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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La Grande Illusion aka Grand Illusion (1937) The Classic French WWI Movie

What took me so long to watch La grande illusion one of the greatest masterpieces of French cinema?  Jean Renoir’s black and white movie is simply one of the best movies I have ever seen, regardless of any genre. It combines so many elements, to enumerate them all would make a long list. Compared to La grande illusion every other POW movie seems to be just a remake. Every element of later films is already there but the message is a different one. This is a movie that probably wouldn’t have been possible with the same core message after WWII. When Renoir shot his movie, there was still ample room for positive German figures. We don’t see any nasty or cruel guards.  La grande illusion is a work of poetical realism. The two points of view go hand in hand.

The central story is the story of two officers Maréchal (Jean Gabin), a simple mechanic, and de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), an aristocrat, shot down together over Germany. They are brought to a prison camp where, thanks to the food parcels of one of their rich Jewish fellow officers, they live relatively luxuriously while the German guards eat cabbage day in and day out. The people they are sharing a room with have been digging a tunnel for weeks. While waiting for the tunnel to be finished, they spend their days rehearsing for a theater play, dreaming of women and civilian life. When Maréchal announces that Douaumont has fallen, they all sing the Marseillaise together. Maréchal is locked up for this act of instigation and almost goes mad in isolation.

Before they can put the tunnel to use, they are all sent to another camp. After different attempts to escape, Maréchal and Boeldieu are brought to burg Wintersheim. Officer von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) whom they have met before is in charge of the burg. Von Stroheim as Rauffenstein is one of the most memorable war movie characters. He has fairytale like, fantastic aspects. Von Rauffenstein has been badly wounded, his spine has twice been broken, he has silver plates in his body and wears a corset. He looks like an artificial being. He is an aristocrat through and through and recognizing the same background and upbringing in Boeldieu he takes an intense liking to him. Boeldieu, even though, stiff and formal as Maréchal often says, feels closer to the simple officers and wants to transcend the class differences. Even though he likes von Rauffenstein a lot, he still helps the other prisoners in their attempt to flee. Maréchal and Rosenthal make it and find refuge on the farm of a German widow (Dita Parlo). They cannot stay but Maréchal and Elsa still dream of meeting again after the war.

Renoir chose deliberately to show no violence. The war is spoken of, we never see it. His aim was to show a world that transcends differences. This is socialism of the purest kind, the one, that unfortunately only ever existed as an idea. Renoir wanted to show in how many ways people of different classes and nationalities are alike. The French prisoners make fun of the Germans’ constant repeating “Das ist strengstens verboten (strictly forbidden)”. It’s like a running gag all through the movie. A ritual. The Germans try to coerce the French and the French in excahnge make fun of them. Contrasting the attitudes of France and Germany towards obedience is one that we find in many older movies. It is also symbolised in all the interdictions that we see in the movie and in the barbed wire and fences. It’s a very funny movie at times. Fun that stems from the contrasts of the different classes and their use of language. The late, great Jean Gabin was always an outstanding actor, but here, as Maréchal, the simple mechanic, born in the 20th arrondissement of Paris (pure working class), he surpasses himself.  I really don’t know how they did the subtitles for this movie as they speak rapidly (I did watch the French version). Judging from the trailer, parts of the dialogues have been left out, nuances have been flattened. That is a pity. The use of dialogue and languages throughout the movie is a very realistic one. Germans speak German, French speak French, English speak English. Working class people speak like working class people, and the aristocrats like aristocrats.

As I said before, I don’t think a movie like this would have been possible after WWII. The illusion that everybody is the same at heart was shattered by then.

The illusion in the title apparently refers to the illusion of the class system. But I think there is another interpretation. Towards the end Maréchal says “We have to finish this war and hope that it was the last one” upon which Rosenthal utters something like “That is just an illusion, old man”. In 1937 is was already obvious that peace wouldn’t last forever.

La Grande Illusion is a movie that every cinephile needs to watch and possibly re-watch as it is multilayered and full of symbolism. Truly a work of art.