Miklós Jancsó’s The Round Up is a film about power. It’s set in Hungary in the 1850s but its themes are timeless, thus its inclusion here. More specifically, it’s about how cruel power can be, and how arbitrary, how pointless. Its title in Hungarian is Szegénylegények which translates as “The Hopeless Ones” is perhaps a better indication of the film’s intentions. The film’s only protagonists are Hungarian soldiers and their prisoners, former revolutionaries now turned bandits (the slippage between the two is never made quite clear). It’s set in a penal stockade on the plains of Hungary. The film’s use of landscape is incredible – these vast, flat spaces dominate, and become oppressive, and humans are reduced in scale. A prisoner runs off into this space at one stage, and it seems a hopeless gesture, a plunge into the void. The actors become ant-like and normal human desires and intentions are similarly reduced. The stockade is utterly startk and bleak, whitewashed, without a single human touch or gesture of comfort anywhere.
The film’s action, such as it is, consists of “games” and intrigues between the jailers and their prisioners. The human interaction is treacherous, self-serving and cruel – a large portion of the film focuses on one bandit desperately trying to save himself from the noose by incriminating other prisoners. However, exposition in the film is very limited. One is never quite sure who knows what, or how, and the goals behind many of the small cruelties we are shown is never made entirely clear. Giving the viewer this limited view is intentional, I think. It mirrors the confusion and bewilderment experiencing by the prisoners or indeed anyone who’s on the wrong end of the exercise of power. The film really captures the total pointlessness of power, it’s capriciousness and cruelty.
Jancsó has commented that the film can be read as a response to the suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. Reading the DVD notes, it’s apparent that it’s also a demolition of some of the romantic myths of Hungary’s past. However, the film’s themes are sadly timeless. Seeing the hodded figures pictured above bought to mind Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay.
The Round-Up is recognised as a classic of Hungarian cinema. It’s been an influence on film-makers such as Bela Tarr amongst others. We could also see it as forerunner of films like Pasolini’s Salo. It doesn’t demonstrate the horrific sights of modern gore or torture porn but there’s a poetry here much greater than any of these efforts. It remains a powerful film now – I would’ve have loved to have seen it upon it’s initial release when I think it would have been simply stunning.