The Dow Filmmaker Average Plummets

What follows is a piece I wrote for this week's issue of Jewish Week. It's not on the website but the film event is important enough for wide dissemination. Obviously there is a lot more to recommend Jancso's work than his unusual affinity for Jewish themes; his mastery of the long take is legendary and well-deserved, and his films are the closest thing to pure dance of any narrative filmmaker I can name. If you're in New York while this series is going on, trundle over to Lincoln Center and see as many of the Jancso films as you can. Who knows when you'll get another chance to see them on a big screen.

The Hungarian filmmaker Miklos Jancso is perhaps the finest living example of the fickleness of what Northrop Frye called the stock exchange theory of criticism. In the 1960s and early ‘70s, Jancso was among the best-known Eastern bloc directors, acclaimed for his strangely lyrical historical dramas in which the violence of his country’s history was turned into a dance of hunter and hunted, oppressor and oppressed, with those roles changing hands at a bloody moment’s notice. In the late ‘70s he went to Italy where he extended his unique historical vision to encompass more of Europe’s past. But after The Tyrant’s Heart played the 1982 New York Film Festival, Jancso vanished from American theaters. What happened?

The Film Society of Lincoln Center, which has long been one of Jancso’s strongest supporters, offers no answer in its upcoming series “Resistance and Rebirth: Hungarian Cinema, 50 Years After ’56,” but one of the tree components of the program is a seven-film tribute to Jancso, who is still an active filmmaker at the age of 85. In fact, he has a film in post-production right now. In the 24 years since his last New York exposure, he has directed 21 film and television projects, many of them with Jewish themes, including an Israeli project, The Dawn in 1985.

Jancso has always had an affinity for Jewish themes. As he explained in a 2002 interview with Andrew Horton, as someone of Transylvanian descent and half-Romanian, he always felt like an outsider in Hungarian circles, and identified with his Jewish cousins. Indeed, in the 1980s he seriously considered relocating permanently to Israel, and among his unseen works from 24 years his films weren’t shown in New York are a series of documentaries and film-essays on the Shoah.

None of this should come as a great surprise to anyone who has seen his masterpieces, films like The Round-Up, The Red and the White, Red Psalm and Elektra, My Love. These films, with their omnipresent images of cruelty and oppression, built on shifting sands of power, of men and women stripped naked and paraded for the perverse amusement of their captors, echo the Holocaust almost directly, even when the events they depict are drawn from Hungarian history or, in the case of Elektra, Greek tragedy.

It is unfortunate that the Film Society is only showing one of Jancso’s post-1982 films, an off-beat comedy The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest. It would be very exciting to see where he went in those years lost to U.S. audiences. But it is a pleasure to have the opportunity to rediscover this all-but-forgotten master. Maybe his stock will rise once again.

“Resistance and Rebirth: Hungarian Cinema, 50 Years After ’56” will be presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center at the Walter Reade Theatre (70 Lincoln Center Plaza) October 27-November 15. For information, phone 212-875-5600 or go to www.filmlinc.com. To read the Andrew Horton interview with Jancso in full and a very interesting selection of other pieces on his cinema, click here.



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