Red Psalm

English Title: Red Psalm

Original Title: Még kér a nép

Country of Origin: Hungary

Studio: Mafilm

Director: Miklós Jancsó

Producer(s): József Bajúsz

Screenplay: Gyulá Hernádi

Cinematographer: János Kende

Editor: Zoltán Farkas

Runtime: 87 minutes

Genre: Drama/Musical/War/Surrealist

Language: Hungarian

Starring/Cast: Lajos Balázsovits, András Bálint, Andrea Drahota, Gyöngyi Bürös

Year: 1972

Volume: East European

In rural Hungary in the 1890s a group of peasants organize a strike and a revolt. They kill the local overseer, which draws the army to the dispute, and the estate owner shows up and attempts to reason with the labourers. The to and fro motion of dissent and oppression plays out as a massive balletic ritual on the open plain, and is only interrupted by a festival. Music, dance, drink and bare flesh mix with tyranny and murder.


Még kér a nép/Red Psalm won Mikós Jancsó the Best Director prize at Cannes in 1972, and for many it constitutes the high water mark of his career. Though it displays all of the traits of his distinctive visual style, thematic obsessions and structural propensities, it also shows him moving on from the gray austerity of his 1960s work. The film is shot in colour, and as such gains a certain warmth, making potent use of vibrant reds against the dusty earth tones of uniforms, peasant clothes and the usual striking setting of the Hungarian plain. Music and song are used throughout, as they increasingly played a role in Jancsó’s work from Fényes szelek/The Confrontation (1969) on. Most significantly here he pushes a historic story ever closer to the realm of the mythic, forcing time and space to transform around an abstract construct, its human-historical figures possessed by ideology, concept, symbol and force.


The peasant rebels are surrounded and bombarded by the reason and will of outside forces: the military, the aristocracy and the church, all intent on maintaining the old power hierarchy. We see them herded into a circular cluster like sheep, compelled less by fear than by the centripetal force of the multiple mounted soldiers that inscribe rapid circles around them on their horses (echoes of the earlier Szegénylegények/The Round-Up [1966]). These circular patterns are repeated throughout, figuring on a grand scale the vacillations within this ideological/power struggle. Sometimes it is the mounted troops that ride in concentric circles around the peasants, each single file circle going in a different direction, producing a dazzling spectacle of criss-crossing motion as elements rapidly and simultaneously enter and exit the frame from either side, the camera gradually and continuously craning and tracking in exceptionally long takes. Sometimes it is the peasants who link arms and surround a figure of oppression, their circular dance around the blazing church (with priest locked inside), for instance, taking on a festive, ritual quality, as if they were dancing around a (flaming) may pole.


As such, there is much fascinating slippage between the materialist rationale of socialism and the appropriated form of the socialist prayer – the Red Psalm of the title. Just as the priest and his appeals to faith and sacred duty are swiftly dispatched, the socialist peasants absorb and adapt the formal power of religious rite to their own ends: a soldier ceremonially confesses and is baptized into the socialist faith of his people (again by walking the inside circle of a ring of peasants holding branches); oaths are gravely struck; creeds are said; and funeral rites are performed for fallen comrades. 


Jancsó illustrates the strange sense of place and time that military action/revolution can induce in people, as suddenly the grind of daily life passes away and every moment becomes charged, symbolic, takes on a ritual quality. Yet, this aspect is easily forgotten – the excessively stylized nature of the orchestration, the choreography of masses of people, horses and the camera in a vast dance on a massive stage, seems to dominate. It feels sometimes as if the whole thing was meant to be shot top-down from a viewpoint far above, where the group movements and patterns would reveal their true nature as a strange cross between synchronized swimming and land art, consequently imbuing the world as we see it with the sense of an alien planet and an alternate history. This intensely aestheticized mode is the culmination of a decade of experiment and development for Jancsó, and it is like very little else in the history of cinema.

Author of this review: Michael Pigott