The great Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó has died at the age of 92, leaving behind one of the more indisputably unique bodies of work in cinema history. Over the course of fifty years, Jancsó’s body of work resembles in many ways the sinuous and seamless flux of his signature long-takes. Jancsó may begin a shot with a close-up of a face, then the camera turns to reveal another face, then a tracking backwards reveals multiple levels of complex activity, followed by shifts and turns that reveal wider spaces, exteriors and interiors, contrasts of depth, while all the while the sensation of it all being part of the one virtuosic shot creates a unifying frisson. The same applies to Jancsó’s films seen as a whole. Despite constantly shifting angles and perspectives, locations and historical settings, his late works still bear the intrinsic qualities of his earliest films and his greatest masterpieces. Jancsó struck upon his dizzying, yet measured use of a roaming camera early on, resulting in an oeuvre of mysterious, yet powerfully communicative films whose technique utterly dictates the content in a feedback loop. While other directors working into their 80s and beyond, such as Jean-Luc Godard or the late Alain Resnais, display great eclecticism, Jancsó shares with them a collective formative moment in film history. It is his seminal works of the 1960s that enshrine his position in the canon of great modernist art cinema auteurs.
Unlike those illustrious French contemporaries however, Jancsó’s reputation has swung to extremes of disdain and neglect, resulting in a near 30-year period of international obscurity. After a halcyon period in the 1960s and early-‘70s, where his works exemplified the Soviet bloc push to include radical filmmaking in to the festival circuit, including an award for Meg kér a nep (Red Psalm) in 1972, Jancsó’s films drastically went out of fashion. His distinctive features of the extreme long- take, choreographed camera and actor movement, psychological obliqueness, and the decorous use of nudity, both male and female, went from being considered astounding innovations, to being scorned as repetitive tics, notorious and obscurantist. Yet Jancsó never stopped producing films, either in Italy or back in Hungary, and never entirely moved away from his distinctive style. As he frequently said in interviews, it was the only way he knew how to make films. Unlike, say, Dusan Makavejev, he could never have made a commercial product like The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) – it was neither within his ability or desire to make straightforward films with standard camera coverage or vernacular narratives. Always challenging, always deeply humanist, Jancsó exemplifies the focused artist, knowing his technique and never compromising.
Though Janscó had one of the most extensive and productive careers in film history, astonishingly, he was already in his forties when his first major films were made. Already an established theatre director in post-war Hungary, he made a late transition to film via state-funded and state-serving documentaries. He continued to make documentaries throughout his life, including a considerable number for television, as for example, his 1994 series Kövek üzenete – Budapest (Message of Stone – Budapest). By the early 1960s, Jancsó had made two formative films Oldás es kötés (Cantata, 1963) and Igy jöttem (My Way Home, 1964) that established the unique furrow that he would forever be associated with. These two films employ distinctive Antonionian traits of long-takes, temps mort and meticulously organised framing and staging. But already signature concerns with the arbitrary abuse of power and authority, and the blank cruelty of circumstance, are felt. Always against totalitarianism, Jancsó was deeply socialist, and more importantly, humanist. The relentless ambiguity of his subsequent masterpieces is a reflection of the endless sense of questioning on Jancsó’s behalf: a Socratic awareness of never assuming to have all the answers. He exploited the wide expanses of the Hungarian puszta, or Great Plain, to emphasise the essential unprotected nature of the individual against wielded power, the impossibility of hiding or maintaining humanity. And, of course, the camera endlessly roams around, changing the viewpoint constantly, shifting the perspective, the sense of groundedness in a location always in flux, as Yvette Biro, his great champion and occasional screenwriter, observed many times. The films depend upon particular Hungarian historical events for their structure, yet their concerns are universal.
The sheer overwhelming effect and grand scale of Jancsó’s long tracking shots cannot be overstated. From Sirokkó (Winter Sirocco, 1969), through Egi bárány (Agnus Dei, 1970), Red Psalm, Szerelmem, Elektra (Electra, My Love, 1975) to the two parts of an uncompleted trilogy of the late 70s, Magyar rapszódia (Hungarian Rhapsody, 1979) and Allegro barbaro (1979), Jancsó made feature length films with an avant-garde sensibility and a liberal use of reel-length single-takes, resulting in some films with an average shot count of 12 or so. Even as every aspect within the frame shifted and changed focus, somehow Jancso’s travelling shots are never montage by proxy. He often described the technique as calligraphic, writing the film with his camera as a pen. Often there are enormous quantities of performers, organised into symbolic groups and choreographed in ritualised movements. The focus shifts between actors crossing stately in front of a camera that shifts angles incessantly. The camera rarely rises above the action, moving on a horizontal plane, with almost ascetic adherence. Only if the action can be viewed from a natural raised hill is an overhead shot allowed, as in the iconic final battle charge in Csillagosok, katonák (The Red and The White, 1967). Even when meaning is obscure, the films can be enjoyed for the almost tactile immersion in to cinematic space they afford.
However much the long-take is unmistakeably Janscó’s prime formal legacy, in time it begun to feel like a yoke around his neck. In interviews late in his life, he disputed its importance to his films and rued the fact that some saw his reliance on the long- take style as a limitation on his part, or worse, that he was merely exploiting a stylistic gimmick. No doubt, for a while there, such criticism had the effect of hastening his dismissal to the footnotes of cinematic fashion. And there were other recurring features that fell out of favour. His Italian co-production Vizi privati, pubbliche virtú (Private Vices, Public Virtues, 1976) contained such a degree of sex and nudity that it was distributed as pornography and prudishly derided by critics, despite it being utterly of a piece stylistically and thematically with his other works, and unmistakeably Jancsóvian in its analysis of power. It was seen as the culmination of a discernible increase in the amount of naked females in his complex tableaux. It was a bizarre time to be both obscure and sensual in European film – Walerian Borowczky, at a similar time, suffered the same fate in reputation as a result of his own far more overt explorations of art cinema and sexuality.
Subsequently, with Janscó’s return to the style and historical concerns of Red Psalm in films such as Allegro Barbarao and Hungarian Rhapsody, the universality of his earlier works was now seen as bafflingly impenetrable and evidence of a paucity of invention. In fact, Jancsó had invented a style so distinct as to be strong enough to bear repeated explorations and iterations. His 1987 Season of Monsters (Szörnyek évadja) is a crepuscular revisiting of the characters of his 1969 counter-cultural Fényes szelek (The Confrontation), that fuses his ritualised movements on the puszta with an updated contemporary politics and a new use of urban settings. In Kék Duna keringö (The Blue Danube Waltz, 1991), Jancsó piles virtuosity on virtuosity in his use of his traditional roaming camera as it follows characters past television screens that themselves are showing long-takes of characters already in shot, sometimes at different times and different locations, creating a sense of omnidirectional vertigo unexplored elsewhere in cinema.
As Jancsó entered his late 70s, his critical esteem had two parallel recoveries, one retrospective and the other more immediately contemporary. In the English-speaking cinéphile community, retrospectives of his astonishing wave of masterpieces from 1965 to 1972 – The Roundup (Szegénylegenyek), The Red and The White, Silence and Cry (Csend és kiáltás), Red Psalm – were shown in the UK, Canada and the US. An extraordinary collection of essays in Andrew Horton’s journal Kino-Eye (now lapsed) resurrected these works for analysis, along with invaluable studies of the still undistributed and fascinating films of the 1980s. Not since Roy Armes and Peter Hames’s early seminal studies of the 1970s had Jancsó been awarded such critical attention; studies complemented more recently by the work by Andras Balint Kovacs and John Cunningham. Furthermore, the UK based DVD label Second Run released several of the 1960s films on discs with lavish extras, capitalising on the fascination with Jancsó extreme photographic virtuosity. No doubt, this renewed interest in Janscó has also been aided in the past decade or more by the international film festival profile of a master disciple of Jancsó: the long- take specialist Bela Tarr.
Yet at the same time as this belated rediscovery of his definitive works was occurring, Jancsó had found a deep vein of new creativity and unexpected popularity in Hungary with his amazing sequence of freewheeling, madcap satirical films using actors Zoltan Mucsi and Peter Scherer. They are often referred to as the “Undertaker” films, even though the duo, named Kapa and Pepe, only appear as such in the first film, Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Presten (The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest, 1999). The two characters are a classic comic pair in the vein of Quixote and Panza and Abbott and Costello. Hungarian commentator András Réz identifies specifically Hungarian antecedents for the characters, namely Hacsek and Sájo, a duo devised for theatrical comedy sketches by the playwright Laszlo Vadnay in 1929. However the dynamic of Kapa and Pepe is fluid and endlessly mutable, allowing Jancsó to use them in any and every situation, again representing the arbitrary unpredictability of authority and power that he explored so differently in the 60s. These films found Jancsó fusing his signature camera style and thematic concerns with huge energy and blackly observed comedy. They consist of loosely linked episodes, changing locations and characters according to a barely perceptible logic. Giving his lead actors free rein, these films give the impression of being improvised, but are as highly scripted and prepared as any film in his career.
These films are a celebration of Budapest, using the spectacular heights of the Buda hills and the titanic statuary of Heroes Square, but also revelling in the overgrown and the decrepit surroundings of derelict buildings and parkland. In post-Communist Hungary, Jancsó turned a sceptical eye on the new plagues of gangster capitalism, rampant materialism, and the nebulous state of Hungarian nationalism and identity. In the fourth film in the series, Kelj fel, komám, ne aludjál (Wake Up, Mate, Don’t You Sleep, 2002), he took the bold and controversial step of addressing the difficult historical legacy of Hungarian anti-semitism via his new characters and style.
Jancsó also maintained his commitment to engaging with iconic national legends in the fifth film, A mohácsi vész (Battle of Mohacs, 2004), the most cohesive of the late comedies. In this dark work, Jancsó manages to subvert historical events by introducing the by now established supernatural and surreal powers of Kapa and Pepe as they try to go back in time and change the outcome of the battle to allow Hungary to become the primary global power in the 20th century. Although the long-takes still frequently appear, and often outdo his earlier work in audacity, they often involve close-ups and are handheld. Budapest-based academic Laszlo Strausz writes of this shift that “oppressors and oppressed are depicted as interchangeable because, like the faces in Jancsó’s close-up shots, they are caught in a dehumanising system which is explored through shot composition and camera movement”. As ever, Jancsó fused his political concerns with his technique, adapting both in tandem. The films exemplify a post-orthodoxy of the appropriate use of art cinema technique, infusing it with a sense of the vernacular. Jancsó even welcomed for the first time the use of a static camera for long-takes, by drawing from TV sketch techniques in the service of comic dialogue scenes. Punk bands and hip-hop artists recur in live performances – Jancsó had a generous respect for youth and youth culture, which was abundantly reciprocated. Somehow Jancsó manages to reflect on his legacy of innovation and his subsequent neglect with a sense of rueful nonchalance. Jancsó appears himself as a white-haired director in these final comedies, often as a kind of nonchalant deity, and frequently dead or in extremis. In the first three of the six, he is frequently accompanied by his longest-standing collaborator, the late writer Gyula Fernandi, the two of them serenely detached bystanders to the mania of the main characters. In appearing as a wryly self-parodic version of himself, Jancsó finally gave a human edge to the frequently otherworldly and glacial nature of his more renowned work.
In a conversation I had with Hungarian academic and friend of the director Andras Balint Kovacs last year in Budapest, I made the error of referring to Jancsó’s cinematic sense of humour as “dry”. Kovacs promptly disabused me of this, emphasising the warmth and generous empathy of Jancsó’s demeanour. One look at his late interviews on Hungarian television, frequently with young interviewers, and his absolute engagement is impossible to miss. A fierce intellectual acuity comes through, coupled with a convivial and inclusive wit. This inclusiveness is the essence of his elliptical and opaque technique, making demands of his audience to participate and complete the meaning in his earlier films. Demands that changed into a friendly acknowledgement of the challenge he posed, exemplified by his appearance onscreen and the comical references to the austere and dense symbolism of those formative key works. His profile and presence in the cinematic life of Hungary up to the end makes his death a shock, despite his very advanced years. After all, his last feature length film, Oda az igazság (So Much For Justice!), was digitally shot as recently as 2010. It was a return to period settings and Hungarian legend, and is a quieter and calmer piece than the Kapa and Pepe films, although still rigorous and eventful. Brightly lit and performed reverently, it is perhaps his closest to a “normal” narrative work, a very late attempt. But Jancsó never needed to produce anything except what he could, because no one else was or is likely to produce similar films. Brave, committed, transporting, infuriating, harrowing and latterly hilarious, Jancsó’s work remains a true gift to cinema.