Monday, May 5, 2008

Masterpiece Film Series: Szegenylegenyek

"Szegenylegenyek (The Round Up)" **** (out of ****)

Miklos Jancso's "Szegenylegenyek (The Round Up)" tells the story of the aftermath of the 1848 Revolution in which Hungary tried to break ties with Austria. One of the heroes of the failed revolution was Lajos Kossuth. Since the Austrians have regained control of the territory, largely thanks to the Soviets, Kossuth has disappeared, but, his soldiers are still loyal to him and sympathetic to the cause. Various guerrilla leaders have continued attacks against the Austrians which has resulted in all known Kossuth supporters to be "rounded up" in an attempt to find the names of these leaders.

"Szegenylegenyek" marks the beginning of a trilogy of films dealing with Hungarian history just before the start of the 20th century. The films include "Csillangosok, katonak (The Red and the White)" and "Csend es kialtas (Silence and Cry)". The most significant of the three, or at least the best known among them, might be "Csillangosok, katonak".

This film however is a bit different from "Csillangosok, katonak". Unlike the other films in the trilogy "Szegenylegenyek" seems to have established characters, there are close-ups and audience involvement.

Jancso's films are usually told from an outsider's perspective looking in. His camera usually keeps a distance between the viewer and the characters. We rarely, if ever, see an event from the point of view of one of the characters. Many times we don't even know their names.

But with this film Jancso gives us a character whom we begin to follow. A murderer, Janos Gajdar (Janos Gorbe), who is about to be executed unless he can find another prisoner who has killed more men then him. This puts Janos in the position of having to go against his fellow soldiers and countrymen. But he seems all too willing to comply.

Jancso treats the prison yard as a place where not only danger from the Austrians lurk everywhere but danger from your countrymen. Everyone is ready to double-cross the other in an attempt to survive. The Austrians pit Hungarian against Hungarian so they lose sight of who the true enemy is.

"Szegenylegenyek" was released in 1966, ten years after the Hungarian Uprising. Many have accused Jancso of using historical events of the past to make a social commentary on Hungary's current situation (at least at the time) dealing with the revolt and Soviet occupation. If this is true the connection would be how outside forces (the Austrians, Soviets) tried to dominate Hungarians and pit them against each other. It shows betrayal as an act of survival in times of war and the will of the oppressed to be free.

After the failed revolution in 1956 many Hungarians were blackmailed into working for the Communist. One of the most notable might be fellow filmmaker, Istvan Szabo. So the idea of betrayal and deception was common during this period. Outside forces would try to blur the lines of who your enemies really were.

The film was written by Gyula Hernadi, who worked with Jancso before on "Csillagosok, katonak" and "Szerelem, Elektra (Electra, My Love)". He also worked with Jancso's wife, perhaps the most prominent female Hungarian filmmaker, Marta Meszaros, on her film "Orokbefogadas (Adoption)".

As a historical look inside Hungary's history and a social and political commentary on modern Hungary "Szegenylegenyek" proves to be one of the masterpieces of cinema.