Szegénylegények/The Round-Up (1966)

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Miklos Jancso’s film has as its pretext the 1849 Hungarian Revolution. The rebels have been defeated. Now the army has rounded up a group of “poor fellows” to winnow out the resistance. A listless group are placed in “the big yard.” Others are kept in isolation. They are to leave their wooden cells to walk in a circle with hoods on their heads.

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There is no real plot to the movie other than the inexorable pattern of accusation/exoneration. In the first half, a man charged with strangling a family of shepherds tries to escape execution by finding someone in the group who has murdered more men than himself. When this rat is himself killed, a father and son agree to finger the rebel leader Sandor to avoid one of them being sent to the gallows.

The prison is a stucco and wood construction in the middle of the vast Hungarian plain. Jancso creates a tension between the claustrophobic and the agoraphobic. The imprisoned are confined by high walls. They are surrounded by a limitless space made absurd by the ever-present twittering of unseen birds. In turn, Jancso uses both extreme long shots and close-ups to create a bizarre tension within the space. The tension is only increased by the interchangeability of guards and prisoners. One soldier is even demoted and sent into the “big yard” because his superiors are convinced he’s the rebel killer Veszelka, impersonating an gendarme.

With its minimal plot and anonymous characters, The Round-Up could be described as a sado-masochistic ballet. Dialogue is reduced to soldiers barking commands like “come here” and “go inside.” Each activity is precisely regimented, even the exchange of food outside the prison walls.

Jancso is celebrated for his camera-movement, often relating an entire scene in one sequence shot. He is just as concerned with movement within the mise en scene. The Round-Up unfolds like a living illustration from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. The prisoners constantly fall in in order to be scrutinized by guards and informants. Prisoners walk in a circle. Soldiers drill in a circle or march in an endless formation off into the distance. In a harrowing scene, a naked female prisoner is made to run back and forth between rows of soldiers armed with switches. The observing prisoners protest by throwing themselves off the prison ramparts—a stylized form of suicide. Ball and chains are used less to hold prisoners in place than to distort their movements.

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There is an element of fairy-tale, too, in the blurred distinctions between oppressed and oppressor, as well as in Jancso’s bending of time. There is nothing to signify how long we’re in there with the prisoners—indeed, the strangler Janos Gajdor is allowed to live well past his sell-by date. In the film’s electric opening, a prisoner literally moves from the big yard which is lashed by rain—that meteorological trademark of Hungarian cinema—to an inner corral drenched in sunshine. The costume also gives the film a fantastic air. The hapless Gajdor’s conical hat and fur cape gives him the dimension of a feral Pirandello—appropriate considering the way his efforts to exonerate himself end in denial. The film ends on a fairy-tale twist which, in Jancso hands, turns out to be a cruel joke, played under the blaring sound of “Deutchland Uber Alles.”

Absurdity lurks just over the horizon’s unforgiving vertical. When the father and son produce the man they accuse of murdering Gajdor, their confession is met with the dismissal. “You’re all lying.” This is Kafka under a merciless Hungarian sun.

The atmosphere, laconic dialogue and stylized camera movements make the film a precursor to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Jancso, however, isn’t trying to illuminate the myths of Hungary’s past. He’s establishing a timeless situation applicable to Hungary’s present. The military, coded as German, could be the Soviets. The rebels’ scruffy hair indicates beatnik lifestyles. They talk about the unrest of the ‘60s as if it happened yesterday. The informants walk among the prisoners and among the audience. The blurry distinction of truth and lying is the only space where Jancso’s Hungarians can actually exist.

For a Westernized audience, The Round-Up is a descent into Soviet Bloc-style madness, made of images still relevant today. Those hooded prisoners could be held in Gauntanamo and Abu Gharaib. The informants could be Afghans paid to hide or expose Taliban leaders. Strangely, while the guards use intimidation, isolation and execution against their prisoners, they refrain from torture. Interrogation is the preferred method of extracting information. It’s as if Jancso has decided that, in this bleak world, the tyranny of words over truth and fiction is the bitterest punishment of all.

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