The Red and the White (1967)

After going through one director who was fond of the long take, this evening I decided to follow him with a director who was one of its most famous proponents in the decade after Mizoguchi’s death, i.e. Miklos Jancso… my impression of him hitherto has been of one of the more formidable Euro-arthouse figures of the 60s, and this film (the second one I’ve seen after Private Vices Public Virtues, or whatever that one was called) kind of reinforced that; this is one of the least user-friendly films I’ve come across in a long time. The IMDB plot summary ends with the words “War seems chaotic and arbitrary”, and I really couldn’t have put it better. Commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Jancso decided instead to set his film in 1919 during the civil war between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, and to make it a celebration of, frankly, piss all. In this film, winning (or even just surviving) one battle is no guarantee you’ll win (or survive) the next one, and while the White army are fairly clearly set up as villains the Red army is hardly presented as much better. The film has been criticised for being hard to follow cos so much of it happens in long shot (and, of course, long takes) and so few of the characters are named on-screen that there’s no real through-narrative or single figure we can focus on; and yet I suppose that’s the point, people get killed in war, we don’t often know who they were, and it’s questionable whether or not their death served any purpose. Chaotic and arbitrary. No wonder the film was outlawed in the USSR. And the distance from which Jancso observes much of this action makes it, in a way, one of the most brutal war films I’ve ever seen.

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