The Red And The White

The Red And The White


Reviewed by: Ben Sillis

One of the most remarkable features of the oppression of Soviet Russia at home and in Eastern Europe for much of the 20th century were the auteurs able to flourish under such conditions - from Sergei Eisenstein and Andrei Tarkovsky in Russia, to the Polish director Andrzej Wajda, who once said that the censorship of money in the West was far more inconvenient than any political censorship imposed on him, to Miklos Jancso in Hungary, who has continued to make films in the decades since the collapse of communism. The Red And The White is the first of a series of his films to be released on DVD, and a magnificent start it is, too, an elegiac, yet brutally cold depiction of the harsh realities of human conflict.

Set in the aftermath of the October Revolution of 1917, when a "white" backlash of the old Russian aristocracy, backed by European nations to the west, fought a bloody civil war against the communist "red"'s poorly equipped ramshackle army, Jancso focuses on the Hungarians who fought in the war, compelled to arms by the oppression and extortion of their own nobility.

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The theme that he stresses throughout is the cyclical and futile nature of war. In the opening scene a red soldier is shot by a white Cossack while his comrade makes an escape back to base, where it is a Bolshevik commander who is now holding captured white troops at his mercy, whom he releases at gunpoint, but not before relieving them of their uniforms. Yet within minutes, white troops have stormed the base and the communists have been forced to undergo the same humiliation of fleeing for their lives naked, whilst officers pick them off at their leisure.

This continuing shift of power and authority in the blink of an eye continues throughout the course of the film, on an increasingly larger scale; eventually captains are shooting captains, companies killing companies. This dynamic equilibrium and the waste of life becomes maddening to the point of exasperation, yet effectively depicts the pointless carnage and cost of civil war.

"I'm not going to die," declares the charismatic red officer towards the end of the film - it won't be spoiling anyone's viewing experience to say that this doesn't quite turn out to be true. Jancso seems to be saying that in war no one stays alive for long and, as if to prove a point, the events of the film are set in real time, in inconsequential territory, occurring relentlessly and ceaselessly one after another, atrocity upon atrocity. It's hardly surprising that the Soviets banned the film, though more perplexing that they actually funded it in the first place.

Another of The Red And The White's lasting impressions is the magnificent cinematography, both visually and technically - see how the camera moves alongside the galloping horses! Underlining the political theme is the cold nature of the camera that looks upon all these horrific events with the same impartiality. In one scene a soldier will be shot at point blank range in close up and then the next will be killed from a distance. It looks upon the execution of a soldier and the naked body of a young woman in the same light, never giving us time to learn about their characters before they vanish from the story, or are promptly dispatched. Some could argue that this results in the film failing to connect with the audience, but the cruelty of the camera in showing everything so impassively nevertheless emphasises the true horror of war.

Jancso's masterful direction keeps you enthralled, as the tables are repeatedly turned, and you can't help but feel sympathy for the peasants, whose presence is virtually minimal, remaining obedient, confused and scared, even in the face of rape.

This is Catch-22, without its black humour, but just as powerful.

Reviewed on: 16 May 2006
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The bloody civil war in Russia that followed the October Revolution.
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Director: Miklos Jancso

Writer: Gyulam Hernadi, Heorgi Mdivani, Miklos Jansco

Starring: Joszef Madaras, Andras Kozak, Tibor Molnar, Jacint Juhasz, Anatoli Yabbarov

Year: 1967

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: Hungary/USSR


EIFF 2003

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