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On the last day of January of this year, Miklós Jancsó, one of Hungary’s greatest film directors, died. Born in 1921, he began to make films in the 1950s, and continued to do so up until his death. His name is well known to students of international film, fans of art-house cinema, and just about anybody who has been inside a movie theater in his home country. Over the course of his career he was nominated five times for the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival – winning once – and was awarded a lifetime achievement award, also at Cannes. His best known works are The Round Up (Szegénylegények, 1965), The Red and the White (Csillagosok, katonák, 1967) and Red Psalm (Még kér a nép, 1971). Wikipedia sums up his style as follows: “Jancsó’s films are characterized by visual stylization, elegantly choreographed shots, long takes, historical periods, rural settings, and a lack of psychoanalyzing. A frequent theme of his films is the abuse of power. His works are often allegorical commentaries on Hungary under Communism and the Soviet occupation, although some critics prefer to stress the universal dimensions of Jancsó’s explorations. Towards the end of the 1960s and especially into the 1970s, Jancsó’s work became increasingly stylized and overtly symbolic.”
Below, find the last interview with Miklós Jancsó, originally published in Index.hu, and translated and reprinted with their permission.
Perhaps most characteristically in The Round-Up (Szegénylegények), but certainly in many of Jancsó’s films, the connections between the individual and the state, and between the law and the establishment appear. This is not a total coincidence given that Miklós Jancsó was a lawyer before his film career; in fact, he almost had a career in law. On September 1, 2012, the film director gave his last interview to the magazine Ügyvéd Világ [Lawyers World], László Bodolai (lawyer for Index), and Aranka Szávuly.
Before your film career, you studied law. Why was that, or more precisely, why did you ultimately choose not to practise law?
Actually, I went into law because I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to be. That was the “communications degree” of the time; in other words, whoever didn’t know what they wanted to be went into law. Because of this there were tons of lawyers who never really went to class; at most they just took their exams. I always sat there, though; in fact, I really loved ethnography and sat in on those classes too.
Which university did you attend?
I did one semester at Pécs. I lived on campus there. After that, I went to Kolozsvár, because at the time, my father was an administrator and he was transferred there; we went with him. Actually, my family is quite strange—a half Romanian, half Hungarian family. My two siblings and I lived here; everyone else lived in Erdély. My mother was one of 12 children, my father one of 10. We used to have these family celebrations where ‘just close family’ meant that there were 122 people there.
What was your favorite subject?
I was interested in Roman law. The professor was named Nándor Óriás, (in Hungarian Óriás means ‘giant’) and he was actually 140 cm tall. I also loved the legal philosopher Barna Horváth’s lectures. He dealt with the politics of freedom. From him, we learnt that the law is freedom—and that the law can only be built upon freedom.
It is quite interesting that someone should stress this, namely that the law is freedom…
I don’t know what university life is like now, but back then there were all kinds of people. We were some kind of folksy-anti-German clique. We had a club too.
Would you say that the fact that you had to think under a regime had an effect on your way of thinking?
Maybe… I was a paralegal for an attorney. I prepared and delivered legal documents, taking them all over the place. There was still a chance that I would continue to be a lawyer. Then came the war. I fell into the hands of the Russians.
How did that happen?
At the end of the war, those who were attending university were pulled out of the army; I wasn’t called up either. As it goes, on March 18, 1944, I received my diploma. The next day the Germans marched in. The claws of the state machinery were slowly reaching the people. If it came out that someone had finished university, those claws came after them, as they did me. By the summer, the Romanians had dropped out of the war, and beaurocrats, like my father, returned to Hungary (along with us, of course). My older sister lived in Székesfehérvár with her husband, who was an army officer. We went to live with them. When they were bombed out of the army base, we moved into a house in a small village. Within a week, the neighbors reported that there was a young man there who hadn’t gone into the army. Naturally, they drafted me right away to serve at Mór. There were no longer any weapons or uniforms, just the rules—not even any barracks. I had a colleague who said that I should go to the squad leader and give him money. Then they would decommission me. I went to him; they decommissioned me. I went back to the village, and the gendarmerie came after me. My brother-in-law was an officer in the flying corps. He sent them away, but made me enlist again—this time to his unit. It was great, because there were no airplanes there, no petrol. After that came the Russians and everyone went West. But my brother-in-law, who was Serbian and a Hungarian soldier, announced that he was not going to leave his country. So, we waited for the Russians. He came back three and a half years later, and I came back half a year later.
Where were you held as a prisoner of war?
I was next to Leningrad in the old summer home of a tsar. We were rebuilding it. Within half a year, I contracted pneumonia. There was no medicine, or rather the only medicine was bedrest. Are you familiar with [Tivadar] Csontváry’s telegram?
Which one are you thinking of?
When the news came that Emperor Franz Joseph had taken ill, Csontváry wrote: “Put the Emperor out in the sun. Stop. I want a report. Stop. Csontváry. Stop.” The Russians treated my illness the same way; they put me out in the sun. Later, a doctor took pity on me and sent me home. I was taken prisoner on Easter day, and returned home on November 4th. For the next year I was bedridden.
What happened after you regained your strength? You didn’t go back to practising law?
I almost did. I registered with the bar; I even had a mentor, but nothing came of it. When I started to look for my old gang, it turned out that there was a college where you could study film and theatre. I had wanted to be a theatre director my whole life. At the entrance exam, after a long conversation with Béla Balázs, he suggested that I go into film. I graduated in 1951. Last year, I received my diamond diploma.
How did you cope with the Rákosi era? It is difficult to imagine the how you could have managed, given your demeanor.
I was a left-leaning-populist, and we listened to Western radio stations, too. We knew that what they said was different from reality. One time, we heard a Hungarian broadcast of the Russian radio, in which they read out the entire Russian constitution. In the first elections, in 1947, my friends sided with the National Peasant Party, while I sided with the Radicals. By 1949, there was only one party. At that time I said, what the hell, something isn’t right here; they are taking advantage of the people. From then on, until the end of the Communist regime, I didn’t vote—not even once.
And what could you do with a film degree?
No one else was able to work in the film industry except for those who had a diploma. We were able to get work, jobs, right away. I was assigned to work for the television news.
But didn’t you have to make propaganda films?
There were two film studios—one that made feature films and one that made documentaries (part of the television news). Six of us got our diplomas—four of us went to the feature film studio, and two of us went to the television news.
And what did they teach you in college?
Nothing. We watched films and argued about them. István Szőcs swayed us toward Romantic-folksy films, but they didn’t really show us any American films, for example. However, we did go to the movies a lot. During that time, Ferenc Hont became the director of the college. He was a real leftist intellectual. He started the Szeged Open-Air Festival. He was good with the theatre, but not so much with film. In 1949, some of the students—maybe the circle around Karcsi Makk and Bacsó—took it upon themselves to make a film, some kind of story about the Young Pioneers. They got money for it too, and shot it at the Pioneer camp at Csillaberc. At that time, sound machines were about 200 kilos each. You needed two men to lift them. The lighter cameras were the German Arriflex cameras, but they had no sound recording capabilities and you could only work within a 60-meter radius. In other words, it was serious work to make a film with sound. All of a sudden Ferenc Hont showed up. He wanted to contribute his expertise to the project. At that moment, there was no lens on the camera, and so he looked into the panning arm. Such was the level of instruction at that time.
And how did you live through 1956?
With luck. I was in China at the time. There was an army band—orchestra, choir, soloists, dancers, maybe 300 people in all, and they were invited to China. The “brother countries” were really involved with each other, travelling back and forth. My first wife was a folk dancer in the State Folk Ensemble. She told me about one time in Slovakia, in one of the smaller cities, where there was a banner waiting for them that read: “Together we struggle for peace.” Getting back to China…We went there by train. It might have taken us three weeks; we almost went crazy. The Russians were also on high alert. On the train, they confiscated the postcards with maps on them that we had bought, claiming it was espionage. They brought us back quicker, though. By then ’56 was underway. My friends say that either I would have been shot dead or would have defected.
As an activist and somebody who generally cares about truth, how did you live without any repercussions?
Well, I don’t know. Apparently, once when I was not here, one of my co-workers said that I should be demoted. She was a massive bolshevik; me—not so much. We always chatted with each other, shared our differing views, but it never went so far that I should be reported.
And what kind of news broadcasts did you make, specifically?
Rural news. Pig-feeding in Kisvárad, and the like. The television news was organized so that first came politics, then heavy industry, agriculture, culture, and that’s it. These were the different sections. I was in the rural news section. First, they would give an idea for a piece to me, as well as to a director and production manager. Of course, there were also cameramen, but we usually didn’t record sound. We would go to the site—either a farmers’ co-op or state-run farm. But first, we would have to find the head of the village council and the head of the co-op. The first step was to speak with them. One Pentecost we had to make a similar kind of film. We went to the village right as they were having the parade. We asked someone where we could find the head of the council and the head of the co-op. They said, “There they are, they’re bringing the baldachin!”
How did you get to the village? Was there also a car, or did you take the bus?
There were three or four old Skodas that belonged to the film studio. The Russians took away all of the cars, but the studio somehow managed to save these ones. There were always tires packed onto the roofs, because every 50 km or so a tire would blow out and we would have to change it.
So you did reconnaissance.
Yes. We would go down and arrange to go back two or three days later. The head of the farmers’ co-op would then nominate the farmer who deserved to be the one to feed the pig on the television news. Then we would head home and write a screenplay that a committee would have to approve. And then we would go and make the news piece. There was the farmer all dressed up in his Sunday’s best, because of course he couldn’t have fed the pigs just in his work clothes. If he had received some sort of award of merit, that also had to be on display. After the filming, we would go home and, once the committee accepted the final product, it could be broadcast on the television news. We did one or two of these each week.
The Red and the White
After being involved in the news, when and how did your first feature film The Bells Have Gone to Rome (A harangok Rómába mentek) come about?
In 1958. But it’s horrible.
Why? You don’t like it?
I already knew that it was horrible when I made it. I was finally able to shoot a film, because after ’56 the heads of the film studio were progressive Communists who, in the name of change, said that we should make feature films as well. Not long ago, someone brought it out so that I could see it, and I couldn’t even watch it all the way through; it’s so bad. I don’t usually watch my films, because I can see where I messed up. My colleagues in the theatre are so much luckier in that they can do the same piece more than once, modifying the live piece from performance to performance. But films are like canned goods.
But isn’t it good that these canned goods exist?
Well, I don’t know. I watch other people’s films. Many years ago, there was a screening of my films in England. They had found a completely untouched copy of The Round-Up. And so I started to watch it, because I was curious about its quality.
Speaking of The Round-Up… You broke some really serious taboos with this film for that time-period. It is a very frank depiction of the relationship between the individual and the establishment, and it amazes us that they allowed it. How were you able to achieve such artistic-creative freedom?
I don’t know. I also wonder about this. When I first met my friend [Gyula] Hernádi, there was this new generation of young writers emerging; Gyula brought me into this circle. Today, many of us wouldn’t be able to sit at the same table together. Back then, there was one goal, which at its heart was critique—we should look at our society with critical eyes and report what we see. Why and how did they put up with this? I knew György Aczél pretty well. If someone watches The Round-Up, they will understand that it is a kind of generalization that is connected to ’56. Aczél was no idiot, and yet he allowed it. Why? He didn’t say. And since he never wrote his memoirs, he has taken this answer with him to the grave.
Do the soldiers in The Round-Up reflect your experiences as a Russian prisoner of war?
Maybe. And everything else. At that time the feature film studio consisted of creative teams. There was a leader, as well as screenwriters and directors. Originally, I ended up with [István] Nemeskürty, who was more or less a popularizing historian. As a Hungarian, he wanted to promote Hungarian history, because under Rákosi there just wasn’t a lot of that. He said that instead of [Mór] Jókai’s novels we should make a real historical film. There are three stories in The Round–Up: a story from [Zsigmond] Móricz, a true story about outlaws (written by a novelist from Szeged), and a story about how they suspected a gendarme of being a mole—that’s the real story of a Russian general.
Is it really true what they write about your films, that they portray your thoughts?
Actually, we never really formulated for ourselves, what we should say. That was always the problem, that we would finish the film and already need to make a new one. That’s why Hernádi took a firm position of no compromise. Both money and the establishment affect a film. I used to talk with my ex-wife Márta Mészáros about how lucky we were that we started working right at the time when Kádár was trying to liberalize things a little, if one can say this about such a regime. When someone writes something, they are writing about themselves. Even the census taker… Actually what comes out doesn’t really interest me, but at the same time you have to take it seriously. Public opinion matters quite a bit. It is not a coincidence that Americans spend as much trying to make a film popular as they do making the film itself. Under the circumstances of that time it was lucky that my first films were in international circulation. I have met with a number of colleagues, but I am not in the same league as Bergman, or Antonioni, who I consider to be my master.
Do you have any films in the works?
Is there a good chance that there will be funding for it?
This is a ridiculous industry that requires a lot of money. For decades I’ve been making films in a way that when the money comes together, I mull it over. I really don’t think it all the way through. I just know more or less what I want to do.
We know that it is a lot, but how much has technology changed?
So much. In college we used to cut actual film. I already spoke about the kinds of cameras and sound gear we were working with. Today’s editors use computers. It’s a big change.
If I remember correctly, you have run for office twice since the end of the Communist regime.
Run? They made me. They asked me to. I gave my name.
Why did you say yes? Did you really believe that you could change something here?
I have thought that so many times. In these past few decades, there were times when I believed it might be possible to change things in the world. I don’t really like [Sándor] Márai, because I don’t like gentrification; but, what he wrote in his diary is important. You can’t seriously think that someone can change the world.
But that’s what being an activist is all about—believing that change is possible, that things should be better…
Of course. Because you have to. You can’t live just giving into the fact that everything is shit and people can walk all over you. But at the same time I know that with every change came people who did exactly the same as those who had come before them. At the time of the ’49 election, I was convinced that the Communists were an upstanding society. Later, as everything unfolded—and it’s the same now unfortunately—you realize that something is not right, no matter what they promise. But, well, it’s always been like this.
In the past few decades, has it occurred to you that you are a lawyer? Maybe when you heard or read about lawsuits or trials?
The lawyer in me has never stirred. With the Kádár trials, so many things came to mind, for example who were these people who had done these things. Once, I was called to the countryside. This young lawyer drove me there. It was at the time of the first Fidesz government. He talked about how one of his judge acquaintances had acquitted a fidesz defendant. The lawyer had asked him why. Had they swayed him? Had they given him money? He replied that they had done neither. He just wanted to live in peace.
What kinds of books have you been reading lately?
So many different kinds.
What kind of film would you make, if someone gave you an unlimited amount of money?
Well, that’s never happened to anyone. In today’s society, though, one can find plenty of topics.
Do you think that coincidence is an important part of life?
And is there such a thing as a coincidence?
Well, I don’t know what coincidence is. Some time in the 40s I went out to the corner of Baross street. Two lackeys were unloading iron from a truck. One of the pieces of iron struck me just below my right eye, not even a centimeter below. An accident? A year either before or after, there was an avant-garde artitsts’ club on Üllői street in the building right across from the Vörösmarty cinema. I looked at my watch. It was 2:10 when I walked through the entrance and closed the gate behind me. At that moment, the balcony…
Collapsed. And what do you think will become of this world?
I don’t know. But it’s also a good question to ask, what will happen with this country?
* Interview translated from the Hungarian by Fiona Stewart.
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