The Red and the White (1967)
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As to the charge of being nothing but propaganda: certainly the Whites are presented in a much more unfavorable light than the Reds; but I don't think we Americans can plead innocent to the charge of demonizing the enemy in war movies. The scenes of atrocities committed by the Whites don't break the tone of the movie, since they are shot in the same calm manner as the rest, and there is no overacting. Most of all, there are no explicit lessons stated, a sure sign of propaganda. If you think this movie is propaganda, you've seen nothing yet; try one of the many Communist-backed films that really are heavy-handed and preachy, like, for example, the East German "Fünf Patronenhülsen", set during the Spanish Civil War.
Something else appears to me greatly, something of specific nature here about visual (cinematic) presentation of a story. And that is because it seems like a smart , elegant solution to the problem of portraying what I call disembodied consciousness; keeping the viewer consistently tethered to the point-of-view of a character is hard enough for most filmmakers, but to break free of that and send us scudding through the air of the story? While keeping us engaged in story? Few manage, very few.
It is this, I believe, that viewers appreciate when they praise the 'hypnotic' qualities of someone like Tarkovsky, this ability to start 'in character' and slowly expand ourselves to hover out of self to where multiple visions are possible - usually the world of story and sense, plus the mechanisms transmuting the world into a story. If you are positioned the right way as a viewer, this can achieve a feeling of ecstacy.
And this guy is using Tarkovsky's camera to excellent effect, and knows just how to position the viewer. What does this mean?
His first job is to remove hard storytelling limits. Which war this is. Who is killing who. Who to be rooting for. What is the cause that justifies all this, if any. We can surmise, but staying within clean boundaries is not the focus. In place of that, he supplies a more fluid notion of hyperreality - things happen presumably as they would if you were there, explanations are absent, but the consequences seem real. You may not know just who is out to kill you, but you know someone is. This is a world with angry blood coursing through its veins.
Now for the actual, ecstatic expansion of narrative limits. It is simply superb the way he does it, and still seems novel and powerful to me.
The normal viewing mode is that already within the first couple of minutes of a film, we scan the frame for a protagonist to latch onto, trusting he will be our assigned avatar in the world of the film. The filmmaker provides expressive enough faces that we implicitly recognize as such, that we follow for just the right amount of 'real' time to invest into, then suddenly they are removed from the world, maybe to resurface later. Characters are flippantly ordered shot, make narrow escapes, are summarily discovered again, and so on.
And a third expansion is of the way we see and navigate this world, by having the camera trace circles around the story and float in and out of corridors in the air, disembodied from any character.
Though still in the experimental stage, this is great work.
You have bloodshed as your base layer, what every other war film works from.
You have this force in man, in the gears of the universe, that moves him to kill which there is no rhyme to, beyond the perpetuating of motion.
And you have that motion so powerful, we see that in the frantic running of prisoners to escape the firing squad, it enters the human world and mindlessly tears anchors from the ground, and sends our eye skidding to the next turn of the world having stable form again and tears at it, and with each groundless , spinning turn of this ballet, we float farther and farther away to where it is all an abstract blueprint.
Fluid hyperreality, narrative, and eye - each one placing you a step further from reasoning with this, but deeper in the abstract experience of not just life, of cosmic dimensions in the transitory dance of everything coming into being and going again.
Humans are vanished and reinstated and vanish again, with death as flippantly decided as someone dismounting a horse, as though it's all a part of some inscrutable game to the amusement of capricious gods.
Better yet, this is samsara; the cycle of suffering and defilements, causing eternal transmigration to no purpose.
The sweep of the camera is majestic, taking in panoramic vistas filled with struggle and slaughter. Thematically, this is the cinematic embodiment of the final lines from Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach:
And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night
Breathtaking in its conception and philosophical premise, this is an anti-war film that appeals directly to our current war-torn times. A masterpiece.
The whole film is just confusion. It took me a long time understand who's who and what's what. I think thats what the intention of the director is because thats what was going on in Russia in 1918. The whole confusion of who's killing who and for what reason is so beautifully captured in the film. Its a unique film. There is no central character. There is no story but if you have a little sense of history or film-making you wont move for one and a half hour. The whole concept of lawlessness is pictured with such a brilliant finesse. By the time you sympathize with a character that story or the character itself is dissolved. Every scene is unique and has some kind of a surprise element. There is nothing which can be remotely termed as artificial. There are lots of things which are very interesting to notice. People are lined up in almost every scene, none of the persons who is be shot runs away or beg for mercy, its about Russia but from Hungarian point of view etc. Should be viewed by history students across the globe. 10/10
1. Though Miklos Jancso's "The Red And The White" takes place in 1919, when Hungarian irregulars supported the Communist "Reds" in fighting the Tsarist "Whites" along the Volga River, the film deliberately ignores any political or historical context and instead goes to great lengths to blur the identities, objectives and motivations of its various characters.
2. The film lacks characters and plot. Instead, Jancso gives us war as cosmic ballet, the audience witnessing the ever-shifting balance of power between sides, a constant and repeated cycle whereby the defeated become victors and victors the defeated. Jancso emphasises this process by highlighting the various parallels between the two sides; the way they both perform the same rituals of humiliation, vengeance and forgiveness throughout the film.
3. The film is positively radical in the way it unfolds. Imagine an expansive landscape adorned with forts, forests, farms and villages. Now place clusters of troops, prisoners and civilians on this landscape and set them in motion. Finally, imagine a constantly moving "God's Eye" camera that floats above this landscape, gliding from one location or group of people to the next. There is no "story" here, only a constant state of flux, Jancso inviting us to become disembodied God's who study the rhythms of combat and the rhymes of war.
4. Characters enter the story as quickly as they leave it, their deaths occurring off-screen or at a cold distance. There is one character who ties the whole film together, however, appearing in the first scene and the last, but never really assuming a central role. He is a Hungarian played by András Kovák, a familiar figure in Jancso's filmography. Significantly, he's given a key statement in the film: "A man can fight and still be human."
5. Whenever a group of soldiers is conquered, the victors force them to strip and run away semi-naked, often sniped as they do so. Throughout the film, these acts of ritualised degradation are protested by ancillary characters. One symbolically hands back his rifle, one refuses to aim properly during an execution, one stops the rape of a peasant woman and one stops the execution of their own soldiers for "cowardice". The message: "a man can fight and still be human."
6. The theme that Jancso stresses throughout the film 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 Red base and the communists are being forced to undergo the same humiliation of fleeing for their lives naked. 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 and 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.
7. Jancos is constantly highlighting the randomness of combat. For example, one officer is picked up for execution but is randomly saved when another officer arbitrarily sends him away. Time and time again, little "flukes" occur which either spare lives or result in deaths.
8. Janco's later films became very rigid and almost motionless. But here, like most of his films throughout the 60s and 70s, his camera is always in motion. The film is comprised of huge long takes, his moving camera chartering massive chunks of land. Of all the masters of this style - Ophuls, Tarr, Mizoguchi, and Angelopoulos - no one has ever taken it to the level Jancsó achieved, perhaps because he is determined not to explore the inner motivations of his characters. He is more interested in external motion as meaning.
9. The choreography here is exquisite.
10. The film stresses how victory leads to senseless humiliation, both for the winners (due to an absence of larger military goals) and the losers.
11. In one scene, a brigade removes their jackets and runs hopelessly downhill toward a group of similarly white shirted soldiers. It's a point made by many war films - everyone wears the same uniform, there are no sides but effective all the same.
12. The film ends with a close up shot of a soldier's face, the audience asked to recognise the sorrow in his eyes. This "final war movie shot" has become a cliché and I don't think it works here. Why not end the film one scene prior when the army charged headlong with futility down a hill? Why abandon the detached aesthetic of the rest of the film?
9/10 New DVD releases of this film add an explanatory title card along with a silly scene in which horses charge toward a camera, before the beginning of the film. Ignore these additions completely.
Worth two viewings.