Friday, 3 May 2019

The Red and the White (Csillagosok, Katonak) (1967)

De røde og de hvide
There has not been many Hungarian movies on the List. Come to think of it, I believe “The Red and the White” is the first one to appear. Whether that is a good or a bad thing I am not the right one to judge, but if it takes something special to make it to the List, I would say Hungarian cinema enters in style.

“The Red and the White” is different from practically anything I have seen. It takes place in 1919 during the Russian civil war where “Red” and “White” forces are battling it out after the Russian revolution. What we watch takes place somewhere on the banks of the Volga river. There is a monastery that seems to change hands a few times and a hospital where the nurses try to treat everybody as humans. The Whites in their sharp uniforms releases the prisoners they caught when they took the monastery, only to hunt them down for sport. The reds are trying to hide, fight back, or simply die. When tables are turned the Reds are not much better.

What is special here is that we never get to know any characters. Hardly any of them has names and those we see will either disappear, or more commonly, simply die. It is as if documentary cameras were put up and the footage combined without telling any personal story, but rather that of being people an a brutal, pointless war. It is a bit distressing at first, when I was trying to make sense of what was going on, but when I accepted that this was not about individuals by the concept of war I relaxed, leaned back and got a lot out of the movie. It is not that difficult to follow when you accept there is no actual story arc. Whoever holds the guns, holds the power and power is corruptive and is easily abused. Those without guns are less than livestock. Symbolically they would take off their shirts as if to demonstrate their vulnerability or maybe their humanity, whereas those with guns where uniforms, making them abusers of power.

We see that when a farming family is humiliated or when nurses are taking into the forest to dance with the officers. We see it in the casual way prisoners are killed or the sporting hunt to catch and shoot the escaping POWs.

In this environment the nurses try to hold the torch of humanity but having no guns they are as vulnerable as the prisoners and cannot protect anybody.

Another point is the pointlessness of war. There is no aim to what anybody does, no strategic objective, no purpose. The heroic charge in the end demonstrates clearly the futility of war.

As an antiwar statement “The Red and the White” serves its purpose perfectly. The anonymity of anybody we watch is the facelessness of the struggle. Everybody is just one in many and there are no personal fates, just a collective civilization breakdown.

It was probably what got the movie banned in the Soviet Union. I suppose they thought they would get a heroic movie about the exploits of the Red army, but instead they got a movie with no heroes and a denouncement of war for any cause. Ten years after the Hungarian intervention I suppose the Soviet saw the underlying criticism of the powerful with the guns against the defenseless victim. In the West the movie fared better, which it not so surprising considering the growing antiwar movement.

This is not a movie you enjoy, it is far too depressive in its points, but it is very interesting and so completely differently filmed from a conventional story that I am constantly wondering what is going to happen. This is a powerful statement and I recommend it.


  1. Wow, not where I was expecting you to land with this one. I hated this, though I suspect it is largely because I saw the director's other List film, Red Psalm, first, and got absolutely nothing out of it, so to watch this one and see largely the exact same stuff in terms of filmmaking style and content, but in black-and-white instead of color, I ended up hating this just as much as the other one. For me, Jancso is less a director than a choreographer, and I likened his films as more of an interpretive dance than an actual film with a narrative. But hey, it's ultimately not for me to say what any one director can or can't do with the medium of cinema.

    1. Well, we cannot agree on everything and if you had asked me 20 minutes into the movie I am likely to have agreed with you. For me it was all about getting my head in the right gear and then it was fine. I think eventually I would have gotten bored with the movie, though. It is not really going any where once it has driven home its point, so at 90 minutes it suited me fine. In a sense I could compare it with Tati's Playtime. It is a state of mind, a series of tableaux but not an actual progressing story.
      Also, this is the first movie I watch by this dude. It may well be that I will get bored with him eventually.