decision to eschew character and narrative means sacrificing the favour and attention of a good part of the audience. I think it's safe to say that many audience members will find the film boring and alienating. That's evident in the IMDB comments on the film. The slower pace and longer takes of the European style of film making are only the beginning of this film's capacity to alienate. Without a character to identify with or a narrative thread to follow, the audience isn't left with much to hold onto. This is what I meant about The Red and the White being an uncompromising film. Compare it to other antiwar films of East Europe of the same period or even to those of the West, like MASH and Catch 22. In these films, war is elevated as a stage where the characters can express their individuality, heroism or joy for life. In MASH, for example, the doctors take advantage of the chaos and absurdity by asserting their medical and military authority to successfully manipulate whatever and whoever comes before them. There are no successful manipulators in The Red and the White. In Catch 22, one scene has our hero dumping his bombs into the sea, intentionally missing his assigned target. In the Red and the White, an anonymous White soldier ordered to execute a Red prisoner fires from the hip without taking aim. His officer, without a word of reprimand, passes the order to the next soldier who executes it without pause.

Miklos Jancso is still making films today. They lack the grandeur and budget of his earlier work, and I couldn't recommend them with confidence. However, The Red and the White deserves to be seen by anyone interested in film or especially film making. It's available at the Pirate Bay for anyone who has a bittorrent client.

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