Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Some quick thoughts on:

THE CONFRONTATION (Miklos Jancso, 1969)

In formalist terms, The Confrontation comes across as a dry-run to Miklos Jancso’s superior Red Psalm (1971). Both are musicals, or rather dramas with musical numbers, about revolutions and the cycles of violence that they promote. In fact, the same song about peasants attacking is sung in both films. And as is customary for Jancso during the 1960s, everything is staged in elaborately complex long-takes with fluid camera movements.

The difference ends there however. Whereas Red Psalm at least has a celebratory tone with its musical numbers and peasants rebellions, The Confrontation is a bleak and detached film. Its plot can be summarized rather quickly. A group of revolutionary communist college students invade a monastery claiming they want to debate world views with the priests and students. It becomes clear though that the revolutionaries lack cohesion and subsequently splinter into debates amongst themselves about whether they should engage in terror against the monastery or honestly dialogue about divergent ideals and philosophies. All the while the genuine representations of state-power, the police and other authorities, occasionally appear on the scene.

For most of the film the students desiring terror gain the upper-hand. Jutka, the female student leader expresses philosophies about the necessities of violence and terror. In a clear comment on the nature of Hungarian totalitarianism, her supposed anti-fascist ideals are really tyrannical as she advocates shaving the heads of monastery pupils, before being reminded by someone that would be too similar to what happened at Auschwitz. This is one of two Holocaust references the film makes. In another: a monastery pupil confesses he is Jewish and is appreciative of the Christians who hid him during World War II. The film seems to be set around 1947.

What is especially bleak about The Confrontation is that it sets up debates about revolutionary violence but answers in them with complete cynicism about the nature of power. For Jancso, the students seem to be playing at revolutionaries rather than trying to enact any genuine change, unlike the peasants in Red Psalm, who recall, are aiming for specific reforms to agrarian policy. There is no consequence to any of their actions. They debate, excommunicate each other, and taunt the monastery students but the film ends where it begins with the same exact image of the back of Jutka’s head. There has been no historical progress.

And yet however much Jancso satirizes the students, they are preferable to the ominous state authorities. As one of the bored police officers tells the students “I think you’re basically misunderstanding something. You have too romantic a view of these things. You’re sons of peasants, like me, and intellectuals. I think you aren’t hard enough. Revolution is hard and ruthless. Be careful so you really don’t come up against me one day.” It’s easy to read that as a broadside directed at the student uprisings of the 1968 which failed to overthrow capitalism. It’s a different authority, though, who expresses the most evil belief in the film. He tells Laci, the student who believes in debate and dialogue, that “History is not a game in order to be able to make history. We must remain in possession of power. Perhaps even at all costs.”

Jancso understood that history was mostly a cruel and meaningless procession of exchanges of power and acts of violence. He is the consummate Anti-Marxist Marxist. Perhaps that’s why he never caught on in the West as much as Godard and other directors committed to revolutionary aesthetics. His vision was too bleak for those who wanted to believe they could shape history through their ideals and wills.