Most Hungarian films are still largely unknown outside of art house circles; which is a shame as there have been some excellent ones over the years. Especially interesting are those made during the Soviet era in the 60s and 70s. Considering the tight censorship they must have been working under, Hungarian directors made several movies critiquing the communist system.
We’ve all heard stories about excessive censorship by authoritarian governments. It’s often when some hapless author has written a children’s book, and is subsequently dragged through the courts because an official believes that it’s secretly carrying a hidden message. As a result many artists have had to resort to a range of techniques in order to get their point across without going to jail.
The two main strategies seem to be to use surrealism to hide their real target, or use a historical setting so it looks like a critique of something else. What’s surprising is how often this approach appeared to have worked. There are several examples of films made in the Soviet bloc that are blatant attacks on their model of government, yet were both funded and released by the self-same governments.
The Round-Up (the original Hungarian title is Szegénylegények), is one such work. It’s set two decades after the failed Hungarian revolution of 1848. While the revolution was successfully put down by the ruling Austrian elite, resistance remained in the countryside with the rebels using guerilla tactics to continue the struggle.
What follows is a strange, grim, and often silent film, based in and around a prison fort on the Hungarian plains. The soldiers are guarding peasants suspected of being former revolutionaries. They’ve been given the task of trying to discover who the rebels are, and have resorted to the use of threats, bargaining and torture. Prisoners are encouraged to inform on each other to escape punishment, creating an atmosphere of paranoia and resentment.
It doesn’t take a genius at this point to recognise that The Round-Up is a commentary on more recent events in Hungarian history; most obviously the 1956 revolution that was brutally stamped out by the Soviets using many of the same techniques seen here. I can only assume that the censors saw it as an attack on capitalist countries. Presumably it didn’t occur to anyone that the Soviet model was largely reliant on similar methods.
The bleak atmosphere is suitably enhanced by the setting. Filmed in the middle of the Hungarian plains, the prison seems utterly isolated from the rest of the world. As a result it feels both claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time. Equally there’s little in the way of characterisation, not much dialogue, and virtually no plot. The entire film is stripped back to the essentials; it’s all about the setting, and the attempts by the authorities to find the rebels. If this was a mainstream film there’d probably be a daring jail break, or the prison commander and the leader of the rebels would engage in a psychological battle of wits. This feels much more true to reality.
If it sounds like I’m selling The Round-Up short, I don’t mean to. It’s just very important to not expect a traditional prison movie. The Round-Up is not an uplifting or cheerful film, there are no heroics or redemption to be found here. It’s like a morality fable without a moral. If there is a lesson to be learnt, it’s probably that trickery is infinitely more successful than intimidation and violence. If I was being ultra-cynical I might argue that this is why capitalism has always proven more successful than communism. People respond better to trickery than torture. Either way, this and many of the other films by Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó, are well worth hunting down and watching.
Here is a clip of the first few minutes of The Round-Up: