Filled with catchy revolutionary tunes and lush colour imagery of attractive peasants in a fertile landscape, Red Psalm (Még kér a nép, 1971) has an irresistible appeal, which is difficult to achieve with a largely non-narrative film with limited characterisation. Red Psalm centres on the Hungarian peasant uprisings of the late 1800s. The peasants engage in a series of confrontations with landowners, the Church and the military, each meeting an occasion for brief ideological exchanges. Crucially, unlike Eisenstein’s films, Red Psalm does not present stultifying certainties, but conflicting politico-economic ideas, which the audience can assess for themselves.
The film’s director, Miklós Jancsó, is a master of the long take: the entire film contains only 28 shots. With the large number of actors involved, and the fact that they are in perpetual motion (dancing as they sing, or pacing as they debate political ideas), it clearly took great skill to control the contents of each shot.
Jancsó’s style calls to mind two other directors, Béla Tarr and Aleksandr Sokurov. With the latter he shares highly choreographed long takes, and similarly uses visual interest to make up for limited narrative interest. Jancsó’s images are not as richly textured as Sokurov’s, yet their simple symbolism is equally pleasing. This is where there is something of Tarr in Jancsó: compensating for surface minimalism, there is a sense of equally important intangible elements at work. While not as otherworldly as Tarr’s films, Red Psalm, through symbolism and political debate, evokes ideas that ennoble the physical world, making it semantically richer.
The new Second Run DVD of Red Psalm contains one extra feature, also by Jancsó: Message of Stones (A kövek üzenete - Hegyalja, 1994), the third part in a documentary series, focused on the decimation of Hungary’s Jewish population. At the outset, the film is not promising: it feels more like a home video than a professional production, and revolves around taciturn old folk, rural roads and sleepy towns, without any voice-over to explain their significance. But Jancsó’s style soon asserts itself, and the relationship with the main feature becomes clearer. The documentary has a characteristically rousing soundtrack, and artistically composed shots come to balance more amateurish framings. Jancsó observes expatriate Jews returning to Hungary, where they visit ancestral monuments, abandoned synagogues and their parents’ and grandparents’ former houses and lands, long since appropriated by non-Jewish families. The film’s final scenes show a group of Jewish children learning folk dances, which they joyfully perform in a landscape where their ancestors were eradicated. When the children caper through ruined buildings, they seem like green shoots breaking through scorched earth. The sense of hope, renewal and determination these scenes evoke are of a piece with Red Psalm‘s spirit of unity and idealism.
The DVD’s liner notes feature an informative essay by Peter Hames, in which the scholar explains the significance of Red Psalm, defines Jancsó’s style, summarises the director’s career and contextualises his work.