The Round-Up (Szegénylegények) Review
Compact and complex, straightforward, yet still obtuse, and brimming with claustrophobia amid a sprawling Hungarian landscape, Miklós Jancsó’s The Round-Up (Szegénylegények) is a film full of powerful contradictions. What we see and hear (or read) has less impact in a vacuum than the cumulative nature of witnessing repeated atrocities greater than mere physical death. The Round-Up is pure, one-sided psychological warfare. Nary a scene is wasted or ignored. The enemy is both monolithic and incarnate. Jancsó provides a sketch of narration and subsequently throws the viewer into the fire, without warning or preparation. A bullet for a hopeless runaway seems like the most humane of choices. This is 1860’s Austria-Hungary, but it’s also 1956 Hungary and, perhaps, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and whatever future atrocity insulated men have waiting for us.
Across a slideshow of innocently disturbing drawings, The Round-Up opens with an explanatory narration that establishes a place, an era, and a situation. We’re in Pest Buda, in 1869, and the current regime is determined to protect the bourgeoisie by eliminating the last vestige of resistance. These men are criminals to those with authority and freedom fighters to the suppressed. Their reward is a hood and noose. Their leader Sándor is an unseen apparition who hangs over the entire film. The uniformed men of authority have herded up a collection of bandits and outlaws, each seemingly bound to death despite the inviting escape of a cloud-covered infinity just past a bullet’s trajectory. A death sentence can be commuted, so the promise goes, for specific types of information regarding the crimes of your fellow prisoners. But the deck is always stacked. Always.
Jancsó seems intent on dishing out a certain amount of wrath in the direction of the would-be informers. They’re portrayed as gullible and ill-equipped to deal with their captors, who, it should be noted, are unmistakably Hungarian. Our initial snitch is instructed to provide someone guilty of more murders than he had committed. His desperation and incompetence are almost mocked while the knowing men of power shoo him away like an insect. We’re never shown the potential glee from the officers pulling the strings, but it’s easy enough to imagine how much demented joy may be derived from giving doomed murderers on the wrong side of the ideological sphere a little hope. Emotion in general is a little-known commodity in the film, as well as the ones that immediately preceded and followed it in Jancsó’s filmography. It seems that whatever feelings the audience scrapes away from the experience are either masterfully steered by the director or a byproduct of the viewer’s own opinions. The film itself is objective to the extent that it shows us a series of events where one party is merely at the losing end of the other and the lab rats that emerge are disposed of with little fuss.
This clinical and stoic approach can be highly distressing. There’s an inherent human belief that indiscriminate killing is wrong, and that man will do whatever it takes to survive. But what if “surviving” is merely an extension of the punishment? Those who live are just delaying their death sentence, often at the expense of their own dignity. Should we hold the ones who act in desperation to prolong their lives at the expense of others, ostensibly on the same ideological side, in contempt for their selfish desire to trade a fellow prisoner’s neck for their own? If their failure to realise how hopeless the situation has become is caused by their commiserable ignorance, then how do we place our loyalties? Jancsó’s film has no specific protagonist or antagonist, no lead character to sympathise with or loathe, and the viewer is given minimal information outside of the defeated and stark dichotomy between confined, enclosed rooms of isolation and wide-open spaces of controlled imprisonment.
These questions, of course, have no answers. Eighty-seven minutes and no answers. Two thousand and eight years and no answers. The Round-Up is about far more than the futility of war and its aftermath, or whether ethics can trump survival. Those are side-effects of an unspeakable cycle of repetition, the reincarnation of power lust. What I’ve noticed in the three Jancsó films released by Second Run is that they don’t focus on war at all. They’re much more concerned with what happens to the people away from the battle lines, the ones who suffer the secondhand smoke of gunfire. The remarkable quality there is how frustratingly timeless this lack of heroism feels. Draping soon-to-be tortured or executed prisoners in hoods is a cowardly avoidance of seeing what pain looks like, and Jancsó uses this device in nearly the exact same way news outlets did only a few years ago during the flair-up of the Abu Ghraib scandal. The electrocution of genitalia is replaced by the director’s more favoured use of involuntary nudity as a means of humiliation. The end result or feeling differs little, if any.
Jancsó’s true inspiration in depicting the often disturbing images and actions of The Round-Up is usually considered to be the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, but the still-timely film manages to feel like it’s about every period of the disgraceful manifestation of corruption. The sad testament to modern times that events surrounding the current foreign policy of the United States are what come to mind instead of the far more disturbing and inflammatory actions of Nazi concentration camps only confirms Jancsó’s foresight. His film still has the power to incite frustration and defeated rejection of war’s imperfect consequences. When an image of a marching band, amid so much bloodshed, fear and deceit, comes across the screen, the absurd reaction would seem to be weeping instead of smiling. Why cry when someone is so obviously enjoying themselves at the feet of those less fortunate? After all, it’s not sadness or anger that ultimately dooms the Sándor bandits, but the joyful verse of song. When we cry we remain locked inside the limitations of hurt and pain, but laughter is the way out, where freedom lies.
Second Run's release of The Round-Up has been assigned number 29 in the label's catalog. The disc is PAL and encoded for all regions. This is the third film directed by Miklós Jancsó that Second Run has put out, following The Red and the White and My Way Home. Of these three, the transfer and print for The Round-Up falls nicely between the earlier discs. Despite being the oldest film, My Way Home actually sports the best video quality, and The Round-Up is a little less impressive. There is some very mild dirt and print damage and the contrast is far from perfect. Whites can be blindingly bright and blacks are somewhat weak. It has been reported elsewhere that Second Run inherited the Hungarian Film Archive's transfer and any problems are inherent to those limitations. In trying to put out the best possible image quality, Second Run have apparently done some digital manipulation and a side effect is edge enhancement haloing. As I said, this result is not perfect or pristine, but it's absolutely within the reasonable expectations for a film of this age and origin. I'd hate for anyone to be hesitant about purchasing such a fine overall release based on relatively minor image flaws.
The disc is dual-layered and the film is transferred progressively and enhanced for anamorphic widescreen at the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, though there are slight black bars on the sides. Audio is presented in a restored original Hungarian mono track and sounds satisfactory. I heard nothing problematic and the volume levels are equally fine. There is no traditional score, and the chirping birds and such that we do hear add nicely to the ambiance of isolation amid a dispassionate outdoors. In fact, the realisation that no music has been added especially stands out near the end of the film when the marching band appears. Optional subtitles are available in English only and are white in colour. I detected no obvious typos.
A newly filmed interview with Miklós Jancsó (19:03) is the disc's only bonus feature, but it's completely worthwhile. The director briefly discusses growing up and the impossibility of being a director in Hungary at the time, as well as the hidden agenda meanings of his early films and the modest production of The Round-Up. It's not only interesting, but, also, an important opportunity to have the 86-year-old Jancsó on camera and talking about his life and career. He speaks in Hungarian and optional English subtitles are once again provided. A 16-page booklet is the other major supplement, and includes an insightful biographical sketch and essay by author John Cunningham.
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