It is the year 1919. The Reds and the Whites battle in the plains of Ukraine for the victory in the Russian Civil War, which came in the wake of the October Revolution of 1917. The movie’s action does not follow a main hero, or the causally connected events. Rather, viewers witness a series of happenings that take place at different locations: the monastery, the military hospital, a birch wood, and the banks of a large river. The soldiers fight a ruthless war and try to live to see another day. Atrocities are committed by both sides, and human life is not worth much. Women suffer as much as men do, and victory will be as bloody as defeat.
The Red and the White was made in 1967, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. No doubt, it was supposed to celebrate this most important date for the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe, including Hungary. However, it was subsequently banned in the Soviet Union, revealing the complexity of cultural policies in the countries that were nominally following the same political guidelines. What bothered the Soviets? Most certainly the ambivalence with which Jancsó portrayed chaotic events of the civil war, which raged in Russia from 1918 to 1920. Neither side, the Reds or the Whites, is clearly shown to have the upper moral hand in depicted, large movements of troops and the atrocities that take place during the movie. Historical events are shown as if they constantly escaped the attempts of the people (notably the officers) to control them. There is very little glorious in warfare waged with brutality, and there is very little that can protect soldiers or civilians from the various forms of suffering inflicted upon them.
In addition to celebrating the revolution, the film was supposed to demonstrate close links between the struggle of the Reds and the Hungarians, who joined their troops. This, of course, had wider implications for the ties between the Soviet Union and Hungary at the time the film was made. The Hungarians fought with Austro-Hungarian troops against czarist Russia. They defected to the Reds after the October revolution, which came in the wake of military reversals in the First World War. The internationalist facet of the Russian revolution is evident throughout the movie. We hear Russian, Hungarian and Polish spoken during the conflict while at the end La Marseillaise is sung in Russian and Hungarian. The cause of the Hungarian revolution is intertwined with the fate of the Russian one, and the internationalist cause of the working class (temporary soldiers) is one of the most unifying aspects, holding these desperate people together in their fight.
The White officers repeatedly try to separate the non-Russian from the Russian soldiers among the captured Reds, telling the non-Russians not to fight somebody else’s war, but they fail to break off the ties which bind various races and nationalities in their struggle for a better world. No doubt, this should have appealed to Soviet authorities when they were deciding whether to show the movie in the Soviet Union. But the impression that the film did not offer undivided support to the Reds held sway. There is no principal character in the film, and the participants address each without mentioning names. It is sometimes even difficult to distinguish different sides in the conflict. Nameless groups of people move around, take various positions in relation to the opposite side in carefully staged movements. They fight and die with seeming equanimity, like pawns in a big game of politics, which they fail to influence. The fear of death and a strong desire to survive do exist, but they come to the surface on special occasions when a rare chance for escape appears. The final charge of a group of Hungarian soldiers against the much stronger enemy is futile, yet they march to death with the Marseillaise on their lips, which seems everything but glorious, although the viewers are familiar with the final victory of communism in Russia and Hungary (albeit temporary, which was not known at the time).
This narrative structure, in which there is no one character to connect the described events, and in which historical masses battle for power in society, can be compared with the Soviet montage movement of the 1920s and 1930s.1 These films also portrayed historical events in which different classes and soldiers fought for the victory of their ideals. The difference is however striking. The unnecessary violence and cruelty in The Red and the White is depicted with disarming precision, which puts in doubt ideals and causes. However, the Reds show more mercy and humanity than the Whites. On both sides there are ruthless killers, but also souls able to empathise with the defeated and humiliated. Most importantly, there seems to be no justice at all. Good deeds are not rewarded, nor is evil necessarily punished. The Hungarian soldier who at the beginning refuses to shoot captured Whites is executed just a few scenes later. On the other hand, the Cossack officer who allows the rape of a civilian woman is promptly executed following the orders of the White colonel, who, as it happens, belongs to his own side. The war is shown to be merciless butchery, which seriously puts in doubt any justification of why it is fought. This might have been the ultimate reason that prompted Soviet censors to act. The revolution is not shown to be, in Lenin’s words, ‘the only justified war’, but rather a messy affair with numerous innocent victims. This was in line with many outbursts of humanism, which characterised post-thaw art in Eastern Europe, and very much not in line with rigid prescriptions of socialist realism.
Notwithstanding its politically intriguing dynamics, the main reason why this film holds high critical status in the West is Jancsó’s masterful use of the long take. The average shot length in The Red and the White is 52 seconds, while 68 per cent of shots have camera movement.2 Jancsó was, in his words, deeply influenced by the work of Antonioni, whose hallmark was also the long take. But, while Antonioni dedramatised his films through, among other choices, long shots, Jancsó’s film is teeming with movement, physical as well as dramatic, slow, but constant.3