When Ambrus (Zoltán Latinovits) drives to his father’s farm in the last third of Cantata, viewers familiar with Miklós Jancsó’s work will recognise the puszta, the Hungarian grass plain on which his best-known films (to English-speaking audiences) take place. Ambrus’s aversion to an older colleague’s individualism might have been reminiscent of Andrzej Munk’s Man on the Tracks (1956), and his subsequent crisis during an aimless evening influenced by Antonioni, but now we have arrived in what will become Jancsó’s territory. This moment of recognition is a soft echo of the eerie historical deja vu of Jancsó’s later films, in which the audience is reminded of something they’ve seen before that hasn’t happened yet. For most viewers, this film will be seen in the light of the films it preceded.
Like everything Jancsó’s films show us, this is contingent on history. The films made before Cantata are largely unseen outside Hungary. Most of the films of the last thirty years of his career have contemporary settings, but these too remain broadly unknown to us. If we had seen the fictional newsreels with which the director’s career began, this film’s operation scene might seem less anomalous. For Hungarian audiences who have seen his late comedies, the larking around of Ambrus and his friend early in this film might seem like the beginning of something familiar.
For the time being, however, we come to Cantata and the other films in this programme with the awareness that we are seeing them out of the context of their director’s oeuvre. We must remember that we necessarily see them as the work of a partially imaginary ‘Miklós Jancsó’ invented by the vicissitudes of distribution, political history and fashion. A similar question of identity – the degree to which your life and work is determined by history, and the degree to which you make it as a conscious agent – is also the subject of Cantata itself.
Ambrus is a modern young doctor interested in the arts, and begins to fear that he was never more than a careerist, the passenger of a life he was given to fulfil a political design. After watching the Professor (Andor Ajtay) – a surgeon ‘of the old school’ whose competence he had earlier noisily questioned – save the life of a patient, Ambrus begins to question himself. He learns that the Professor is seventy, like his father. The Professor’s subsequent collapse precipitates a crisis. Later, a lyrical experimental film Ambrus has made with a girlfriend (Edit Domján) elicits no response from its audience. (This film, which seems like a device to permit Jancsó a break with realism within expository inverted commas, is weakened precisely by this pretext, technically implausible because it was visibly made with the same equipment as the rest of Cantata.) Borrowing his mentor’s coveted car, he drives home.
He has returned to the farm because the doctor’s collapse has put him in mind of mortality and home, but his home is no longer there. The ageing oxen his father (Béla Barsi) bought have been loaned back to him by the cooperative. Eta (Mária Medgyesi), his former lover, the daughter of a kulak family impoverished by state redistribution, is training to qualify as an agronomist. People like Ambrus have unhinged his community from its continuities. But he has displaced himself, and his father will not come and live with him in the city, although he knows he has only a short time left to live. The manoeuvres of oppression that will be staged on this landscape in future films have here already happened, the battles fought and lost. Ambrus tells Eta he has no regrets about his part in them. The last thing she tells him is that she hopes he will help her sons get into university – ‘everyone needs some “socialist contacts”‘.
Jancsó considered Cantata his first mature film. It was the uncredited beginning of his career-long collaboration with screenwriter Gyula Hernádi, and the beginning of his use of mobile long takes. Here at the start of Jancsó’s mature work, before the puszta is a horizontal, an amphitheatre or a background, it is terrain and a livelihood. It is dizzyingly flat, flat enough to seem allegorical or emblematic, especially when crane shots emphasise the impossibility of hiding there, but it begins as a place with a history and an economy.
Non-Hungarian audiences, faced with the clarity of Jancsó’s work and the obscurity of the history it depicts, are always aware of how many nuances they are missing. The combination of the details’ inscrutability, the geometry of the style and the repeated demonstrations of the logic of force invite the conclusion that the ultimate intent of the films is abstraction or generalisation. Certainly, their great abstract beauty is part of the horror of the key films’ vision. Beginning his career as a Stalinist, the director retained – despite his works’ constant echoes of 1956 – an eye for the kind of geometric arrangement of de-individualised human figures that we associate with coercion (in Ceaușescu’s Romania, in the DPRK): this is not merely an irony, but a recurring self-implication in his work. Yet the history we are reminded of, in the future for these figures, in the past for us, is not a myth.
In the films produced towards the end of his window of international fame, Jancsó made great use of anachronism, which would seem to deepen this sense of abstraction. Yet the effect of anachronism for a ‘period’ film is always to urge a comparison of the epoch of the story to the film’s own. Far from creating a mythic register, anachronism is one of the most historicising techniques at a filmmaker’s disposal. If the material reality of history were unimportant, anachronism would be meaningless.
Cantata‘s characters live with the memory of 1956, the violence that the following films depict; they recall the future. This film uses conventions that Jancsó’s work soon grew too ambitious to accommodate, but it is a start. We can see the films that followed in its light.
Cantata (Oldás és kötés 1963 Hungary 94 mins)
Prod Co: Budapest Filmstúdió/Mafilm Dir: Miklós Jancsó Scr: Miklós Jancsó, Gyula Hernádi Phot: Tamás Somló Ed: Zoltán Farkas Prod Des: Ferenc Ruttka Sound: Ferenc Lohr
Cast: Zoltán Latinovits, Andor Ajtay, Béla Barsi, Miklós Szakáts, Gyula Bodrogi, Edit Domján, Mária Medgyesi, Gyöngyvér Demjén