Filmmakers are rarely acknowledged as courageous. We generally associate bravery with physical tasks, such as climbing a mountain. But in certain instances, using art to express an unpopular, and often dangerous idea, risks not only their career and public admiration, but their freedom as well. Is that not far more valiant and worthwhile than the act of mountain climbing? Miklos Jansco’s The Red and the White is neither a work of patriotism nor is it traitorous, it merely depicts war as a senseless and gruesome force. There are no instances of dramatic heroism, no romantic subplots, no bonding between soldiers, no drama, no emotional peaks, no character development, nothing but the violent reality of war.
The Red and the White follows a group of prisoners, a handful of whom escape from their Russian captors. They scavenge through the dilapidated streets and sprawling farmland for whatever tools of survival they come across. All the while, they’re pursued by Russian soldiers, igniting the film into a cat and mouse game where neither side is sympathetic. Each and every one of the copious deaths occurs abruptly, without hesitation and without sentimentality. When someone is shot, the film does not linger, it simply moves on.
There’s nothing propagandist about Jansco’s theme, a fact likely responsible for the film being banned in the USSR. It instead takes a more distant and objective approach, depicting both sides as equally monstrous. In order to ensure the audience does not connect with anyone, it entirely avoids any character development. Nobody’s life lasts long here and their names are hardly, if ever, spoken. We cannot identify them, making it impossible to support a specific person or even a side in the conflict. The only way to recognize them is through their clothes, which again, points to the idiocy of war, the film’s primary message.
Jansco is content to make a film with nothing more than a simple anti-war theme. In recent decades, the general populace has become less nationalistic, and begun to reject war. Films such as Oliver Stone’s Platoon are clearly pro-pacifism, but few cannot strike the haphazardness Jansco uses to create a realistic documentation of war. Stone’s film, while condemning warfare, conforms to many of the genre stereotypes. It’s over embellished with Hollywood dramatic, which has a backwards effect, making it less emotional than it aims to be. Jansco’s film avoids such shortcoming by crafting a raw and down to earth portrayal.
The Red and the White is flawlessly structured to enforce the general theme. The camera simply drifts along the setting, there’s no real plot, just instances of death and desperate foraging for any means of survival. But after so long, it’s neither shocking nor even powerful. We’ve seen so many people ruthlessly murdered by both sides, to the point where we start to grow accustomed to it.
Everything is captured beautifully by cinematographer Tamás Somló’s camera, something that contradicts the overall goal of the movie. It’s filmed in glorious black and white, with crisp and sweeping shots of landscapes. If war is being depicted as this awful and grotesque act, why is filmed to look so gorgeous? This is one of the movie’s clear missteps, and it certainly has a negative impact on how effective the final product is.
Bare-boned and minimalistic, The Red and the White accomplishes its intent on the most basic of levels. It’s a candid portrayal of an intricate and destructive force people take for granted. In eliminating basic cinema conventions, it may very well alienate some, as it did upon the time of its release. But bravery influenced Miklos Jansco to tell this story, and it certainly shows.
Soviet cinema is a funny thing. From the outside, you would expect their films to contain a sense of patriotism and superiority, reflective of the image they wanted to promote. But, peek inside and you’ll find a surprisingly bleak, sad and reflective experience. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps the only Soviet films I have seen are the ones that were made available over here; the ones that purposely broke “the rules.” And in a way, I can see that. After all, no Soviet censor in the right state of their mind would release The Red and The White.
It’s not that Jancso’s film is anti-communist, far from it. The film is anti-war, a label that extends itself to both parties; the communists and the imperialist “whites”. A quick glance at the Russian Civil War will tell you that it was fought between these two ideologies and, eventually, the “Reds” won. But The Red and The White is not concerned with partisan ideologies, with a victor or a loser. The beauty, and the power, in the film lie in Jansco’s ability to make the act of war so repulsive that, by the end, it seems as if no one wins.
The film follows a nomadic structure, beginning at a crumbling old fortress and slowly progressing from there to a hospital and, finally, a battlefield. There are no main characters to speak of, only a collection of faces which pass, flickering on and off of the screen as they pass by. There’s a Hungarian, but he dies soon into the film. Then there’s a boy, well perhaps he is man, but he looks young enough to be either. He toughs out the whole film, but we never hear him say a word. Then there’s a nurse. She drifts in and out of the film. We never find out her name. The reason I feel comfortable divulging all this is because none of these characters have enough time to develop into anything but people. They simply exist on the screen as a means to push the story forwards.
Not even the anti-war Russian classic Come and See had such strict devotion to anonymity. By choosing to adapt a style of almost anti-storytelling, Jansco presents his actors not as characters, but as people, humans, representative of the atrocities of war. Why spend time building up an emotional attachment when they’re all going to die anyways? This kind of cold statement helps truly realize the genius of the nature of the film. You’re able to analyze the conflict without bias. There are no heroes and there no villains in war. The film says that, instead, everyone is guilty.
Jansco’s message is aided immensely by the stunning black and white cinematography of Tamas Somlo. From an epic, sweeping battlefield shot at the end of the film to a beautiful series of long shots, most notably a haunting scene in the woods. The unwavering nature of these long shots seem to test the viewer. Jansco is presenting his truth, what he believes to be the reality of war. The desaturated black and white offers a simple, sneaky little message. After all you can’t see the colour red in black and white.
The pantheon of great anti-war films, which includes Paths of Glory, Come and See and Ivan’s Childhood, must make room for one more. The Red and The White excels in doing something which no other film has. It strips a film down to its most lyrical and basic parts, and then proceeds to hammer a message on top until the film is complete. But, it never becomes dull or uninteresting because, simply, the message itself is so compelling and the film itself so compellingly crafted.
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