My Way Home (Így jöttem) Review

An adolescent male, 17, a soldier, but not yet a man, treks through the rolling, black and white hills of the countryside. The camera follows his progress through the repeated use of aerial shots and, alternately, from a perspective that makes the audience seem like they’re walking behind him or looking over his shoulder. Through these choices, made by Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó and his cinematographer Tamás Somló, the viewer is left with a strong feeling of detachment. My Way Home (Így jöttem), Jancsó’s third feature film and an important step forward in his career, concerns itself with an overtly external approach to its young protagonist. Set near the end of World War II, the film follows Jóska (translated in the subtitles as “Joseph”), played by Janscó regular András Kozák, as he tries to return home. Almost immediately after breaking free from his group, the schoolboy is captured by Russian Cossacks on horseback, but eventually allowed to continue on his journey. After a nap, he’s then captured again by Russians, and left in the custody of a youthful Russian private, Kolya, at a cattle farm. The two are not unlike one another, despite a difference in language and uniform, and soon establish an unlikely connection.

The problem with a simple description of the plot is that it makes the film sound like a coming-of-age story or some sort of buddy/friendship tale of two youngsters who overcome their differences to develop an emotional bond. Anyone who watches My Way Home will realize that’s a wildly inaccurate portrayal. It’s a better film than that, and never falls victim to the triteness of cliche or treacly sentimentality. Jancsó’s approach, instead, is strikingly distant. There’s a refusal, as in the director’s other work, to develop any kind of traditional relationship between the audience and the character. Unabashedly matter-of-fact, the story works itself out organically and at its own pace, while remaining unconcerned with establishing the psychological point of entry usually found in similar films. For most of the film, Jóska’s motivations are not given a shred of importance. The role of observer is passed on to the audience without the aid of a peek into the protagonist’s head. We follow his experiences completely, surveying the situation from above and behind.

When Jóska attempts to flee his Russian captor, Kolya screams and fires his gun multiple times. It’s not meant to punish or subdue Jóska. Kolya fears for the young prisoner’s safety because of the land mines scattered around the area, fatal threats of which the naive schoolboy is unaware. The relationship between the two young men defies tradition of both film and war. Few words are spoken or understood between them. Kolya threatens Jóska when he tries to escape, but it seems designed to put fear in him more than as an act of callous warning. Jóska is not particularly adept at survival (evidenced by the two quick captures) and Kolya appears to recognize that. The Russian quickly establishes a duty, whether moral or procedural, to protect his prisoner, a loyalty shared by Jóska when he declines another opportunity to escape. After all, both men were abandoned by the other Russians and are similarly left to fend for themselves. They proceed to forge a remarkable bond, accomplished while shooting at frogs in the water and chasing after bathing, naked girls.

Yet, by the end, these experiences seem to matter little. Both Jóska and Kolya fail to meet their goals when we last see them. No one wins or enjoys a happy life. Fleeting moments of joy are overtaken by tragedy and senselessness. The two characters face an abrupt separation and, like the horrific violence in Jancsó’s The Red and the White, it occurs off-camera. In one brief flash of emotion that strikes Jóska, Jancsó seems to invite interpretation by showing the human qualities missing earlier in the film. Combined with that final look into the camera, a pensive stare of angst, it establishes Jóska as a layered figure in possession of some maturity or wounded outlook previously unseen. It’s kind of an empty revelation, but perhaps a positive one nonetheless. By distancing the character throughout the film, Jancsó set up an audience neutrality slightly pierced by the last shot. In a film that appears to argue for just letting the story unfold naturally and without psychologising anything, it’s an odd choice, though still affecting.

My Way Home feels so straightforward, so pinned to its surface, that it neatly avoids unnecessary description or explanation. At the same time, there appears to be more, a deeply buried undercurrent eager to be analysed extensively, beginning with the mysteriously ominous biplane that buzzes over the film. What we have is a motion picture strong enough to sustain further interpretation, but far from needing it. It’s a fine piece of work and stands both on its own and as a companion to Second Run’s other Jancsó release, The Red and the White, made three years afterward. The two films have a very similar style, obviously made by the same person, but the approach is quite different. The later film feels much freer, more daring and accomplished, but may lack some of the earlier effort’s relative charm. Likewise, The Red and the White cuts far deeper and with considerably more ambition. Second Run have promised Jancsó’s The Round-Up, made in between those two films and often hailed as his masterpiece, for their next release by the director and it should be available in the near future.

The Disc

Second Run’s edition of My Way Home is a dual-layered PAL disc, progressive, and encoded for all regions. The film is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen televisions. The video quality is good - not great and not bad, but more than acceptable. It’s a definite improvement over the image on their release of [url=""]The Red and the White[/url]. There are frequent instances of dirt in the print used, as well as some minor damage. Jancsó seemed to favour long shots over close-ups so I probably noticed the lack of sharpness more because the action is often further away. The contrast seems fairly good, though the whites are noticeably brighter than the blacks are dark. The bottom line is I didn’t see anything disappointing in this transfer and I really have no complaints. It’s not perfect, but I can’t imagine anyone would expect it to be. The fact that it looks better than the previous Second Run Jancsó release is a welcome surprise and until another company with a more sizeable budget clears away every speck of dirt, this will be more than fine, especially for the affordable price.

That being said, the audio is also an improvement over the track on The Red and the White. Both Hungarian and Russian are spoken in the film and Second Run indicate a restored mono track has been used. I heard no problems here. There may have been one or two times when sound dropped lower (presumably a symptom of the outdoor filming used on My Way Home), but it’s less noticeable than the few occasions this happens on The Red and the White. Dialogue is pretty sparse and the musical score only pops up infrequently so there’s not a lot of audio in the film. Optional English subtitles are included, white in colour. I didn’t see any glaring mistakes, but I do find it curious that Jóska is translated as Joseph, the only time his name is shown.

The extras on Second Run’s disc complement those found on the other Jancsó title nicely. The second part of the director’s 1994 documentary series Message of Stones (A kövek üzenete) - entitled "Máramaros" - runs 50 minutes and is the disc’s only extra feature. The initial episode of the series can be found as a supplement on the Second Run DVD for The Red and the White. I did find this one a bit more enjoyable than the previous installment though, as the setting shifts from the synagogues and a school in the city to an exploration of more rural Jewish life. It’s presented in 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio and is in colour. The video quality is reasonable, if somewhat grainy, but there’s noticeable combing here. Interlaced, non-progressive transfers are a common cause of this problem, which is mostly visible on high-definition displays more than CRT televisions.

A 16-page booklet is also included and contains a reprint of Penelope Houston’s 1969 Sight & Sound article on Miklós Jancsó. Though I found the article interesting, I should add that it does include plot points and discussion of The Round-Up, The Red and the White, and Silence and Cry, in addition to My Way Home. Both Second Run Jancsó releases have supplemental material that doesn’t apply directly to the films, but they do add some contextualising of the director’s career. A fully-illustrated Second Run catalog is also housed inside the DVD case.

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