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Red Psalm

Raymond Durgnat

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Genesis and Development

The first inspiration for Miklós Jancsó’s Red Psalm (Még kér a nép, 1972) came when a friend told Gyula Hernádi how, in 1945, Hungarian villagers escorted landlords to the village boundaries, making their expropriation a kind of collective ceremony. Such actions lent themselves to Jancsó’s roaming long shots over people scattered in geographic space – his photo-tography and choreo-calligraphy. Years later, a second inspiration came. In an antiquarian bookshop, Hernádi discovered a book of Socialist prayers and psalms, written about 1890. Echoing Biblical models like the Lord’s Prayer, they substituted Socialist-materialist sentiments, this crystallising the tension in many (especially the early) Socialist movements between ethical convictions inherited from Christianity, and the shift from its other-worldliness to thoroughgoing materialism.




1. Yvette Bíró, Profane Mythology: The Savage Mind of the Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982). In its subtitle, ‘savage mind’ echoes the English title of Lévi-Strauss’ La Pensée Sauvage. A problem is that the English ‘savage’ connotes violence, where the French ‘sauvage’ connotes wildness. Otherwise, Bíró’s fluid sense of semantic structures avoids the rigidity of ‘binary oppositions’, and favours the shiftings and interflowings which distinguish meaning from the forms of verbal language.


Yvette Bíró, credited as dramaturge, helped transform the idea into dramatic actions and characters. Its socio-cultural typage (characters personifying the role of their class in history) is subtler by far than the crudities of early Eisenstein. The pagan ‘folk rituals’ which add a visual (and a spiritual) dimension to the spoken texts were devised by Bíró and Jancsó, who were both interested in anthropology: Jancsó had studied ethnography at his university; and later Bíró would theorise the film medium in terms of what might be called an anthropological semantics in (to cite its American title) Profane Mythology. (1)

Jancsó developed the mise en scène in his strenuously physical way, pacing the terrain back and forth in all directions to work out the movements of the performers and those of the camera. It’s an intensely processional film, as groups move in varying formations around, towards or even through one another. When individuals move, it’s always in relation to a group or groups (defying, inspecting or linking them ... ). As brusquely and strictly as he controlled the actors, he kept a sharp eye open for unexpected details, towards which he might, in mid-take, redirect the camera. Since the film was shot silent for subsequent post-synching, Jancsó could talk to the actors throughout the takes. Often, the actors had no idea if they were in shot or not, and whether to act ‘smaller’ because they were in close-up, or ‘larger’ to be legible in long shot.




As elaborate by Hungarian norms as the production was (it used 1500 extras, mostly students, plus a folk-dance troupe), Jancsó shot very fast, averaging a shot a day – no mean feat, since the film has only twenty-eight shots, each a plan séquence. Some are ten minutes long, involving continuous, intricate camera movements, like simultaneous track-tilt-pans, compounded by the ‘virtual’ movement of an agile zoom lens. The virtuoso camerawork required a larger than usual crew (as tirelessly as the camera turns, no tracks are ever seen). At times, the camera seems to be exploring, and reacting to, action proceeding autonomously and not playing to it – whence the film’s occasional air of ‘direct cinema’.

The characters’ names, it seems, are class-generic, and hide no specific references. The film’s Hungarian title, from a poem by Sándor Petöfi, means roughly, ‘Yet the People Must Keep Demanding’. Red Psalm was first suggested during preparation for its French release, and then adopted for worldwide use. However, the film is occasionally known as People Still Ask and Red Song.





2. London’s most prestigious art house, the Academy, ran almost all of Jancsó’s films, partly because its owner-distributor was son of George Hoellering of Kuhle Wampe (1932) and Hortobagy (1936) fame.

3. Mosk, in Variety (24 May 1972).









4. The film medium is often thought to be rooted in photographic realism, but what really matters is richness of detail, whether conveyed by photography of a subject or achieved ex nihilo by the ‘hand-made’ image. After all, painters have achieved trompe-l’œil whose ‘illusionism’ no camera can surpass. The importance of rich detail, as distinct from realism, is indicated further by many cartoon films from Borowczyk’s chilling Les jeux des anges (1964) to Disney’s Bambi (1942) which sets adult spectators sobbing their hearts out over the fate of that obvious fantasy figure, a talking deer.



The Hungarian authorities looked somewhat askance at the film, as one might suspect from studio head István Nemeskürty’s talk of Jancsó’s ‘anarchistic, fermenting-whirling impulses’ and ‘cynical use of nudity for profit’. Other Eastern European comrades detected a ‘romantic-aristocratic spirit’, or petit-bourgeois pessimism, or sadism. Hungarian audiences were less grudging: in a nation of eight million people, half a million saw it. Jancsó’s prize at Cannes for Best Director ensured its international release. (2) According to Variety, ‘Jancsó certainly merits more commercial appraisal and chances stateside on his period but resoundingly timely looks at revolt, demonstrations, contestations and the fluid look of a changing political and social world.’ (3)

Stylistic Mode

The mise en scène is built on manoeuvrings so stylised they stretch ‘realism’ to, and beyond, its breaking point. The film’s true mode might be described as symbolical fantasy, enriched by strong phenomenological realism. It’s first signalled when a peasant girl’s kiss brings a dead officer to life, and when a bullet wound in a woman’s hand ‘becomes’ a red cockade. However, these ‘poetic abstractions’ are contested, and rehumanised, by the physicality of strong, restless bodies, of vividly photographed landscapes, and of faces whose ‘personality-atmospheric’, and changing expressions, vibrate with life and, instead of repeating the characters’ roles, weave dissonances, and riddles, and human ambiguity around them. Though bread, for example, is ‘abstracted’ into a symbol, it retains its materialism thanks to the sensually rich photography; it’s painterly, and dramatic, thanks to context. Too often, symbolical thinking tends to a static, fixed, ‘absolute’ code of meaning; this fast-moving narrative, and the wealth of ‘poetic’ suggestions (narrative or not), make all meanings fluid, provisional, relative – like so many meanings in fast-changing situations. Film is often supposed to be a ‘naturally sensual’ medium, especially with the great strides made since the 1950s in the sensitivity of lenses and emulsions. But few films have, as Red Psalm has, the visual materialism which requires, not just an artist’s ‘eye’ to see it, but an auteurial vision to elaborate it, amidst all the other ingredients of the medium. (4) This loaf of bread, like certain objects in van Gogh, is the material as spiritual – and both as life-energy.

The film’s style is geared to a collective struggle. The roving camera makes no formal separation of leaders and led. The leader or spokeswoman in one scene plays a rank-and-file role in the next. Many active characters are accompanied by another who in some way resembles him, or who shares so many of his attitudes he could have done the same thing, or urged the same course of action.


5. The inconvenience then arises that several conspicuous characters (and actors) are left nameless, at least in the film’s own credits, in the English subtitles, and in any English list of credits.




Unusually, Red Psalm develops an unusually literary text by means of physical movement, while its minimally terse dialogue suggests, without specifying, historical trends, moments and issues. Like Agnus Dei (1970), it stresses the ‘triad’ of religious attitudes, extreme violence and socio-political struggle. More than a sequel, however, it delves more widely, more generously, into peasant community, folk religiosity, and the ethical scruples on which so many early Socialisms drew. Its net spreads more widely still, to laissez-faire economics and false nationalism. Similarly, the action (nominally dated 1898), maybe favouring South-Western Hungary (amputated in 1918) evokes a longer time-sweep. Occasionally, the film evokes a poetic-epic compression of Hungarian peasant history generally (whence many spectators’ problem with the film, of which more anon).

Brief resumés of the film can note only the principal chaacters and conflicts. A fuller account is needed for the wealth of the film to emerge. (5)

Some Themes and Motifs

The initial confrontation evokes what was called the ‘new feudalism’ – a concentration of land ownership into very large estates or latifundia. (The presence of a bailiff suggests an absentee landlord – who might just be the [personally well-meaning] Count.) By 1890 many erstwhile peasants had been evicted, and worked as labourers (sometimes nomadic day labourers), while others hung onto small plots of land, but lived largely on wages. Hence, perhaps, the absence in Jancsó’s film of separate strata within the agricultural class. Grain is the film’s principal crop; though stock animals make brief appearances, as if from ‘somewhere out there’ (perhaps reflecting the association of stock rearing with still independent peasants). The nut-like old man who twice lists his demands is sharply different from the villagers in physique (some Transylvanian ethnicity?), dress, age, style (an independent stockman?) and spatial position in the film, as if he’s another sub-class, coming under the same pressures. Prominent near the start, he disappears as the film goes on. When the bailiff appeals to ‘custom’, the old man starts off rather as if itemising the bailiff’s terms, but ends as if counter-asserting another list – as if two ideas of custom were now in conflict. The second list is undoubtedly ‘oppositional’. It's as if the old man (and his class) had switched from a sort of ‘independence within feudalism’ to early Socialism.





6. Countless yarns, in all media, have been set in Ruritania and other fictional lands which supposedly lie between Austria, Poland, the Ukraine, Russia and Greece – in effect, the territory, or sphere of influence, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They range from The Prisoner of Zenda to The Merry Widow, but also include Dracula’s Transylvania, Freedonia in Duck Soup (1933) and Klopstokia in Million Dollar Legs (1932).


Engels’ letter outlines the world picture (according to Marxism) but, had the villagers understood it, its historical ‘inevitabilism’ would only have depressed their spirits still further. The young Count imports another brand of economic fatalism: liberal laissez-faire (prettied up with Enlightenment egalitarianism), and a faith in education (and perhaps the ‘man-to-man’ style which the ‘old’ feudalism sometimes affected with its independent tenants – though others thought of rural labourers as ‘moving clods of earth’). The Count’s fatalism is one kind of paralysis, and since his insistence on mass education before political rights is a recipe for indefinitely postponing both, this paternalistic liberalism can only ‘drop dead’, leaving the field to blonde horsewoman (presumably an older aristocracy in alliance with new capitalism).

Elegant, arrogant, aggressive, she smacks of another class culture. Ethnically she might be ‘Teutonic’, i.e. Austrian, like the haughty (but rather splendid) Austro-Germanic aristocrats in Ruritanian stories. (6) Her constant presence amidst the cavalry evokes what was often called the ‘Prussian solution’ to Hungary’s difficulties, and its idea of the army as (via conscription) the ‘school of the nation’. As the film goes on, the styles of the gendarmes and soldiers change. The plumed hats of the bailiff’s escort recall the uniforms of Kossuth and Garibaldi, as well-meaning liberators of the nation; hence, perhaps, the bailiff’s protectors are easily shamed by the village women. But, as the film goes on, ever-larger ranks of soldiers in dull uniforms seem ever more tightly drilled and impersonal, and inspired by ever-fatter-toned marching bands (still a Teutonic speciality).

Railways bringing massed conscripts evoke industrialisation, encouraged in Hungary by taxes which fell unfairly on agriculture. The ‘maypole’ massacre may refer to Hungary’s first May Day demonstration in 1890, when gendarmes opened fire on a crowd. The bayonets stuck through women’s shirts recall another incident, when troops fixed bayonets and charged a crowd, killing fifty-one people.


7. In Yugoslavia, Communist plans for collectivisation partly relied on the survival in villages of community traditions from pre-capitalist days.




  Various oppressors call the villagers un-Hungarian, which effectively condemns a certain nationalism. The villagers’ solidarity, being well-nigh perfect right at the start of the film, suggests a ‘village communitarianism’ whose roots go deep; it’s propitious to Socialism, though pre-dating it. (7) The sad, sacred song of work is sung to the tune of ‘La Marseillaise’: the tune suggests a popular, pre-Socialist, semi-spontaneous uprising, and the words something older, settled, timeless – a peasant sacredness. ‘La Marseillaise’ asserts a popular, liberating nationalism (and, no doubt Hungary 1956, when a ‘nationalist’ Socialism sought to cast off a foreign Communism). This village collectivism, being pre-democratic, may well have been tighter, fiercer, less tolerant of modern ideas of community. It’s as if there’s scant room in this community for the man who won’t pick up a weapon to defend it, and the treacherous family man. They die, perhaps, because they’ve refused it, they’re wilfully useless to it and (in that sense) dead to it. (There’s a parallel, of sorts, in Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents [1959], where the Eskimo who is too old to contribute has to die, as loved and revered as he may be.)  



‘Spontaneous’, too, is the peasant violence. Throwing the bailiff on his own fire is a ferocious act but, as Bíró replied to my (rather hostile) students: ‘Bread is sacred, bread is life itself.’ (And, by withholding it, the bailiff would have murdered many by starvation.) Burning the priest in his church is less defensible, unless militant hypocrisy deserves the death sentence – which only the fanatically sincere would argue. Though the peasants’ satisfaction about it rather smothers the possibility, Jancsó may well deplore it: even when justified, peasants’ revolts can get out of hand. (But then again, if bread is life, maybe putting a curse on it is like killing life.)

Every review I’ve read reports the deaths by fire as actual events (without questioning their moral justification). However, they’re very strangely presented, as if the ‘real’ were giving way to the symbolic. The bailiff’s captors. Moving far beyond the fire, disappear behind it, still carrying him; when they reappear on the other side of it, they’re no longer carrying him. In ‘realistic’ terms, they can’t have thrown him on the fire (they’re too far back from it, there’s no pause, no struggle, nothing). Yet, just dropping him at a nondescript point precisely behind spectacular bonfire defies dramatic sense. It’s much the same with the priest: it’s entirely possible that he slipped out through a side door, such as churches normally have. On the other hand, we last see him tightly hemmed in, the door we see is very firmly shut, and the ‘peasant’s attack’ is sung with ferocious glee. But here, too, is a hint of uneasiness: the blazing church sets fire to a tree – which, in our ecological age, suggests an ecological wildness ...

Uneasy, too, the death of the family man. The victim is not unsympathetic; he’s handsome enough, a little like Marcello Mastroianni, with sensitive (though oily) eyes. A flick knife is a delinquent’s weapon. Summary execution, by something like assassination, differs from the community-sanctioned actions which have been the rule. And the victim gives an enquiring look into camera just before he dies (or just after), as if cueing the audience to question this act on talking over the film after leaving the cinema. One might even construct an argument whereby, the guitarist’s community having been shattered, he’s now alone, and his action verges on he barbaric. (Which would fit a certain iconography: the folk-singer, once spokesman for his community, is now a rambling hipster, a protesting vagrant ... )

The film’s last sequence vindicates the ‘natural’ violence of the peasants, when armed with revolver and red emblem, against the scruples of young Hegedüs.

Peasant religiosity is idyllically presented, so long as it’s pagan. The old pacifist’s closeness to a Christian ethic is hinted at by an audio-visual affinity between his frame of cowbells and the tinkling handbells shaken by a woman in a trance-like response to incense-burners and returning priests. Some other village women surrender to priestly mystification but, after the church is burnt, go beyond it; they still invoke Heaven, but describe its better life in everyday terms. Their ceremonial garments are white, not black, as if they had evolved their own, sun-lit, open-air religion. Later on, the ritual for the repentant ‘sinner’ is entirely pagan, involving boughs whose red-and-brown leaves evoke the ‘golden bough’.

The generally idyllic picture of rural life, if left to itself and its fertility-ritual religiosity, rather parallels Pasolini’s contemporaneous reflections on popular-traditional rural thought as pre-rationalist and pre-bourgeois. Thus Red Psalm, too, would be nearer Gramsci than Althusser.

In the early scenes, the most conspicuous, active organiser-spokesman among the villagers is an energetic young woman asserting, if not matriarchy exactly, then at least the strong-mindedness of women. Engels, imported by her male colleagues, rather misfires. Young Hegedüs will become the most conspicuous leader, the bearer of Socialist ideas, mixed in with ethical scruples probably left over from Christianity. His jacket has the colour of the earth, but his thoughtful style and close-cropped hair seem more urban than the villagers’. We never get his backstory, but perhaps he’s the son of the villager who, sent off to become a teacher or a priest (the same actor plays the vile, reactionary cleric in Agnus Dei), turned to ethical Socialism (of a pre-Marxist kind) instead. Lying over his spiritual father (a relation more important than his biological father?), he seeks some ‘transmission of the spirit’ from the old faith to the new. But soon his identification with the villagers is complete, and finally he ‘blesses’ not only the ‘angel of vengeance’ (as Jancsó calls her), but a man who would kill his own father for the cause. (A fierce conclusion.) However, he tells the common soldiers: ‘I know you have your orders,’ as if refusing to demonise them.

Markedly similar to him, in dress and in style, is a man in a dark olive jacket (another sober earth colour). He’s taller, has a longer, more dashing moustache, and an extroverted personality. He says much less, but is also a Socialist activist, and leads the Socialist version of (and successor to) the ‘Lord’s Prayer’.

Very much one of the villagers, and active throughout, is the tall man in the leathery hat and a workaday grey-blue jacket. He says very little, and stands there very quiet, but his straight, gleaming look is a constant action, a constant challenge. Hegedüs fears his capacity for violence, and no doubt he personifies the capacity for sudden violence, of ‘primitive’ peasant resistance. But he contradicts the cliché association of peasant riots with straw-in-the-hair naivety. No Straw Dogs (1971) here. Like Hegedüs, he ‘makes a pair’ with a rather similar figure – Balint, the tall, balding man, rather meek and anxious, who will assure his comrades that he’s still steadfast for the community while assuring the guitarist that he’s lost his Socialist faith. A typically sneaky petit-bourgeois, perhaps (according to Marxism).

Another ‘pair’ is made up of two conspicuous (and beautiful) village women: the ever-active spokeswoman and the dark, more silent girl who gets shot through the hand; the latter is, perhaps, more passive, more suffering – but her ‘speaking look’ is eloquent. A foursome of young cadets include two ‘complementarities’: the thoughtful ‘dove’ and the ‘hawk’ (who also keeps the Count’s rifle upfront, hands the horsewoman a whip, and shoots the guitarist).

A few characters are named, for social and generic reasons. The repentant soldier’s last name, Nagy, might just evoke the Communist Prime Minister who appealed to the West for help, in vain, when the Russians invaded Hungary in 1956. The masses of soldiers from ‘out there’ might also recall that invasion. To be sure, that interpretation is what Barthes would call ‘perverse’ – but then again, it has to be, to elude censorship, and especially Russian objections.

Variety’s critic, while much admiring Agnus Dei, read as lesbian the gestures of fond encouragement between village women. In Red Psalm they’re stronger, clearer, evidently chaste, and pursue a feminist theme: women’s strength amongst themselves in this pre-bourgeois world. Though replaced by a male Socialist as central figure, the first spokeswoman is a recurrent force and, reborn as the angel of vengeance, surpasses all the men in violence. The nudity of the ‘three graces’, like all Jancsó nudity, is thoroughly chaste. These three graces don't seduce the soldiers but elicit a tender respect; and, when the village males pursue them and deposit them in the vats, it’s not sexual harassment but a communal festivity. At one point, two fully-clothed women walk with them, as if to protect or escort them; it suggests a natural wariness, not feminist androphobia. Later, the burly officer crosses the boundary when he fondles the face of a female singer in a nasty, pseudo-paternal way. Some women fall in with the returning presiets – a brief acknowledgement of feminine susceptibility to religious mystification. However, the sacred bread passes from one woman to another, a materialist version of the sacrament.

Almost all the villagers are young, and possibly most Socialists were. The near-absence of the old, of parents and of family seems a function of the film’s stylisation, and its use of ‘young people in their prime’ to evoke a basic human energy (a use common enough, after all, in corps de ballet). Almost the only villager over forty is the elderly pacifist; from the images alone you wouldn’t know they were father and son, but see them only as spiritual, non-biological family. Later, young Hegedüs approves killing one’s father for The Cause, and the folk guitarist kills the family man. Family is, of course, a major problem for Socialist collectivism, its implications too complex for this stylised vision. The bawdy song is extremely disrespectful of grandmothers, conceivably an anti-family gibe, and a bridal song is all about crossed love – as if to say that monogamy is a source of woe. Women scattering seed start the only appearance of children, who make a generational collectivity in a strange situation – running behind ranks of soldiers who let them pass and then (unfairly) get called cowards, as if they’d been hiding behind their children. An odd poetic descends upon the scene, as if these carefree children are laughing in a future which oppressors can’t quite abolish.

At least five kinds of folk music (i.e. folk culture) appear. Set a little apart from the militant villagers, a handful of dancers perform a pretty, studied, politically passive folk dance. Their simpering fertility ritual, with a wicker figure dangling from a cord, contrasts with the lusty leaps and disgraceful lyrics of the villagers’ when in bawdy mood (about milk-and-water folklorism, Agnus Dei is still more caustic). But these dancers eventually join the militant throng. A folk violin provides music for all moods. A hurdy-gurdy-type guitar gives way to a strolling guitarist (a figure whose casual style and sardonic lyrics seem remarkably modern). Young, lean, apparently non-committal, he gets a special greeting from the Count, and interests the cadets – as ‘romantic nationalism’ opened itself to folk music. Beholding the massacre, his song implies total despair at perpetual slaughter; to which his flick-knife immediately adds a touch of nihilism. Just such mixtures of collectivistic compassion, moral ferocity, and a ruthlessness akin to nihilism inspired Lenin. And, speaking of artists, I couldn’t help thinking of Brecht, whose early play Baal asserts the cynical nihilism, the nihilist wolfishness, against which Leninist severity may have seemed the only defence. The guitarist’s ‘Leninist severity’ is killing the man who out family before Socialism – as many, many a homme moyen morale would do. Or maybe the guitarist, the poet in the film, reflects the moral anxieties of the poet behind the film.


8. Cf. Alain Finkielkraut, La Défaite de la pensée (Gallimard, 1987).  

The old pacifist’s funeral ceremony inspires a brief passage of music resembling Protestant revivalist hymns, and one wonders if Hungary’s rural upheavals inspired something akin to the Methodist and Baptist revivals of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. Or perhaps the reference is to John Ford, whose ‘Shall We Gather at the River’ draws on that half-forgotten Protestant culture. Hungary once had a Calvinist tendency, subsequently diminished by persecution (whence suggestions that Countess Bathory was a victim of propaganda during the Wars of Religion).

Folk music nationalism is kept at bay by ‘La Marseillaise’ and ‘La Carmagnole’. In Central Europe especially, French Revolutionary ideas of the folk competed with German volkishness, more propitious for nationalism. (8) The ‘Union Volunteer’ of ‘Johnny is My Darling’ connects, not as one thoughtful book on Red Psalm suggests, with the American Revolution, but with the US union movement around Joe Hill’s time (the unions got it from soldiers in the Civil War, who adapted it from ‘Charlie is My Darling’, a Scottish Jacobite – and feudalist! – song).

At times the guitar and military bands wage a ‘musical battle’, with musical ‘cross-fades’ à la Charles Ives.

Musical ‘pairs’ include two sets of bells (the handbells of feverish religion, the old pacifist’s frame of cowbells). The guitarist makes two ‘mode-switches’ (first, from a folk melody to dourly militant drum-taps on the wood of his guitar; second, from guitar to hidden knife).


9. Our basic proposition is that linguistic structures are only one type of structural relation, and that entirely different structures appear in other domains – drama, music, aesthetics, mathematics, cognitive psychology, biochemistry, human anatomy, etc. As a first approximation, this fits in well enough with Jean Piaget, Le Structuralisme (P.U.F., 1968), and his survey chapters in Main Trends of Research in the Social and Human Sciences (Monton-UNESCO, 1970) and Anthony Wilden, System and Structure (London: Tavistock, 1972). On oppositions, seen from an Anglophone philosophical tradition, cf. C.K. Ogden (1932), Opposition: A Linguistic and Psychological Analysis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967).


Notes on Structure

As noted earlier, some characters come in pairs – Hegedüs and the more outgoing Socialist, the blonde spokeswoman and the dark-haired woman, two tall villagers (he of the leathery mac and the me, balding man). Many elements in the film are paired, in one way or another, and since pairs are sometimes confused with ‘binary oppositions’ as deployed by Lévi-Strauss, a closer look at the film’s structuration may be useful. (9)

Paired incidents include two men presumed dead by fire, two ‘pursuits’ by men of bare-breasted women, two uses of stock-whips (one appropriate, against cavalry; the other inappropriate, in a church, two ‘turncoats’ – one killed, the other ignored), two scenes set amidst buildings (the village around the church; a farmyard setting), and two cadets (hawk and dove). And doubtless more could be found.

A closer look shows the relations are more various. As well as pairs there are triads. (There’s a third traitor – the repentant soldier received back into the community.) Though only two ‘turncoats’ speak, a third is there, silent. The hawk and the dove are part of a group of four. There are several bursts of celebration (the womanly feast with the scared bread, two bawdy celebrations, and one – only one – scene with children). Moreover, young Hegedüs is part of two different pairs: one, with the taller, more outgoing man; another with the old Hegedüs. Indeed, young Hegedüs further relates to the ‘spontaneous violence’ of the leather-hatted man and, on the matter on the violence, he comes in between old Hegedüs on one hand, and several more ‘hawkish’ villagers. Everyone relates to many people, in one way or another. The dramatic relationships, so central to the film, aren’t restricted to pairs. In the final analysis, such relations lead you all around the film in a web of relations, such as drama and community are.



  Moreover, in dramas as in histories, these relations change in the course of the narrative. Young Hegedüs begins by deploring violence, and concludes by accepting patricide (and the angel of vengeance) for a cause. One might say he has moved along the scale of attitudes. The point being that there are more than just two, mutually exclusive attitudes – ‘for’ violence and ‘against’ violence, with no modifying conditions, provisos, etc.

Moreover, many of these pairs have much in common. Young Hegedüs and his pair are both good Socialists who, most of the time, work together and, though one briefly queries the other’s position, they ‘harmonise’, like different voices in a chorus. They don’t oppose one another, they complement one another. They contrast, but they’re a complementary pair, not an oppositional one.

On contrast to all this, a binary opposition (by definition) posits two and only two terms which are mutually exclusive alternatives. They can have nothing in common, and they can’t interact. (Though binary logic, by working in pairs, can seem to resemble the dialectic dear to many Marxists, it eliminates the dialectic by making interaction void. Moreover, the binary system can oppose ‘hot’ to ‘cold’, but temperature is a continuous scale, with its range of many intermediate points, like the hundred degrees of heat between 0°C and 100°C. ‘Continuous scale’ structures are extremely common, of course, in the natural sciences, in thought, and in art.

Since binary oppositions stressed clear, sharp differences, it could seem to chime in with Saussure’s emphasis on oppositions in the sounds of language, and with his idea that meaning resided in difference. But this hardly fits general semantics, where many, many different terms may have meanings in common. For example, the terms ‘horse’, ‘camel’, ‘ass’ and ‘dromedary’ designate different animals but, in doing so, they also imply properties that these animals have in common: they’re mammals, and beasts of burden, they’re quadrupeds with hooves, and so on. Indeed, classificatory systems in science, and the association of ideas in thought (and, of course, psychoanalysis) proceeds largely (though not entirely) through the common factors in different ideas.

Most entities have many, disparate properties, as we’ve seen in discussing old Hegedüs who relates, through his property of non-violence, to young Hegedüs and, through another property (‘meditative bells’), with women in a religious trance. Thus each character in a drama can have many different relations, with different balances of difference and similarity, with many other characters. Actually, opposition itself can be more than binary; a triangle, for example, has three opposites (its three apexes), a rectangle has four (its four corners), and so on. More complex still are structures in chemistry, where every compound in the universe is a recombination of the same basic elements. As well as the obvious ‘differences’, the ‘similarities’ have meaning, and are just as important in the ‘structure of the system’.

Consider, in Red Psalm, the leather-hatted man and the balding man. They prove, in the end, to be more different, politically, than young Hegedüs and his complementary Socialist. But they also have much in common (they’re both thoughtful, watchful villagers). And though we soon notice a difference between them, in belligerence (it seems) they are not oppositional but complementary until the very end; and, even then, no conflict breaks out between them. They’re political opposites, but not dramatic opposites.

Other patterns include those of cinematic form, like several looks into camera, the darkly grainy ‘travelling close-ups’ through the zoom lens, and several walks towards an empty horizon (the bailiff, the first shaming of the soldiers, and – twice – the three graces).







10. For further theory, cf. Durgnat, ‘Film Theory: From Narrative to Description’, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, Vol 7 No 2 (Spring 1982).


These cinematic forms are forms of description, not of narrative, since the narrative events could remain identical even if technical or other factors had forced different forms. Indeed, it’s arguable that narration is merely a special type of description (it describes a series of actions). Fiction writers shape the narrative to accommodate some character or scene which they wish to describe, as routinely as their descriptions respond to some narrative requirement: thus description dominates narrative as well as vice versa (in many texts, and films, narration is clearly a mere frame or pretext for description). From this angle, narrative by no means dominates film, or ‘film language’, as some theorists suppose. Film’s basic unit, the photographic shot, after all, is a descriptive structure (it may but needn’t imply a narrative) and, in all the arts, style serves description as conspicuously as it serves narrative. Though film editing introduces sequentiality, that allows not only narrative but any kind of ordering – for example, the structure of an argument; or that of an object, scene or process being described. Nor are ‘actions in time’ always narrative: in English, at least, we say we ‘describe’ a storm, or a battle, even when our description of its course happens to resemble a narrative. In other words, narrative and description share too many similar meanings, along with their different ones, to constitute an opposition, and they’re hardly a binary one, since terms like ‘argument’ propose other applications of discourse. (10)

Returning to Red Psalm, its very narrative is so strange as to query most ideas of narrative connection. Some connections are pretty clearly narrative, as when ‘the peasant counter the cavalry with stock whips’. But often, the connection is more vague, more poetic, more like a sudden transition in a dream, as when the wound reappears as a cockade, or in the untroubled happiness of children at risk.

By way of counterpointing pattern, the tensely confrontational scenes are relieved by brief ‘interludes’ of peasant rejoicings. Important to mood, they have no narrative function: were they omitted altogether, the ‘narrative’ of Red Psalm would remain exactly as it is.




Aesthetic and Style

The mise en scène interweaves six kinds – or dimensions – of space, movement and change. 1. Most unusual, of course, is the ‘walking choreography’, with its changing body-language (heads bowed thrustingly, impassivity ... ), its changing rhythms, its shifting vectors. 2. There’s also a strong ‘pictorialist’ dimension – the landscape ‘pictures’, often revealed gradually, by the camera shifting around them. 3. The camera movements themselves become a focus of attention, with their own kinesis, as does the apparent movement of the zoom. They’re ‘calligraphic’ in the true sense: the camera lens seems to ‘move across’ the scene as a pen moves across a piece of paper. (Most calligraphic camerawork doesn’t quite do this; unless its movement is especially intricate and persistent, it simply changes the shape of the scene.) 4. The meticulously wrought soundtrack, as when overlaid sounds add ‘aural space’ to visual space, or add a new texture. 5. The words (sparse, piecemeal, oblique), and their ideas, which ‘enlarge’ these local actions to wider patterns of history. Finally, 6. The music, with its moods, suggestions and kinaesthetic tensions.

Around this six-line counterpoint, each landscape in turn becomes an arena, like a theatrical space. (Jancsó went on to adapt Red Psalm for a Budapest theatre.) ‘Theatrical space’ is created not, as often supposed, by a stage or some equivalent enclosure, but by a ‘body of actors’ whose relations assert a visual and diegetic unity – as in street theatre, where street furniture, though in plain view between the actors, ‘fades away’ (unless an actor uses a post box, say, as a prop, in which case it ‘enters’ the play, less as a post box than as a usable shape). The same logic applies in a conventional theatre, when actors enter through the auditorium, or play scenes amidst the audience as well as on the stage. Theatrical space has nothing to do with ‘illusionism’, and even in ‘bourgeois’ theatre illusion has long been optional (consider, for example, mega-hits like Cats, whose ‘cats’ are always, and conspicuously, women, in a sort of ‘compound image’: not one or the other. It’s not just an ‘imagined fusion’, it’s also an interplay of elements, in which both the similarities and the differences of various kinds of cats and of women comment on each other). In Red Psalm, the sense of a spatial unity, as in theatre, survives many changes of setting, breaks in the action, and edits in time.









11. Bazin, supposedly the apostle of realism and of film as realistic phenomenology, ingeniously argued that the artificialities of Henry V were true to the reality of theatre, with its special phenomenology. If film has come to seem tied to photography, and ‘separate’ from painting, it’s because photography offers the stream of photographs required for the ‘moving image’, where paintings are too laborious. But computer images allow the moving image to dispense with photography and, since they need neither subjects nor sets, they may well install the hand-made image (or at least the hand-controlled one) as the basis of the film medium.






12. Such ‘fugitive’ ideas, in art as in life, make up much of our intuitive experience – and are too quickly attributed to the Unconscious. Freud himself readily attributed them to the Preconscious, which he distinguished (not always carefully enough) from the Unconscious. Unconscious ideas, having been repressed, appear only obliquely and vaguely in normal consciousness; Preconscious ideas, without having been repressed, precede conscious thought, as when a ‘vague idea’ precedes a clear one; some preconscious ideas can’t appear in full consciousness, since they’re part of the machinery which produces it. However, modern cognitive psychology, in revealing the depth, extent and complexity of Preconscious thinking (including visual perception and thinking, and the kinaesthetic, non-linguistic structuring of the subject’s sense of self), suggests that Freudian discoveries resulted in the Unconscious concealing the Preconscious, much as discoveries in linguistics concealed the complexity and rationality of non-verbal perception and thought.

In this respect, Jancsó anticipates Theo Angelopoulos, another figure-in-landscape artist, who described his thoroughly ‘cinematised’ settings as ‘extended theatre’. Fifty years ago, when film theory was young (for ideas of the ‘30s lay heavily on it), cinema and theatre could still seem profoundly opposed, for cameras, emulsions and lenses were still very limited as to staging-in-depth and in-shot textures; all this made theatre of the time, which was often static visually and dominated by talk, hard to film in a lively way (though exceptional figures, like Welles, Olivier, Hitchcock and Dreyer could manage it, of course). By the time of Jancsó and Angelopoulos, theatre had become more ‘visual’, and the cinema’s visual apparatus infinitely more resourceful, less dependent on ‘gross’ movement and change (such as ‘action’ and ‘cuts’). A similar evolution scrapped the old quarrel between ‘realism’ – to which many (especially left-wing) theorists thought the cinema was tied – and ‘artificiality’, in which theatre often rejoiced (as in opera and ballet). Red Psalm combines richly realistic elements with choreography and behaviour so stylised that it’s neither ‘unrealistic’ nor ‘wholly artificial’, but achieves a ‘mixed mode’. (As a mixed mode spectacle, it’s akin to Olivier’s Henry V [1946], though the actual mode is different. (11) For example, Henry V often combines ‘unrealistic’ landscapes and dialogue with ‘realistic’ acting, while Red Psalm combines ‘realistic’ landscapes, dialogues, and acting with ‘unrealistic’ behaviour. At this point, however, it’s clear that realism and its opposites – stylisation, artificiality, fantasy – are thoroughly problematic categories. But that’s another essay.)

From this angle, Red Psalm is not so far from being a documentary of a theatrical spectacle, like such essays in ‘filmed theatre’ as Jonas and Adolfas Mekas’ The Brig (1964) and Shirley Clarke’s The Connection (1961). One might also that its ‘walkthroughs’ are to ballet what Sprechgesang (that left-wing speciality) is to song. Back in the ‘20s, the Russian montage classics would have felt obliged to fragment these walkthroughs into rhymed close-shots of details (boots, faces, hands on shoulders, etc). Jancsó opts for long-take long-shots. The eighty minutes of Red Psalm have only twenty-eight shots, whose ‘crowd momentum’ makes an interesting comparison with the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin (1925), whose force is often attributed to the power of montage, as if the powerful mise en scène and shot-content had little to do with it. Actually, the Odessa stairway itself is a real-space equivalent of a theatrical space and, as Eduard Tissé’s few, brief tracking shots show, its ‘kinesis’, and its horror, could have been generated by different means with equal force – though that would have had a different character. One can almost imagine the sequence staged by modern theatrical methods, with acrobatic actors generating something ‘sub-cinematic’. (The biggest problem here is theatre’s too-realistic space-time unity: the actors would tumble down the steps in a few seconds, a time too short for adequate impact. The Odessa Steps are too long for any theatre and, even then, Eisenstein has to ‘elongate’ time, by presenting simultaneous details in succession. All the same, it’s worth imagining the sequence staged as visual theatre – perhaps as a Futro-Constructivist ‘acrobatic ballet’, on an upwards-moving escalator, to lengthen space-time.)

Though Jancsó’s ‘cinekinesis’ emphasises long-shot momentum, he by no means dispenses with abrupt cuts, often from a long-shot to a (initially mysterious) close-up introducing another scene. (There are few, if any, conventional establishing shots.) Were the overall momentum less trong, the ‘right’ close-ups might break the flow and the mood; as it is, they vary, and thus counterpoint, the ongoing impetus.

As in all art, ‘the devil is in the detail’ – in the continuous flow of small and subtle points, some noticed so fleetingly they quickly fall from consciousness, and yet contribute their impact as they go. They’re not so much structure as what English literary critic F.R. Leavis called texture (and some American critics, trying to combine structure and texture, called architexture). (12) So rich in it is Red Psalm that a few single examples must suffice.




1. The hand of an officer toys idly with grain plucked from a sack; a common solider, armed, sits beside him, ashamed. Essentially, it’s a montage construction – a juxtaposition of contrasted attitudes – which (in context) sets us a little mystery. However, it’s not a stark collision between extreme opposites – such as long gave cine-Marxist thought a certain crudity.

2. As the blonde spokeswoman circles a group of villagers, she hold sup in each hand a glass of white wine, as if offering them to the group. As the bailiff enters her orbit, the glasses remain extended but, as he reaches for one, she swings it slightly away, offering him the other and letting him take it before holding the glass refused up above her head, and then dashing it to the ground. Fascinatingly enigmatic; on reflection, I think the moral is: ‘We’re ready to share with you, but what you try to take we’d rather destroy than let you have.’ During a first viewing, few spectators can puzzle out this message, though they will sense, preconsciously, the ‘dance’ of courtesy/discourtesy. The ‘meaning’ of the action is not the ‘message’ alone, but its integration with smooth yet defiant bodily movements, and a certain ‘riddle’ effect. The very ‘swing’ of the glasses, in arcs of offering and withdrawal, ‘echo’ the larger circlings of people around one another.

3. The first shot is something of a riddle, with villagers, doves and musical instruments glimpsed between a foreground screen of fast-moving shapes, which we then recognise as trotting horses, while further horses move the other way across the background. The strange, tense configuration is made more oppressive by the quality of a ‘70s zoom lens, with its low light level, its graininess, its tightened perspective and flattened shapes.

4. Briefly the loaf and fruit of the women’s feast is accompanied by the sound of a wasp (‘echo’, no doubt, of the muttering priests). One may think of Walerian Borowczyk’s Renaissance (1963), as the circling horses can recall his Goto, l’île d’amour (1968).

5. After the burning of the church, a shot of candles burning within a dark interior is ‘anti-narrative’, but suggests stars in a night sky, and thus hints at a ‘poetic argument’: it’s these candles which women carry round the village as they ‘liberate’ their spirituality.


13. It’s also worth criticising Brecht’s notion that ‘bourgeois art’ can’t induce thoughtful criticism of capitalism. Consider, for example, Ruby Gentry (1953) directed by King Vidor, a pillar of Hollywood (and second generation from a Hungarian immigrant), and written by Sylvia Richards (in a Fabian Socialist tradition). Moreover, Brecht’s discourses are tightly constructed to allow only one ‘moral’; in that sense, they’re deceptively ‘self-reflexive’, if self-reflexive includes ‘challenging the discourse itself: the plays supply nothing to criticise their ideology with. This latter point criticises certain theories about Brecht by others; Brecht hardly pursued ambiguity.

14. Two examples may suffice: des Santis’ Bitter Rice (1948) and Ruby Gentry both set out, in thoroughly traditional ‘bourgeois narrative’, a radical condemnation of a locally dominant capitalism. The Italian film is thoroughly Marxist, and was therefore attacked, as at odds with local-tactical considerations, by the Italian Communist Party.






15. Cf. Durgnat, WR – Mysteries of the Organism (BFI Modern Classic, 1999).








The film may qualify as an original development of the Brechtian spirit. For several stylistic devices (the terse, oblique exposition of initially mysterious narrative developments, the narrative discontinuities, the enquiring looks into camera after a surprising event) function as riddles or ‘alienation effects’; they break up the ‘emotional spell’ of protagonists uncritically loved or hated, they nudge the spectator into active reflection of morals and values, and they ‘reveal’ the ‘illusion’ as a discourse of ideas. As attractive to Marxists as Brecht’s aesthetics have been, they’re hardly above challenge, and it’s worth proposing that these (admirable) features of Red Psalm work rather differently. (13) So long as a film’s diegesis is interesting, little mysteries, discontinuities and ‘ideological dissonances’ can draw the spectators more deeply into it; they scan the film more closely, and the moral and emotional contradictions – if cannily distributed – increase the grip on the audience. Brecht’s theory of alienation effects assumes that audience identification with protagonists inhibits criticism of the dominant ideology, but everything depends on what alternatives to that ideology are offered in the drama. (14)

Red Psalm: A Question of Genre

Like many great films, Red Psalm defines genrification. Insofar as it deals in ‘semi-abstracted’ affairs, it belongs with the ‘60s breakthrough into ‘intellectual-symbolic’ cinema, that is to say, films which pursues a line of argument, or thought, or description, whether or not they used passages of narrative and photo-realism among other means. The genre existed earlier, of course, even before the ‘Gods’ sequence in October (1928), which is argument through a chain of symbols, like steps in an argument, and is therefore sequential but not narrative (like mathematical operations). Other examples of intellectual-symbolic cinema include Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1963), Peter Watkins’ Culloden (1965) and Richard Attenborough’s Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). They all mix realistic and unrealistic, narrative and non-narrative elements to meditate on large-scale slaughter – an affinity with Red Psalm. Their idioms are very different, and the genre (if such it is) is more highly diversified than allowed by those genre theories which fixate on conventions, codes, formulae and stereotypes. Furthermore, the genre covers very different topics: consider, for example, Lettre de Sibérie (Chris Marker, 1959-62), Chronique d’un Été (Rouch & Morin, 1962), Week-end (Godard, 1968) and WR – Mysteries of the Organism (Dusan Makavajev, 1973). (15)

If only for discussion, one might postulate the existence, as another high-diversity genre, of ‘East European peasant films’. This would include not only realistic films and products of Socialist Realism, but ‘fantasticated’ films like Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora (1928) and Medvedkin’s Happiness (1934).

Strange as it may seem, Red Psalm qualifies as a musical, and might encourage a (long overdue) revision of concepts of that genre. The term too quickly suggests musical comedy, but ‘serious’ musicals have included Carmen Jones (1954), Porgy and Bess (1959), the Red Shoes (1948) ballet sequence (considered as a film-within-the-film) and Evita (1996). It’s often forgotten that two, big, long production numbers by Busby Berkeley are despairing, almost tragic social protests: ‘[My] Forgotten Man’, about mass unemployment (a topic shared with Red Psalm!), appeared in Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933); and ‘Lullaby of Broadway’, which ends with the heroine’s suicide, appeared in Gold Diggers of 1935 (Berkeley, 1935). Berkeley was another specialist in ‘walking choreography’, an idiom revived with relish by Robert Altman in several street scenes of Popeye (1980). To be sure, the solid, earthy realism of Red Psalm sets it far apart from these films – but needn’t preclude classification in the same genre. Oh! What a Lovely War is another ‘serious musical’ inspired by a popular stage hit of English Communist origin (Joan Littlewood) and, though its combination of caricature and pathos is different from Jancsó’s peasant roots, a common classification is not thereby ruled out. Since both films juxtapose folk music and a mass tragedy, they’re by no means musical comedy but, rather, ‘folk music tragedy’.




From a certain angle, Red Psalm relates to a genre in classical music: the ‘fantasia’ on a historical theme. But it’s dead set against the usual milk-and-water idyllism, and nationalism, and more like a new, antithetical mutation.

Though Red Psalm spares us ‘folk costumes’, a certain idyllism persist, for all these beautiful, young and wonderfully loyal villagers imply some common heritage in some ‘pre-capitalist’ peasantry, to which all these villagers (even the dispossessed) still belong, spiritually. Recalling that certain ‘60s spirit influenced by Gramsci and shared by Pasolini, one might almost speak of a Marxist return to spirituality (a return of the long repressed?), of which Liberation Theology in South America would be another manifestation. One wonders, indeed, if Red Psalm had some topicality as a Third World film, which then interested the Communist Bloc.

The Hungarian authorities still hankered after a certain Socialist Realism (if that’s a genre as well as a style), as first imposed on Hungary by, surprisingly, Pudovkin (who around the same time scolded the Italian neo-realists – who luckily for cinema, were in a position to tell him to mind his own business). In Hungary, it’s said, Pudovkin stopped all film production dead while he studied every script slated for production very carefully and very slowly. Jancsó was a leader of the generation which, aided by recognition at international festivals and by the lure of international arthouse markets, cast off the old ideas. His ‘landscapes with figures’ belong with Antonioni, Tarkovsky and modernists whom Social Realists found difficult and irrelevant.

In a sense, however, Jancsó revived, or reinvented, the modernist, formalist urge which Socialist Realism had routed in the early ‘30s. The angel of vengeance, raising invulnerable her red-ribboned revolver, is a mystico-pastorale, like the end of Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (1929), whose desperate hero tears off his shirt and remains invulnerable to a hail of reactionary bullets. The burning of the church reminds me of Vertov’s Enthusiasm (1930), which strenuously justified Communist youth wrecking a church (as helpless old folks look on). Martydom, a major theme of Red Psalm, looms large in the Russian avant-garde, alongside a ‘triumphalist’ aggression, shared with Bolshevism’s Futurist aspects. Consider, for example, Eisenstein’s Strike (1924), in which thrice-wretched strikers make every conceivable error of strategy and tactics before being cut down by irresistible cavalry. Potemkin makes a great fuss about maggoty meat which, before refrigeration, was normal in all movies. The real theme of October, which like Russian history is idiotic, is early brutality and the eventual avoidance of even more. In Mother (1926), religious consciousness originates, and ends in, suffering. As, of course, does Red Psalm. For different reasons, no doubt. Many Hungarians had vivid memories of martyrdom, the most recent being from 1956.

Though Socialist Realism prescribed revolutionary triumphalism rather than revolutionary martyrdom, the lines are sometimes blurred. Vertov always pursued ‘topical triumphalism’ and deplored Eisenstein’s ‘avant-garde pathos’. Even Chapayev (1934), the first flagship of Socialist Realism, upfronts a pre-Socialist revolutionary, who makes many mistakes, except when tactfully corrected by the Communist Party Commissar, and finally dies – martyred at last. In effect, the Commissar is the positive hero and Chapayev a negative one (although he unleashed such love, such identification from audiences that, in his blundering way, he’s a positive hero too; which as propaganda is exemplary). Red Psalm, too, has a movingly positive community, in which respect it may be nearer Socialist Realisn than at first appears.

If the rationale behind Socialist Realism is relevance to the ruling party’s current, topical agenda, regardless of Marxist dogma generally, then Red Psalm raised uncomfortable issues in Hungary 1972. Why, now, the uncompromisingly ferocious recap of class war in a long-gone historical era – just as Communism was softening, uneasily, towards a sort of Party-guided consumerism? Why, now, dwell on such reminders of revolutionary nihilism as the folk musician’s flick-knife (a hooligan weapon – even if it recalls the sticker on Woody Guthrie’s guitar, ‘This guitar kills Fascists’?). The angel of vengeance may well express a ‘natural’ human reaction, a basic human fury. But aren’t these villagers, somehow, ‘waiting for Lenin’? Whose uninhibited doctrines will deliver them from martyrdom by (necessarily) ruthless action? How tactless of Jancsó to raise such issues, just as Communism was exploring softer ways. One might almost be sought to recall, against a softening of the Communist spirit, the bleak cruelties (some vicious, some inevitable) of harder times.









16. Yet another irony is that, in the USA, Kossuth’s men were so admired that their dress influenced the uniforms of the US Seventh Cavalry uniforms – a force largely devoted to repressing the Red Indians, pace John Ford’s celebration of one or two esceptions.


Death and Ideology

Red Psalm, like all great films, raises more questions than it answers. It’s an essay in uncertainty for, not doubt necessarily, but reflection.

Years ago, at the University of Oklahoma in a course of lectures, I showed Red Psalm the week after Pare Lorentz’s The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936), whose terrible images of Oklahoma farming during the Great Depression imposed on the hall an icy, unnatural, as if traumatised silence. Jancsó’s film provoked a wave of fury on the grounds that its ‘solution’ to agricultural misery is shooting more people; as the angel of vengeance at the end unmistakably intends. (The student response is somewhat ironic, since the influx of cheap wheat from the North American prairies pushed Eastern European agriculture into its long depression. Is this the glut to which the Count obscurely refers?) Conversely, emigration – from which Jancsó’s peasants pray Socialism to save them – was largely to America, where it inspired the slang term ‘honky’ applied by American blacks to poor whites generally. (16)

My Oklahoma students were misled, perhaps, by Red Psalm’s very rich, yet very cryptic references. The bargaining with the bailiffs, the death of the laissez-faire Count, the Socialist prayers, the folkloric and religious streaks, the appearance of the railway, all hint at a ‘musical history’ of rural labour (a form often attempted in left-wing theatres), but the emphasis on violence actually constrains it. In Jancsó’s earlier, barer films, with their military contexts, no such confusion arises.










17. Editors’ note: Durgnat’s manuscript is missing its final page. We have omitted here the inconclusive fragment of a final section titled ‘Time to Discover Eastern Europe’ which begins by discussing the links between the Russian and German film industries in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and criticises the rewriting of this history by ‘young academics in the West’ circa 1975, ‘as if, in 1975, culture was poised for another round of heavy industrialisation!’.


The problem with Red Psalm, I think, is not its non-narrative form (for the students effortlessly understood Oh! What a Lovely War). The real problem was, as an editor of Mosaic: Journal of Eastern European Studies once wrote, that ‘Eastern Europe understands the West, but the West has never understood Eastern Europe’. The Western democracies (Anglophone lands in particular) have long been spared the continuous history of oppression by alien nations, ethnicities, linguistic groups, social classes or political factions, plus the instability of frontiers, the attempts at stabilisation by totalitarian institutions and movements, which loom so large from Central Europe eastwards. The uncompromising nature of such conflicts simply justifies Jancsó’s obsession with elaborately thought-out cruelties, with massacres and counter-massacres. When the guitarist laments the eternal continuation of massacres, maybe he means ‘endless oppression by some bourgeois class’ (the ‘official’ Communist moral). But so ‘available’ to Hungary’s good Communists were memories of 1956 that the words can open a wider reflection on the eternity of oppression; if not from the ‘right’, then from the ‘left’ ... Maybe Jancsó like so many left-wing artists, was divided within himself: sufficiently conscious of realpolitik, and sufficiently Marxist-Leninist, to accept that massacre may be necessary, therefore justified – and yet appalled by it, for reasons of humanity and the Socialist urge to benevolence.

Marxist ‘solidarity’, discipline, and devotion to long-term history all require self-sacrifice for a goal which, being distant, is (in terms of the individual person) ‘abstract’. And if no hereafter exists, and the individual dies with his body, the motivation to give everything for nothing is distinctly weak. Pie in the sky is no further away than Pie in the future. It’s a problem for all materialisms. (17)



  This was the final major essay written by Raymond Durgnat (1932-2002). It has previously appeared only in an abridged French translation, in Théorème, no. 7 (2003), commissioned by editor Jarmo Valkola (University of Jyväskylä, Finland) for a dossier on Hungarian cinema. We thank Jarmo, a friend of Durgnat and the maker of a video documentary on him called Cinema of the Mind, for this manuscript.  

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