Red Psalm directed by Hungarian film-maker Miklos Jancso, is communist musical, if anything can be called that, a musical allegory, and also a cinematic metaphor. It ranks, quite personally, among the most beautiful and breathtaking films that I have ever seen. The Hungarian title means “And the People Still Ask”.
This dazzling, and highly sensual, open-air revolutionary pageant, which employs occasional nudity as lyrically as the song and dance it includes, is set in the late 19th century Hungary, where a group of peasants demand basic rights from a landowner, and soldiers arrive on foot and horseback, to deter them.
The entire film is composed of less than 30 shots; in fact, just 28 shots. In a distinctly unique style of cinematography, Jancso explores the physical aspect of a terrain, by taking really lengthy shots, with the camera pacing back an forth, in all directions, and the movements of the actors choreographed to perfection, in an intensely processional film, as groups move in varying formations around, towards or even through one another. The film pushes realism to its limits, taking the visual and aural metaphor beyond the poetic implications of normal montage. For example, the predominance of the colour Red, a dead officer coming back to life after being kissed by a peasant girl, a bullet wound in the palm becoming a red cockade, all brought together in a frenzied festivity of music, dance and songs, stretch the spectator’s gaze far beyond the normalcy of intellectual viewership.
And yet, the human touch is not lost. Through closeups the characters’ ever-changing facial expressions, concentration of the camera on the material aspect of the beautiful things in nature, even the raising of ‘bread’ to a metaphorical level, and bringing it right down to the status of an object of material want, the dynamism in the inherent worth of things is brought to question. Even with some truly breathtaking painting-like frame composition, Jancso manages to have an eye for detail. The same shot that contains the soldiers riding horses, also has the closeup of a violin, and also a closeup of a loaf of bread.
The idea initially is of what is now called “new feudalism”, a tale of collective struggle, and the subversive nature of cinematic metaphor. The communist/ socialist stance become apparent from the first shot, and is blatantly underlined in a scene where a peasant girl recites the Psalm Pater Noster, substituting key phrases with lines from the Socialist Worker’s Manifesto (Engels).
Jancso’s fuses seamlessly form with content and politics with poetry, equaling and at times surpassing the exciting innovations of the French New Wave in the 1960s and early 70s. The music and songs, that range from revolutionary folk songs to “Charlie Is My Darlin’,” are interwoven with bullet shots, naked peasant girls, the predominance of Red,the burning of a Church (and here the Church merely represents an institution, not religious intolerance) and an underlying strain of brotherhood and peasant solidarity.
Unlike most other films, where the camera is just the medium to capture certain scenes, and it is the scene or the spectacle which is the object of attention, the ‘walking choreography’ shifts, at times, the spectator’s concentration to the movements of the camera itself. It is said that Jancso would talk to to actors all the while the scenes were being shot and then make use of post-production dubbing and sound edit. As such, sometimes even the actors had little knowledge as to when they were in a frame and when they were not. The camera then became a device for the film maker to showcase and draw parallels between things, based on his own interpretation. For example, in the very first shot of the film the camera follows a closeup of a violin to the closeup of a soldier’s rifle as the very next object of concentration. One can also say, that the camera moves across the scenes as a pen would move across paper. One effect of such a technique is that the audience is no more a mere spectator; but is very much a part of the theatrical construction of the mise-en-scene. Looked at as such, 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). Back in the 1920s, the Russian montage, or the Eisenstein school of thought would have felt obliged to fragment these walkthroughs into rhymed close-shots of details (boots, faces, hands on shoulders, etc). But Jancsó opts for long-take long-shots.
There is hardly any post-production editing. Because the entire film is composed of 28 lengthy shots in 80 odd minutes of the film. However, there is a more subtle form of editing involved. The editing takes places while the scene is being shot. The editing is Jancso’s selection of which object or character to portray, and in what state, even while the camera reel is rolling. While calling out instructions to his crew and actors, he edited the film in its composition itself. Sound was synched later.
There is also the Brechtian interpretation of the stylistic devices used in the film, such as the terse, oblique exposition of initially mysterious narrative developments, the narrative discontinuities, the inquiring looks into camera after a surprising event, which function as riddles or “alienation effects”, forcing the spectator into an active analysis of moral values, without concentrating on the emotional wave patterns of the character.
The picture won Jancso a best director award at Cannes, and it may well be the greatest Hungarian film of the 1960s and 70s, maybe even beyond the decade, and maybe even beyond the country. But one has to be politically correct.
Watch it, if you can get a copy.
Vipul Ralph Shah