The long take was very popular in the 1960s and later, in both Hollywood and art cinema. Dreyer, Welles, Mizoguchi, Ophüls, Tarkovsky and many others pushed acceptable boundaries of editing, and the long take became much more present in world cinema. One of the main apologists for the long take was French critic André Bazin, who demanded from film to ‘bring together real time, in which things exist, along with the duration of the action, for which classical editing had insidiously substituted mental and abstract time’. 4 He praised cinema that was interested in showing the passage of time, thus grasping the existence of objects in space and in time, contrary to what he, together with Eisenstein, called a ‘montage of attractions’. Indeed, Jancsó’s films display deep interest in the interrelationship of objects and people in space and time, depicted within the confines of the same shot. People and horses, which are constantly present, walk, stroll, run, and gallop in and out of widescreen shots, extending off-screen space in all possible directions. Sometime shots begin with a single participant, but soon they start to incorporate many others, carefully juxtaposed in Ukraine’s sprawling countryside, where the film was shot. Multiple movements prompt the viewer to carefully follow the movements of the camera, zooms, and rack focus, and connect them with the complex manoeuvring of the soldiers, officers and horses on the screen.
The action takes place in carefully chosen settings: a monastery, the banks of the river Pechetka, a military hospital, woods and eventually the banks of the Volga. Each of these is explored for its scenic potential to accommodate moving, long, widescreen takes, thus creating a magnificent setting for the staged action. This opulence runs somewhat contrary to the sombre events described in the film. Murders and fighting take place in carefully planned takes, which are aesthetically very attractive. Does this undermine the strong anti-war credentials we have described? Should war be simultaneously repulsive and pleasing? This remains the question, but it should be noted that Jancsó, except in the eerie sequence in the birch woods, strives to separate the beauty of rolling hills and rivers from the inhumane consequences of war, pointing out their sad simultaneity rather than substituting the advantages of the former for the deficiencies of the latter.
In addition to visual elements of the mise en scène, the sound plays a crucial role in creating the rhythm of the takes. Choreography of movements is achieved mostly through ordered activities of people and horses. Officers command people to walk, run, line up, move from one end of the shot to other, often stripped to the waist or completely naked. The women are ordered around as much as the men. At the same time, the movement of trotting and galloping horses is accompanied by many different sounds. Shots permeate the aural space. The symphony is complete. The long take reigns, never dull or empty. It is privileged in relation to other facets of narration, with an autonomy that is jealously protected. For example, when the communist Hungarian commander enters the church bell tower at the beginning of the movie, we see him searching for his comrades. In a long take, the camera follows him as he ascends the stairs and then walks along the tower until at one moment he turns towards the camera, staring, not revealing much emotion. He obviously sees something that viewers don’t. He takes off his jacket, the hat, puts down the weapons, and begins to take off his boots, using the opportunity to throw himself off the tower, committing suicide (which we hear but do not see). Only when the two White officers enter the shot, do we see the reason for his action. Classical narration would have supplied viewers with knowledge necessary to explain his behaviour, but Jancsó refuses to do so, as it would violate the unity of space, time and action represented by the long take. Another striking instance of the autonomy of the long take in relation to the story that dominates the narration can be seen a little bit later. A high officer of the Whites enters one of the monastery’s courtyards poised to show his soldiers how to treat Red prisoners. He orders them to run away, and proceeds to order the petty officers to shoot them like prey. However, the camera does not let the viewer see the results of their shots. No, it focuses on the officer and the Whites who followed his orders. Generally, the narration would inevitably show us what happened to people who tried to escape, thus completing the chain of events begun with the shooting, but Jancsó clearly breaks this ‘rule’ in order not to let the take be completely dominated by the demands of the story.
In the end, we should say something about the way in which Jancsó combines visual and aural elements of narration with the story constructed by viewers. His handling of the former suits the massive movements of the masses, which dominate his films. The long take provides the viewer with a vast array of elements, which can then be combined into messages, which relay the feeling of unique historical events of large proportions.
1. See Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction, New York, McGraw-Hill, 2003, p. 465.
2. See James Udden, No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press, 2009, p.180.
3. David Bordwell has called this kind of dedramatisation ‘oxymoronic’. See David Bordwell, David, Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 2005, p. 157.
4. See Bazin, Andre. Bazin, What is Cinema? Volume I, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1967, p. 39.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Hungary, Russia. Production Company: Mafilm, Mosfilm. Director: Miklós Jancsó. Producers: Jenoe Goetz, András Németh, Kirill Sirjajev. Screenwriters: Gyula Hernádi, Miklós Jancsó, Luca Karall, Valeri Karen, Giorgi Mdivani. Cinematographer: Tomás Somló. Editor: Zoltán Farkas. Cast: József Madras (Hungarian Commander), Tibor Molnár (Andras), András Kozák (Laszlo), Jácint Juhász (Istvan), Anatoli Yabbarov (Captain Chelpanov), Sergey Nikonenko (Cossack Officer), Bolot Beyshenaliyev (Chingiz), Tatyana Konyukhova (Yelizaveta the Matron), Krystina Mikolajewska (Olga), Nikita Mikhalkov (White Officer).]
Roger Crittenden, Fine Cuts: The Art of European Film Editing, Oxford, Focal Press, 2006.
Peter Hames (ed.), The Cinema of Central Europe, London, Wallflower Press, 2004.
Anikó Imre, East European Cinemas, London, Routledge, 2005.
Andras Bálint Kovács, Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950–1980, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2007.
István Nemeskürty, Word and Image: History of the Hungarian Cinema, Budapest, Corvina Press, 1974.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.