First-time viewers of Miklós Jancsó’s 1968 film Silence and Cry, reissued on Blu-Ray and DVD by Second Run, will be greeted by something they might not expect from the veteran Hungarian director – a montage. Don’t worry, it doesn’t last. The rest of the film is shot in the long, smooth, mobile takes that Jancsó also deployed in films like The Red and the White and Electra, My Love (both also available on Second Run). After this sequence passes, the first ten minutes pass with precisely five cuts.
The montage is a series of archive photographs showing Miklós Horthy coming to power and joining forces with the Axis nations in World War II. Tony Rayns’s accompanying booklet offers more information about this period in Hungarian history, and while it’s welcome it’s also not vital to your appreciation of the film. As is often the case with Jancsó’s work, Silence and Cry is a parable about power and dissent rather than an attempt to reconstruct a particular historical moment. It tells the story of István, a Communist runaway hiding out in a farm from Horthy’s men, slowly realising that totalitarianism has even managed to permeate the minds of the people helping him.
On this level, Silence and Cry is a great success. This writer has a deep distaste for films like The White Ribbon and The Childhood of a Leader which analyse fascism as a personal, psychosexual disorder; it’s glib and puerile to suggest that if Germans had been a bit more liberal in their parenting we wouldn’t have had the Holocaust. (I mean, I’m British: we’re very good at sexual repression, yet somehow managed to avoid electing Mosley) Jancsó correctly observes it from the opposite end of the telescope, showing fascism breeding dysfunction in ordinary people’s personal lives rather than originating from it. He also wisely foregrounds a (self?) hatred of weakness and a worship of action, even ineffective action, as an important symptom of the disease. Unlike István, the farm owner Károly has collaborated with Horthy’s gendarmes to the cost of his own reputation, yet rather than being grateful they seem repelled by his self-abasement. He is forced to stand out in the middle of a field every day as a deliberately pointless punishment.
Jancsó’s ideas are good, but I have some reservations about how he dramatises them. To understand why, it’s necessary to take a look back at the history of the long tracking shot. Also known as the sequence shot or plano sequencia, at the time Jancsó was working it was associated solely with difficult arthouse cinema. Long tracking shots in the 1960s and 70s included the traffic jam in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend, the river bed in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the many examples in I Am Cuba. They were as much, if not more, an ideological choice as an aesthetic one. Nobody would have foreseen that, in the 21st century, they would become a shorthand for cool, used for exhilarating effect in action films like Hanna or TV series like True Detective.
Why did this happen? Well, the mainstream always catches up to the avant-garde eventually, and the invention of Steadicam (remarkably unavailable to Jancsó at the time he was composing these shots) made them more achievable for Hollywood film-makers. If there was one shot that made the plano sequencia cool, it was probably the Copacabana shot in Goodfellas, a last-minute improvisation by one of the few Hollywood directors working in the early ’90s who was cine-literate enough to know this was an option. The term plano sequencia, incidentally, is one I first heard in Alex Cox’s writings on Mexican cinema. He noticed that Mexican arthouse directors of the 1970s and 80s were using this technique a lot; in the 2010s, Mexican directors like Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón have achieved enormous commercial success while maintaining this style.
What this digression is about is this: why did the sequence shot go from being foreboding to being cool? I think it’s because there’s less distance between these two moods than we assume. A sequence shot rarely involves close-ups, and when it does they’re easily flitted away from, never the entire point of the shot. Is that cold and unemotional, or is that hip and playful? It can be both, or neither, and I wouldn’t say Silence and Cry is unemotional by a long shot. It’s just that I missed seeing the little tells that a more conventionally filmed drama about subterfuge and collaboration would involve: the close-ups that might reveal a tiny, telling tremor of expression, or a hidden detail. For people accustomed to modern sequence shots, Jancsó’s later film Electra, My Love is both ideologically provocative and has something of the stylish exuberance of a Birdman or a Victoria. Silence and Cry may take a little getting used to.
What’s immediately striking is Jancsó’s use of space and composition as a way of dramatising shifting power relations. Jancsó often stays in place to show people, particularly women, changing their body language as they move out of the gendarmes’ field of vision. It’s like he’s responding to the old cliche about a great woman behind every great man by pointing out that terrible men often have women behind them too. The landscapes, too, are immense, prompting an unexpected thought about the film’s genre. Is this story of a state authority trying to impose itself on an unwilling rural community actually a Western?
Lastly, it’s worth mentioning the disc’s main extra, three shorts by Jancsó titled Presence I, Presence II and Presence III. I say “extra” singular because the films are well worth watching back to back. Made in three different decades and each lasting about ten minutes, the Presence films each show a ruined Hungarian synagogue. In the first film, the synagogue is completely empty and derelict; the title feels like it refers to a ghost or a memory rather than anything physical. The second film repeats certain shots and sequences but also shows people returning to the synagogue, and by the third film Jancsó is essentially making a documentary about Hungary’s resurgent Jewish community.
The Presence films are slight individually but collectively have an overwhelming power. That feels like a political motto Jancsó would approve of, as well as a good summation of this set, which overcomes the limitations of its individual films to provide a thought-provoking portrait of a unique director at a critical juncture in history.