Miklós Jancsó’s The Round-Up – Szegénylegények (1966)

The Round-Up

I suppose when you’ve seen quite a lot of the well-known prisoner of war films and are fond of the genre, you’ll come across Miklós Jancsó’s The Round-Up aka Szegénylegények sooner or later. Not only is it an unusual example of a POW movie, but it’s considered to be a masterpiece of European filmmaking and was highly influential.

Miklós Jancsó is a Hungarian film maker. He started out with documentaries before he moved on to movies. He’s made a few famous films – The Red and the White – My Way Home and many others. The Round-Up was the movie that made him famous and is still considered to be his most important film.

The Round-Up is set in a prison camp, on some God-forsaken stretch of land on the Hungarian Plain (Puszta). It’s the mid 19th century and the Austrian hegemony has just been re-established after the unsuccessful revolution of 1848. The men who are held in this prison camp are suspected to be followers of the leader of the revolution Lajos Kossuth. There is still a lot of guerilla activity going on and the Austrians, helped by their Hungarian counterparts, try to find out who are the guerilla leaders. Most of them are suspected to be among the prisoners and the guards use perfidious and sadistic techniques to find out who they are. 

What we see applied in this film is psychological torture. People are promised not to be executed if they can find others who killed more people than they did. Or the guards pretend that a guerilla leader will be pardoned which makes his followers cheer. Of course they have been set up and that was a means to find out who they are.

Humiliation is part of the tactics used. We see how one officer is stripped of his rank, how the guards rip all the insignia from his uniform and while they do not harm him, it feels extremely violent. We later realize that this was foreshadowing as other suspects undergo a fate that’s similar but even worse. One girl is stripped and whipped until she dies. Watching the whipping of the girl triggers a flood of suicides. Later men are stripped too.

Torture is always humiliating but this subtle use of psychological torture is, although less violent, just as effective in that regard.

I have to be honest, I personally didn’t like this film, although it has a lot of poignant scenes, which I’m not likely to forget, but overall this isn’t my type of movie. It’s visually expressive but there isn’t much plot and hardly any dialogue. I don’t need action or plot but I like more atmosphere and dialogue. The Round-Up is all about forms, shapes, space and minimal movement. Plus it’s set in the type of flat landscape I’m really not keen on. That doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the film, I just couldn’t relate to it much. But it’s an important movie if you are either a cinephile or a war movie completist. I’ll watch The Red and the White and My Way Home next.

You can watch the whole movie on YouTube

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8 thoughts on “Miklós Jancsó’s The Round-Up – Szegénylegények (1966)

  1. kevin says:

    I had never heard of this one. I do not feel compelled to watch it. If you did not like it, I am unlikely to. I have heard of The Red and The White and have it in my queue.

    Do you get more money if I watch the ads?

  2. nem baj says:

    Thanks for reviewing this one anyway, and kudos for your eclecticism! [Unsuprisingly positive comment follows]

    Firstly, this is a political film. It is only historical as a parable: the 1956 uprising was still very close, and of course the filmmaker had to state publicly that his work wasn’t about 56 and the ensuing repression, but nobody was fooled.

    And indeed, this is ‘abstract’ filmmaking – Jancsó was trained in law and ethnology. It is also extremely bleak (somebody once said it was like Robert Bresson shooting Franz Kafka’s Penal Colony). So, yes, one must leave all hopes of entertainment behind. But then…

    Are oppression and humiliation entertaining? Beyond the extravagant elegance of the photography and camera moves, Jancsó films de-humanization as a dance many steps thereof may seem superflouous to the observer – surely, the narrative doesn’t follow the usual patterns – but who have to be accomplished nonetheless.

    That’s where the true beauty of The Round-Up lies: revealing oppression not as a chain of individual events following the rule of cause and consequence, but as a tragic ritual. For which, as I’m obviously more sensitive to its monotonous appeal, the Great Hungarian Plain (and skies) provides a fantastic setting, an organized space as mental as it is geographical.

    • I’m very weird when it comes to landscapes. I don’t like monotony and mountains, but for this particuar film, I must admit it did work. No distractions was obviously what he was going for.
      Some of the movie only made sense because I had just taken a photography course and was somewhat sensibilized to shapes, forms, diagonals. Yes, very abstract. In those moments when he is not, like when the officer is stripped of his stripes and the girl of her clothes and those sadistic games that are played, it’s very powerful.
      I’ve got an interesting booklet with my DVD, which explained some of the political implications. I din’t mention them though.
      I see why this could be compared to Te Penal Colony. They are both universal in their depiction of torture and oppression.

      • nem baj says:

        No visual distraction indeed, but also the vastness of the plain and the towering skies make even the outside look like an open-air prison ruled by some superior power. Yet it is not a desert, so that power must be human.

        I’ve never been to Cuba, but I imagine the landscape would be less convenient.

      • I have been in the Caribbean and – no it wouldn’t be the right landscape. :) Nor England for that matter. The Netherlands and Belgium would have worked better but maybe their flat plains are not vast enough. It would be interesting to know if the landscape didn’t trigger the movie. Hitchcock, it seesm, often started with one single picture and developed his ideas from there.
        I’ll be in Hungary in May but I don’t think I’ll get a chance to see anything else but Budapest. I need to review Gloomy Sunday.

  3. nem baj says:

    OT: the UK National Archives have published over one million pages of WWI diaries online. Messieurs les Anglais, tirez les premiers !

    http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/first-world-war/

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