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The Red and the White (Miklós Jancsó) 1968


    Set during the Russian Civil War of 1918, Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó’s The Red and the White is a war film unlike any other. With graceful uninterrupted tracking shots that feel as if they’ve been lifted from a Tarkovsky film, the movie lulls its viewers into a dreamlike state, despite the carnal strife that they’re being made to watch. The vast expanses highlighted by Jancsó’s black and white ‘Scope compositions dwarf the film’s cast to the extent that they become mere dots in an empty landscape. Though the film’s title seems to suggest profound differences between the two sides, from this distant perspective they lose all personality and become totally interchangeable. As the film progresses and the tide of battle shifts the upper hand back and forth repeatedly, we find ourselves withdrawing from the notion that either side’s possession of the upper hand matters to us. Jancsó has created here a war movie that not only fails to turn us onto the violence presented (which is itself bloodlessly stylized), but one that fails to give us anyone or any cause to root for. As a result, the entire enterprise seems utterly futile, and the reasons behind success or failure feel utterly arbitrary and random. Both sides are presented as being equally damnable and pitiable for being there in the first place. It’s the cowards that seem to glean the most sympathy, if only because they want no part in the entire sick spectacle. Though this sort of ideology might be a bit suspect and demeaning toward the politics behind the actual Russian Civil War, the effect is potent.


    Since the film seems to be so resolutely without a strong point of view other than “all war is bad,” (though what other perspective might a sane person take?) Jancsó’s formalist tendencies are practically The Red and the White’s entire reason for being. What becomes so surprising, then, is that they’re strong enough to make the film worthwhile. Complicated action scenes unfold without any editorial commentary, and mass armies march upon each other in real time without any change in the camera’s location. Several shots are an amazing technical and artistic accomplishment. Jancsó starts out by color coding the opposing armies via their uniforms (though since the film is black and white they all look relatively similar anyhow), but as the tolls of the war wears down on their physical appearance, they blend together into an indistinguishable mess, and any notion that they are markedly different evaporates. At the film’s end, the mass suffering and indignity has changed absolutely nothing. The blank countryside that the soldiers fight on continues to mock the vain efforts of the people that populate it, but they still continue to press onward as if it had a point.


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Jeremy Heilman