Saturday, May 07, 2005

Living and dying in a Red Psalm world

History must answer to man. As a statement of philosophical import it is unimpeachable, but as the topic of an essay it is, at first glance, frighteningly vague. It strikes one, at first, as being akin to having as a topic Life, the Universe, and Everything. Naturally the phrase is meant to indicate something terrifically broad and not the Douglas Adams novel of the same name. Despite the overwhelming nature of the assigned task, however, it is best to simply get to it.

The first issue to be considered is the fact that this class is on Eastern European Cinema. There is a limiting influence imposed on the broad bounds of the assignment already. History must answer to man in the context of Eastern European Cinema. What that means, exactly, will take further examination. One could, if desperate or simply procrastinating, type that essay prompt into a search engine on the internet. Say a student finds himself idly looking around for potential Christmas gifts when he suddenly remembers this essay topic. Typing in “history must answer to man,” he finds that it is a book by Graham Petrie on Hungarian Cinema. Eureka! Here’s a connection.

Having found the book, and having read the book, however, are two different things. But there must be some logic behind the assignment if someone could write a whole book under that title about the films of just one Eastern European country. So this hypothetical student must then ask himself “why would Graham Petrie call his book about Hungarian films that?”

Well, perhaps, hypothetical student, there is a great deal about the portrayal and reaction to the history of Hungary found in the works of Hungarian filmmakers.

“Yes, but perhaps it was originally called ‘Hungarian movies plain and simple’ and his editor made up that ‘history’ thing on a whim because he thought it would sell more books.”

We’re going to have to assume that hypothesis is simply wrong or we’ll never get anywhere. Now, if we examine my theory, perhaps we can find a Hungarian filmmaker who deals with and confronts Hungarian history in his films. Of course we can, Miklos Jancso. Here is a filmmaker whose film Red Psalm is about revolution and Socialism and involves all kinds of symbolic acts that cannot actually happen. Yes, my imaginary friend, I think we have a topic.

According to Istvan Nemeskurty, one can look at Jancso’s films in order of their chronological occurrence rather than shooting date and have a fairly consistent portrait of the past one hundred and fifty years of Hungarian history. “In fact,” Nemeskurty points out, “even the heroes of all the films seem one person: a young man about twenty or thirty years of age who appears again and again, almost continuing, perfecting his previous life” (Nemeskurty 20). The Round Up takes place around eighteen forty-eight, Red Psalm, which will be discussed more thoroughly, takes place at the end of the nineteenth century, The Red and the White takes place in World War One, and Silence and Cry takes place in the closing hours of World War Two.

Most of Jancso‘s films are fairly heavily concerned with Hungary and Hungarians as they cope with larger world events, most especially with the relationship between Hungary and Russia. Red Psalm, however, does not deal with this particular relationship. Set in the eighteen nineties, Red Psalm is about a pasant uprising against the Hapsburg empire. The peasants are socialists, reflecting Jancso’s personal opinions, and the story that is portrayed, though certainly not factual, still serves as a comment on history: making history answer to man.

The peasants first rise against the local authorities, singing and refusing to give their grain over to the constables. The soldiers move to take the grain by force, but are shamed into giving up their weapons by the women of the revolutionary group. Seeing that the soldiers have been shamed the the point of neutrality, the men of the group attempt to convince them to join, but only one is willing to listen. He joins in with one of the peasant dances, but soon other soldiers drive him away. He throws down his pistol in disgust and an officer picks it up and shoots one of the peasant women with it. When the cadet moves to her aid, he too is shot and killed.
Immediately thereafter he is brought back to life by the very peasant woman he had been trying to help, and the balance is kept for the time being.

So here we are not very far into the film, and we already have the living dead. Or at least a miracle. Clearly not an actual historical film. But it is an example of Jancso making history answer him. This cadet being killed and resurrected is not factual, nor is the audience intended to think it is. Rather, it shows the keeping of the peace for the time being in a way which cannot be literally believed but can express more clearly that a factual representation.

Perhaps the most stunning example of Jancso making history subordinate to his point is in a scene which opens with all the peasants and the soldiers dancing together. By this time the rising has grown to include hundreds of peasants, and they have been brought into direct conflict with the whole army. So we see a massive dance; all is frivolous and jolly. Then there is a bugle call and all the soldiers walk away from dance and surround the dancing peasants. They aim their guns at the peasants and fire on command until every peasant has fallen down dead.

The statement here is about the power of conflicting loyalty and allegiance, and it is one of the most powerful scenes in the film. It is, however, also symbolic. As powerful a message as this scene is, it is not the final message, and so Jancso’s peasants reappear in the next scene, bound and separated between those that wish to recant and live, and those who would rather die. This is two times that Jancso has had characters resurrected in Red Psalm, the second time being a mass resurrection. Surely this must detract from the meaning of the death. By now the audience must be convinced that no death is meaningful because death is not real in Jancso’s world within this film. But the deaths are not there to torment an audience with the end of a beloved character, they are in this film to make history, in a fashion, answer to man, which has been the goal of all of Jancso’s, and it could be added all of Hungary’s films.

The film Red Psalm ends with the peasants who will not recant being executed. One of the recantors tries to get his fellows who will not to recant, and the guitar player who has only sang and played throughout the film to this point stabs him. the guitar player is himself shot by an officer, and the other peasants are executed thereafter. The film ends with a shot of their blood stained bodies and the image of one of the peasant women rising to shoot down the celebrating soldiers.

The point is hard to judge. There are several points one could see being made in the film, but the primary one seems to be made by the very existence of the film itself. One can make a film to suit one’s own purposes. Jancso does this beautifully but others may do it more poorly. The strength in history is not inchoate. History becomes important when it is made to answer to man and thereby made comprehensible. The danger therein lies in who history is being made to answer to when a given perspective is presented. Clearly in some cases we get beautiful films about the powers of reconciliation and struggle for class freedom. In some cases we could get something far worse.

There, now, that was not so bad, was it?

“What? Oh. Sorry. I was looking at this sweet DVD.”

You mean to tell me that you didn’t get any of the information from that paper I just wrote. You don’t know anything more about history answering to man than you did before?

“Well, you don’t either. You just made it up off the top of your head. Hell, you’re just typing out this conversation because the paper isn’t long enough.”

Yes, proverbial student, the paper does not meet the minimum word requirement in it’s current state, but I think that it is a strong paper nonetheless. You see, proverbial student, it isn’t about the length of the paper, but rather about the thought that goes into it and how clearly the student understands the material involved. If, in the case of this class, my essay reflects, which I hope it does, the appreciation and intellectual challenges this class has brought to me, then it shouldn’t matter if two hundred or so of the words are the most blatent filler imaginable.

“Hey nameless voice, you’re right.”

God, I hope so.

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