Tuesday, 26 August 2008

The Round-Up (Jancsó, 1965)

Welcome to The Round-Up.

This is a world of desolation. This is a world of containment and oppression. This is a world where physical and psychological torture are considered routine; where men commit suicide simply to escape the nightmare that is reality. Honestly, this is not a world at all: this is madness.

A detention camp provides the immediate setting of Miklos Jancsó's macabre experiment. It is the resounding sparseness of this prison that proves so unnerving. Tall, whitewashed walls and a series of compact sleeping cubicles are the only notable features in what is otherwise nothing more than a large empty space. The surrounding Hungarian plains that engulf this complex offer little solace - they seem to breed malevolence within every blade of grass. Jancsó has a particular interest in exploring psychology's potential for shaping space, and as the absence of humanity begins to unsettle the viewer, so the barren expanses become inversed to induce a stifling sense of claustrophobia.

Minimalistic rigour characterizes Jancsó's visual style. He favours long, observational takes that leisurely pan around his characters, encircling them further within their confines. Moreover, he deploys a number of crane shots to open up his widescreen format to its greatest capacity. Always, there is a detachment of camera from scenario that allows Jancsó to toy with characters as if they were miniature figurines. Indeed, this is exactly what they devolve into when the director is at full visual flight. There are times when the film unfolds as if in a militaristic ballet: humans move in and around the frame with geometrical precision, exposing a vital discord between the systematic modernism of Jancsó's framing and the harrowing primitivism of his narrative content.

The Round-Up deals with plot on only the very loosest of terms. There are army officials and there are prisoners. The former wish to identify a group of rebels amidst the latter, much larger group, and repress accordingly. Although physical might is wielded (as we witness on more than one occasion), the preferred method of persecution here is more covert. Ruthless verbal interrogations instigate a series of double-bluffs and betrayals amongst the defenceless detainees, fuelling an atmosphere of distrust. Most terrifying of all however, are the long stretches of film when the authorities do absolutely nothing. Jancsó's limited use of dialogue and the frequent absence of significant activity means that silences can overwhelm the compound, throwing its characters and audience into the uncomfortable territory of the unknown. Factor in the stifling emptiness of the aforementioned surroundings, and one finds oneself in a situation where the overarching intent is to numb the mental state, making it ripe for degradative manipulation.

This is a film that quietly consumes its audience, as opposed to vice-versa. After a short but wry prologue, it places us in a situation where we are as lost and disorientated as the prisoners on-screen. Jancsó's camera is far too impassive to examine any of the characters in real detail, and the refusal to question their behaviour effectively presents dehumanization as a fact of life. Additionally, this impassivity restricts the emergence of an identifiable protagonist - [Spoiler]the closest we get is with János, who is murdered well before the final act[/Spoiler]. The emotional substance that we so often demand from the cinema is on permanent vacation here, and in denying the potential sentimentalization of his prisoners' plights, the director confronts his audience with an unappealing proposition: to fill in that resonance themselves. Jancsó dares us to turn a blind eye, whilst holding up a mirror to our conscience.

Roughly fifty minutes into the film, there is a brief moment where it seems as if the prison might degenerate into mass chaos. Tellingly, these few seconds of violent commotion gift the viewer with a reprieve from the cold, military order that swiftly overwhelms the rebellion. It also spares us, however fleetingly, from our increasing awareness of the military's formidable grasp on the mechanisms of power, for it is this realization that unmasks the real horror story of The Round-Up. This is a film that was made over forty years ago, and it’s set almost another hundred years before that, but it never feels anything less than unerringly prescient. Jancsó's observations regarding the abuse of power eclipse time and retain contemporary significance. Do today's conditions of cruelty deviate notably from what is shown in the film? The director suggests that moral absence is an everlasting theme of history, and one finds it hard to resist his arguments. This may be madness, but this is above all a world that we recognize and shape – this is the tragedy of the human condition.

So yeah, welcome to The Round-Up. Did I mention that escape is futile?

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