In the hot sun on the Hungarian puszta, a prison stands silently erect. Its walls are a piercing white that hurts the eyes and serves to contrast against the huddled mass of prisoners within. The men inside are silent. They refrain from even talking to themselves. They just stand around and avoid each others’ glances. Both prisoner and guards partake of this communion of silence. When the interrogators ask questions, they don’t raise their voices. When prisoners are executed, they don’t make a sound. In fact, the only things that can be heard are birds which are never seen. It’s strange, considering that there are not any trees in the area. Their sweet songs seem to mock the prisoners who appear to have accepted the fact that they will never leave the prison.
Such is the setting for this great Hungarian masterpiece. The fourth work of cinematic master Miklós Jancsó’s career, it firmly established him as a major player in international film. Made for only half a million $US, it is a marvel of cinematic simplicity. In addition to being an international success, it was well-received in Hungary, with over a million people seeing it. To put that in perspective, there were only about 10 million Hungarians at the time of this film’s release.
Key to its success is its powerful use of allegory. Jancsó would join the ranks of many other great Eastern European directors like Jiří Menzel and Miloš Forman in using the cinema as a metaphor for Soviet occupation and oppression. Just like the bumbling firemen in The Firemen’s Ball (1967) were a metaphor for a failed Soviet bureaucracy, the inmates and prison guards in The Round-Up have their real world counterparts. In fact, the entire film is an allegory for the failed 1956 Hungarian uprising against Russian-imposed Communism.
The setting is a prison camp for those suspected of following Lajos Kossuth who led the 1848 revolution again Habsburg rule in Hungary. The revolution crushed, all that remained were guerrillas. One such group, led by a highwayman named Sándor Rózsa, was captured. The trouble is, not all of the prisoners were rebels. Desperate to find out if Sándor is among those captured, the guards begin to employ devastating tactics against the prisoners in order to make them break their silence.
A breakthrough for the prison staff comes in the form of a murdered family of wealthy shepherds named the Kis Balogs. They were strangled in their home and had many of their sheep stolen. Suspecting one of the inmates to be involved, the guards pick out one named János Gajdar. Why they pick him is never explained, but the guards have an aura about them that suggests that they know more than they let on. Maybe they already know that he is guilty, but they want him to confess. Whatever the reason behind their selection, their methods of gaining a confession are brutal. They lock him in a cell with the dead bodies of the Kis Balogs and force him to wear the halter used to strangle them around his neck like a bowtie. It isn’t long before he confesses that he killed the Kis Balogs and three other people. The interrogator lays down a chilling ultimatum, “If at the earthworks, you find anyone more guilty than you, someone who killed more people, then you’ll be pardoned. We won’t hang you.”
It is unclear whether or not János can trust them to keep their word, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. He goes about betraying several prisoners secretly, hoping that they have killed enough people so he can be reprieved. Prisoners are brought out in long lines with sacks over their heads like human cattle so János can try and identify them. Eventually, János accidentally reveals his position as a traitor in front of the entire prison. He is then strangled one night in solitary confinement.
With their snitch gone, the guards employ other tricks to sniff out the conspirators. They quickly find out who murdered János. It turns out that they left a few cells unlocked the night that he was murdered, so finding the culprits was not a difficult job. But even after unmasking them, they are no closer to discovering the rebels. So they employ one of the greatest tricks that I have ever encountered. They allow the prisoners to form a military unit out of former bandits. After they have all been grouped together, they are informed that Sándor has been officially pardoned. The rebels begin cheering, thus revealing themselves. The guards are quick to tell the happy inmates that those who fought under Sándor will still face execution. The stunned men try to escape, but the guards trap them and begin shoving their heads into large sacks, trapping them once and for all.
Maybe I have portrayed this movie incorrectly. It is not a tight thriller that might be constructed by men like David Mamet. Instead, it is a powerful psychological drama. The prison evokes a system reminiscent of Kafka’s most paranoid dreams. One inmate is asked what they did to warrant being in prison. He replies, “They questioned me a lot and I said nothing.” It’s a system where the guards ask the prisoners questions that they already know the answers to. They have condemned people and yet they still interrogate them. Actions are carried out, but rarely explained. It is a movie where a look or a glance is more powerful than a line of dialogue. Take the film’s best scene as an example.
After János’ first attempt at turning in a criminal who has killed more people than he has fails, he quickly meets another inmate with a rap sheet longer than his. In his excitement, he runs to a door behind which guards are stationed and starts banging on it, screaming that he has found someone. When they ignore him, he turns around to see the prisoners staring at him. Not a line is spoken, but it is clear that every single person has figured out that he is a traitor. He starts to walk around the prison yard looking at the other inmates. We get close-ups of their faces which quickly look at him, and then look away. In every face is a look of disgust. Without a word of dialogue, we know János’ fate is sealed. It is in such details that The Round-Up excels. It is why after so many years The Round-Up maintains its power. While words and phrases may lose meaning over the ages, looks, subtle glances, and unspoken communications never lose their impact. It is a film that all peoples of all cultures could understand. The fact that it is in Hungarian is just incidental. It is a story of lies and betrayals, of feelings and not words. Whatever the real life incident that may have inspired it, The Round-Up could draw parallels to untold numbers of stories throughout the world. In this way, Miklós Jancsó has directed a film that is a timeless testament to the darker side of the human spirit. It is, in a sense, an eternal film.