The Red and the White

English Title: The Red and the White

Original Title: Csillagosok, katonák

Country of Origin: Hungary

Studio: Mafilm, Mosfilm

Director: Miklós Jancsó

Producer(s): Jenoe Goetz, András Németh

Screenplay: Gyulá Hernádi, Miklós Jancsó, Luca Karall

Cinematographer: Tamás Somló

Editor: Zoltán Farkas

Runtime: 88 minutes minutes

Genre: War/Historical Drama

Language: Hungarian/Russian

Starring/Cast: Tibor Molnár, András Kozák, Jácint Juhász, Anatoli Yabbarov

Year: 1968

Volume: East European


During the 1919 Russian civil conflict between the Bolsheviks and the Cossacks (the Red and the White, respectively), numerous Hungarians fight for the revolutionary Red cause, and are caught up in a barbaric and endlessly bloody struggle. In constant oscillations of power and violence, both sides repeatedly kill one another: beginning with the death of a single White, a Bolshevik officer then rounds up a group of Reds only to be cornered by the Cossacks, whereupon he leaps to his death. The Red general then rounds up the opposing Whites, allowing the Hungarians to leave but ultimately massacring the Soviets. A Cossack is killed by his own superior for forcing a milkmaid to undress in a field; and subsequently a group of nurses are taken to a wooded area and made to dance a waltz. Another nurse is later accused of treason by the Reds even after she has helped them, following which the Bolsheviks face up to the overwhelming force of the White army on the battlefield.     




Arguably the most paradigmatic and profound Miklós Jancsó film, Csillagosok, katonák/The Red and the White is also among the most uncompromisingly bleak and powerful pictures of war and conflict the cinema has yet provided. Dispensing with narrative and characterization almost entirely, and admitting nothing beyond two mirrored forces engaged in an escalating and repetitive series of violent reprisals and retributive acts, the film is, even at less than 90 minutes, a difficult and exhausting affair. It begins with a slow-motion, ostensibly heroic, Kurosawa-like shot of soldiers on horseback streaming over a hill, weapons aloft and war cries aloud to the trumpeted strains of a cavalry charge. However, from this moment until the final shot (an overt recapitulation of the end of Jancsó’s third film, Így jöttem/My Way Home [1965], with a character staring into the camera and the eyes of the audience), there are no heroes or villains, no good or evil, why or wherefore; there are not even characters to speak of (some figures recur, but largely Jancsó’s camera follows different groups and individuals seemingly arbitrarily). Instead, in an abstract no man’s land between cause and effect, we bear objective witness to pure violence – not always on-screen (Jancsó frequently cuts away to a contiguous space as gunshots ring out) – but certainly always felt, and always embedded within a sense of horror at both physical and psychological malaise.    

 What prevents this from lapsing into a dry, portentous tract is, unsurprisingly, the director’s by-now perfectly realised synthesis of form and function. Indeed, along with Max Ophüls’ La Ronde (1950), Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Kenji Mizoguchi’s Zangiku monogatari/Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), Godard’s Week End (1967), fellow Hungarian Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister harmóniák/Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) and of course Alexander Sokurov’s Russkiy kovcheg/Russian Ark (2001), The Red and the White can perhaps stand as one of the great examples of long-take/sequence shot cinema. Belying David Thomson’s accusation that with Jancsó’s previous film, Szegénylegények/The Round-Up (1966), the director’s cinematography had begun to lapse in self-aggrandizing academicism, here the extended mobile shots revel in opening up a tension between on- and off-screen space, principally as a practical means of picking up and following disparate characters at random as the action develops. This use of the technique legitimates it as a narrative tool rather than a decorative flourish, and contributes to a suspenseful tone, as well as a visual and thematic abstraction that relates to a representation of warfare as a purgatorial state wherein anyone can be killed at any time.     

 The Red and the White, though widely distributed and largely very successful in Western Europe and America, was (perhaps unsurprisingly) highly controversial in Russia. It was initially re-edited to draw a more heroic and nationalistic picture from its perceived confusing plot, but soon thereafter was simply banned altogether. It was the first of three films Jancsó would make about the Russian conflict of 1919, the others being Csend és kiáltás/Silence and Cry (1967) and Égi bárány/Agnus Dei (1971), something the director has said refers to its status as a special era in Hungarian history (there were a number of POWs from Hungary during this specific war). His depiction of the fighting in this film comes closest to the account he has offered of the fundamental clash of opposites that defined the conflict, with the Hungarian soldiers, by definition resolute non-ideologues, caught in between the opposing Russians and simply opting for a side to fight on. It is a scaling back of war to its basest and most debasing elements, and remains arguably Jancsó most powerful and enduring statement on the subject.    

Author of this review: Adam Bingham