The Round-Up

English Title: The Round-Up

Original Title: Szegénylegények

Country of Origin: Hungary

Studio: MAFILM IV. Játékfilmstúdió

Director: Miklós Jancsó

Producer(s): András Németh

Screenplay: Gyulá Hernádi, Imre Vadász

Cinematographer: Tamás Somló

Editor: Zoltán Farkas

Runtime: 90 minutes

Genre: History/Drama

Language: Hungarian

Starring/Cast: Béla Barsi, János Görbe, Zoltán Latinovits, Tibor Molnár

Year: 1966

Volume: East European


In 1869, in the aftermath of the failed 1848 revolution against the Hungarian Hapsburg Empire, the authorities are determined to root out the partisan, guerrilla outlaws loyal to their leader Sándor Rózsa. A shepherd and murderer named János Gajdar is told that he will be pardoned if he can find a man who has killed more than him. After inveigling himself with several prisoners, Gajdar finds and denounces such a man, and this subsequently leads to the deaths of several of Rózsa’s men who commit suicide following the persecution of a woman. Gajdar is targeted by numerous fellow prisoners, and their actions against him have strong consequences for their group and its leader.   


If Így jöttem/My Way Home (1965) introduced Miklós Jancsó on the international stage as a powerful new voice in East Central European cinema, then its follow-up,  Szegénylegények/The Round-Up (1966), more than confirmed and cemented this position with its abstract story of the oppression of guerrillas following the failed revolution in Hungary in 1848. The film’s insistent view of individual action and consequence at the heart of historical forces and processes, and on the merciless persecution of essentially defenceless citizens, was obviously intended to reflect a modern reality in the ongoing Eastern bloc, especially in the wake of the similarly crushed Hungarian revolutionary uprising against Stalinism in 1956.


Set largely in two imposing buildings anomalously located deep in the heart of Hungary’s parched, sun-baked plains – buildings whose chalk white edifices throw the deep blacks of numerous uniformed governmental figures into stark relief – this austere, abstract and measured narrative only slowly reveals the details of its scenario, which belies the opening voiceover filling in the broad historical context to underline the universality of the narrated events. To the strains of almost constant birdsong (lending a further incongruity of atmosphere to proceedings), the story makes use of repeated incidents and ritualistic occurrences, such as characters being picked out of extended line-ups, prisoners being marched around in a circle and taken in and out of their cells, and also a strange and cruel affair in which numerous women with food are brought out onto the plains to feed (though in effect taunt) the collected criminals. Certain of those rounded-up grasp their opportunity to try and escape, and in some of the film’s most powerful moments are summarily, almost mechanically, dealt with after fleeing across the open landscape.   


Jancsó thus employs a languorous approach to screen time, albeit without overt recourse to the long takes and sequence shots that would begin to predominate from his next film, Csillagosok, katonák/The Red and the White (1968), onward. However, this is contrasted with at least one very jarring temporal ellipsis that is covered in a standard cut that offers no indication of time passed, and that reveals the death of a character whose physical imperilment had been steadily growing due to the fact that he had been informing on fellow prisoners in order to save his own life. This frustration of a conventional structure of suspense distances the audience further from the diegesis, keeping us outside the story and looking in (something further underlined in a sporadic use of high angle extreme long shots) rather than involved in a sympathetic/empathetic relationship with the protagonists. They remain largely at a remove from us, as they do from the governmental guards who preside over their degradation like ring masters at some infernal circus. Indeed, the sense of a vast stage on which is enacted an endless, looped performance of persecution is paramount throughout, and feeds succinctly into an implicit thematic of the circumscribed fate awaiting the prisoners.        


As the aforementioned surprise reveal of a major death propels the narrative into its final act, The Round-Up begins to work towards an increasingly obvious denouement that does in fact rest on a closer relationship between characters and audience. It has undeniable power, but the change of register upon which it is predicated is not really earned by Jancsó, leaving the film ultimately suspended uncomfortably between a broad allegory and the kind of existentialist drama of My Way Home. It does not negate the historical fascination or contemporary potency of the narrative, but makes this a marginally lesser addition to this most famous and celebrated period in its director’s career.      

Author of this review: Adam Bingham