“(Jancsó’s films) consist of approximately ten-minute long shots which resemble collective ballet and usually record shifts of the relations between rulers and the oppressed, often in a violent form. The masterfully controlled technique is not, however technical playing but a natural consequence of the director’s historical vision; formed from its pressure.” (Peter von Bagh)
Silence and Cry (1967), directed by Miklós Jancsó, is one of the finest achievements of East European New Wave, and is of paramount importance when studying the greatest era of Hungarian cinema. A wildly poetic and masterful study on fear and love. It is quite an unknown film but its historical and political relevancy should not be neglected. For, it is an outstanding work made during the age of the Brezhnev Doctrine and social turmoil. After a year, in 1968, the Prague Spring took place and Soviet tanks silenced the people. This is the era when Godard and Buñuel made their wildest films. The revolutionary decade of the 60’s which, more than anything else, manifested in the cinema. But in order to understand the social backgrounds of Silence and Cry, we must take a look back.
Unlike in many other European countries, Hungarian film industry wasn’t nationalized until the year 1948 when communists came to power. Although the People’s Republic was what it was, it did wonders to the film industry — as did the fierce control in Soviet Union. In fact, the situation was so propitious that Hungary had the potential to achieve something similar Italy did with neo-realism. It had the theoretic, as well as the artistic talent, but the fascist dictatorship, which had ruled from 1919 to 1940’s, simply had made the possibility too difficult. The dawn of tomorrow was too far away, so to speak.
Due to this, it took some time before Hungarian film rose to its feet. But once it did — in a decade — it was ready to produce something exceptional and magnificent. Already in its earliest days, Hungarian art has been characterized by ontological questions, such as “what is blind chance?” and, in turn, “what was determined to happen?” but it was in the 1960’s when these issues developed their social associations; and exactly in Hungarian cinema. As a matter of fact, a film critic and historian Peter von Bagh has written how the late 60’s of Hungarian cinema represents the most free and creative atmosphere of the whole Eastern Europe.
In addition to Miklós Jancsó, this era of Hungarian cinema was also reigned by András Kovács who was a leftist pioneer of cinéma vérité and, above all, István Szabó whose films have been continuously associated with the Nouvelle Vague. In Szabó’s films reality and fantasy, past and presence conduct dialog. He created his own poetics, which was very close to surrealism. A famous piece of his style is Mephisto (1981) which dealt with the serious problem of Europe — the relation between art and power. Now, by studying these contemporaries we get to the core of Jancsó’s art. For, the way I see it, it was his style which reassured the success of Hungarian film. It was him who made Novi-Film rise above. Jancsó is the director of the East Europe in the 1960’s. Only Andrei Tarkovsky can beat him. Jancsó is not only the most famous but also the most controversial Hungarian director of all times.
One of Jancsó’s best films Silence And Cry begins with a montage of still images which take us to history: the year is 1919 and the age of white terror is upon us. In the first scene the viewer sees an empty hill which three men arrive to. One of them is a prisoner, who is executed by shooting in the back. Nothing is heard but silence; and quiet birdsong. In fact, this is the image which the entire film is based on. During the white terror, reds were constantly searched and executed. Peasants were put under house arrest, under the watching eyes of the police. This group of people is represented by the protagonist, who is also wanted by the police. Two women fall in love with him and, therefore attempt to poison their master to free themselves. The story unfolds to many directions and gets a lot of dimensions but, at its heart, it is based on the landscape — on the horizontal vision of empty hills.
All the milieus of the film feature simplified landscapes which seem to depict isolation; or alienation — the spaces are extremely open. As if, the characters were unable to hide; they are like rats under the eyes of vultures; and in this supervised milieu of fear, no room is left for love and tenderness. In a way, this draws a tenuous parallel to the Cold War; to the puppet states of Soviet Union where Stasi (The Ministry for State Security) took care of Orwellian surveillance.
In fact, this is a central realization in Jancsó’s style: the pure unity between visuals, themes and historical conditions. It is really this what separates him from Michelangelo Antonioni whose films seemingly bear a striking resemblance to his. For Jancsó’s films aren’t really abstract, although several critics seem to highlight this. To my mind, his films are, yes abstract — in a certain fashion — but deal with historical conditions in a concrete manner. He creates realist cinema. Still characterized by that psychological depth which drills down to the innermost of man; through which he analyzes the workings of the mind.
The greatest topic of all — history — is constantly dealt with in Jancsó’s films: whether it was the war in The Red and the White (1967) or the peasant uprisings in Red Psalm (1972). However, Jancsó never took historical topics unless his themes demanded it. For, isn’t the social surveillance and agony portrayed in Silence and Cry strongly related to its existentialism and gloomy depiction of the bleak reality? One shouldn’t see the symbolism and poetry, both of which are an essential part of his films, as a boundary but as an accessory to his realism; to the realism of historical mythology. Especially while watching Red Psalm, this idea might just be more than useful.
Jancsó uses extremely long shots and very little dialog which ties him to the Hungarian master of contemporary film Béla Tarr. Practically, Jancsó only cuts when a sequence changes. The camera moves and observes reality. To a similar monotonous atmosphere, typical for Tarr, Jancsó doesn’t even try to achieve, for his space is constantly full of action; of movement. The camera circles around the characters and follows their moves. It is as if, the camera or the narrator coexisted with the characters; creating reality of fear. In the result of this, the information about the characters is given to the viewer, not through dialog, but through action. However, in the story itself, much doesn’t happen.
Silence and Cry is shot in magnificent black-and-white CinemaScope where naturalistic realism obtains even expressionistic features. The cinematography and the composition are characterized by certain poetic elements, such as the white horse and the well, but the same repeats on the sound track as well — in the song of the bird and the howl of the wind. Yet, as in the films by Tarr, the viewer sees ground, mud and top of the trees which prevents seeing the edge of heaven. If the director’s philosophy can be found from this, his state of mind lies distinctly in the description of the environment: grey reeds, cold ponds and dead trees, which build up the architectonic composition of desperate desolation.
It seems that, in addition to the landscapes, the cinematography indicates the existential state of mind of the characters; their continuous fear for their lives. In fact, it is truly fear and hate what this is all about. As many great European novels, Silence and Cry also has both social and individual dimensions — the historical condition of classes which have ran into a violent confrontation. It is, actually, these conditions through which Jancsó studies individual human beings and, in the result of this, dialectic poetics always characterize his films and play an integral role in his stylistics.
Although Jancsó is never self-evident, and at times he even seems to be politically objective by showing the cruelties of both parties, he should not be seen as an anarchist director. Even if he tenuously criticized the state of Hungary, he was clearly a Marxist-Leninist. He seems to hate war and respect life, but still highlight situations where things, which are worthy enough to be categorized as the price of life, can exist. He was a communist, however in his films, political dimensions aren’t as important as philosophical.
“All over the world irrationalism is spreading in a manner which awakes anxiety — its manifestations are, for example, religion, obscure nationalist ideologies and right-wing anarchism. In most parts of the world, the citizens’ participation to political decision is not in order and thus, citizens feel the need to turn to gods and other forms of irrationality.” (Miklós Jancsó)
In the last image of Silence and Cry all is summarized: the protagonist is given a gun — “you can do it yourself” — but, suddenly, he turns and shoots his executioner. This surprising gesture is followed by an equally surprising freeze-frame which contradicts to the entire visual appearance of the film. In fact, as the title suggests, this aesthetic choice seems to highlight the slowly unfolding aggressiveness, beneath the severe themes, from which an angry thesis of the historical conditions is formed.