Miklós Jancsó’s The Confrontation (Fényes szelek, 1969) opens with a four-minute shot. We see the back of Judit’s head as she (Andrea Drahota, red headed) watches a convoy of police arrive. At a signal, her fellow students pour down a hill and block the convoy. They form a line, then a circle, and contain the police. The police captain briefly joins the student’s circle, their singing, before ordering his men to disperse the youths. Instead, the students throw the police into a nearby dam before stripping down and joining them. Meanwhile, Laci (Lajos Balázsovits, red shirted) holds court with the police captain. Cut to a circle of students and police, singing and dancing; The Confrontation acts as sustained examination of the role of the circle in Jancsó’s films.
Set in 1947, shortly after the Communist Party had taken control of Hungary, The Confrontation presents an attempt by students from the People’s College to debate students from a nearby Catholic seminary. Easy to see as a parable about the student revolts of ’68, the film is also specific. (And personal, Jancsó himself was a seminarian who converted to the Party in 1945 (1)). Domestically it was seen as an affront to the heroic past of the now middle-aged Communist Party (2).
The College students’ proselytising is marked by factional infighting, and their exploitation by external Party organisations. As George Bisztray observes, a recurring motif of Jancsó’s work is that of the “out-manipulated manipulator” (3). Laci, the College’s Secretary, attempts to engage the diffident Catholic students through festivities, song and dance. However his attempts turn to chaos after the police attempt to arrest six of the seminarians. Judit takes advantage of this, and as the new Secretary, leads a hardline stance against the seminarians – supporting the police and defrocking Catholic teachers. Shocked at her antagonistic approach, bureaucrats from the People’s College force Judit’s expulsion and Laci’s return. Consoling Judit, the police captain tells her that she has potential, that she may even become a Party Minister. As Judit stares into the distance, Jancsó’ closes the circle of the film: mirroring the opening composition of the back of Judit’s head before dissolving to credits.
The Confrontation is not just about pedagogy, it is pedagogy. The Confrontation marks a particular point in Jancsó’s career. Cantata (1963) and My Way Home (1965) had introduced Jancsó’s fluid long-take style to the world. The Round-Up (1965) and The Red and The White (1967) consolidated Jancsó’s reputation, and revealed a sparse and geometrically rigid mise-en-scène that focused the audience on the films’ thematic preoccupation on the abstract rituals of power, control and discipline. For Lorant Czigany, Jancsó’s work offers a stark chessboard which can be “divided into two categories: the oppressors and the oppressed” (4). The two films also confirmed Jancsó’s use of the past as a means of allegorising the present. The Round-Up and The Red and the White, set in 1868 and 1920, respectively, are hard not to see as allegories of Soviet repression and violence. The Confrontation marks Jancsó’s first use of colour film and the point where his disciplined geometry – the circle, in the case of The Confrontation – equally evokes the surface ornamentalism of decoration. In combination with the one-shot, one-scene plan sequence staging perfected in Sirokkó (1969) we have the necessary elements needed for the virtuoso pageantry of Jancsó’s Red Psalm (1972) and Electra, My Love (1974).
Jancsó’s films should not simply be read as symbolic allegory but seen as decorative works. The trajectory of Jancsó’s career is not just a process of purification, but also a re-rendering of his film’s content to better fit his formal interests – in particular his shift towards sequence shots filmed as circular movement. Symbolism is important not because it represents but because symbols can be arranged and re-arranged in a manner more pleasing than the motivations of realism. The Confrontation’s story and staging debate the role of the circle and ornamentation. This is both explicit and implied. Unlike the minimal use of dialogue found in Jancsó’s earlier (and later) films, The Confrontation is overwhelmed by verbose debate as to the best way to communicate. In the contrast between Laci and Judit’s differing approaches, The Confrontation negotiates the relationship between joy, ornamentation, ritual and repression. We also see it this during the film’s festive sequences as the students’ circles oscillate before our eyes, shifting from controlling mob to joyous group and back and forth. The long shot that distance us from the psychology of the characters, that deny them any meaningful articulation, and that reduced their bodies to rigid shapes is the same long shot that lets us see the full profile of the dancer, and their control over their body. And the chant is both joyous singing, and a means of drowning out ones’ opponents. There is almost a conceptual, perceptual interplay that mirrors the festive arabesques we see in the film’s staging.
Fényes szelek literally translates as Sparkling Winds, a far prettier title than The Confrontation (and a lyric from one of the film’s folk songs). This change in emphasis is common to Jancsó’s career; for instance, The Red and The White’s actual title is Csillagosok, katonák, or Star-Spangled Soldiers (another folk lyric). One can only wonder at how much the severe English titles typically used have shaped the perception of Jancsó’s work.
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Everyone knows about accursed filmmakers, Carax, Vigo, Paradjanov, Huszárik, etc. Their conveniently abbreviated careers provide us with marketable biographies and digestible catalogues. They can be contained. Jancsó’s joyous career offers us the opposite. Any attention paid is paid to his sharp modernist films of the Sixties rather than the gloriously decadent works that followed. Instead they circulate as VHS dub ghosts, waiting to be confronted.
- J Hoberman, “Red Modernism” Film Comment 42:5 (Sept/Oct 2006), 67.
- Lorant Czigany, “Jancsó Country: Miklós Jancsó and the Hungarian New Cinema” Film Quarterly 26:1 (Autumn 1972), 47).
- George Bisztray, “The Image of History in Modern Hungarian Cinema (1966-1986) East European Quarterly XXXIV: 2 (June 2000), 249.
- Lorant Czigany, 48.
The Confrontation (Fényes szelek 1969 Hungarian’s People Republic 86 mins)
Prod Co: Ma Film Studio 1 Prod: Józef Bajusz, Ottó Fold Dir: Miklós Jancsó Scr: Gyula Hernádi, Miklós Jancsó Phot: Tamás Slomló Ed: Zoltán Farkas Prod Des: Endre Benyo, Tilda Gáti Sound Des: Mihály Lehmann Cast: Andrea Drahota, Lajos Balázsovits, András Kozák, Kati Kovács, Benedek Tóth