One way for movies to make sense of historical events is to present them as a logical sequence of causes and effects. That is to say, they turn them into stories, typically subordinating narrative form and style to the clear presentation of the plot. This style of filmmaking is well suited to a director like Roberto Rossellini, whose goal in the latter part of his career was to educate a mass audience.
Conversely, Miklós Jancsó’s Red Psalm (1972) is deliberately baffling. Loosely inspired by a series of Marxist revolts by Hungarian farmers between 1890 and 1910, the narrative is elliptical and inconsistent, and the film’s fancy camera movements elide a number of important events. What’s more, the ending is frankly allegorical, relinquishing any pretense to veracity or verisimilitude. Rather than educating viewers, the movie forces them to think.
Although it’s not uncommon for narrative films to begin in medias res (sometimes, as in Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers , opening with a crisis and then jumping back in time to show what led up to this point), there’s usually a clear trigger that sets the story in motion, even if it’s only implied rather than shown. Red Psalm is unusual in that the farmers’ revolt against the landowners — which is already underway when the movie begins — doesn’t have a specific cause but seems to have come about spontaneously. Obviously the uprising has a general cause in that the farmers are dissatisfied with their situation, but those conditions had been in place a long time before they revolted.
At times, the characters’ motives are totally inscrutable. During a confrontation with the clergy, a moderate farmer, Bálint (the only character who’s referred to by name), intervenes on the side of the church: “True socialists listen to every new idea and discuss them.” Ultimately, he’s overruled by his comrades who burn down the church with the priest inside. In the next scene, the farmers give a blade to an old man — a character we haven’t seen before — to slash his own wrist. At his funeral, Bálint (who’s evidently grieved by the old man’s death) repents and is accepted back into the fold. It would seem that the old man’s suicide has shown Bálint the error of his ways, but as it’s never explained who the old man was or why he had to kill himself (especially when all the farmers treat him fondly), the connection between his death and Bálint’s conversion remains obscure.
Other scenes are just plainly illogical. Early in the film, a military cadet sympathetic to the farmers is ordered to assassinate a troubadour (it’s not explained what crime the troubadour is supposed to have committed), and when he refuses to carry out the order, another soldier shoots a woman in the hand — seemingly arbitrarily — before shooting the cadet, who falls to the ground. He appears to be dead, but after the injured woman kisses him on the forehead, the cadet sits up and looks directly into the camera. Later, following a mass execution, the cadet and the troubadour are seen idling by a stream in the presence of several officers who take no notice of them. All narrative films involve some degree of inference making on the part of the viewer, but this movie in particular requires a more active form of spectatorship; as it’s often unclear what’s happening or why, viewers must fill in the gaps for themselves.
Accordingly, rather than presenting the action in a straightforward manner, the framing intentionally obscures some major plot points. In the opening sequence, the bailiff (backed by armed soldiers) gives an ultimatum to the rebelling farmers — in so many words, stop making trouble or else — which is firmly rejected. The soldiers then set fire to some sacks of wheat while the bailiff walks into the distance.
As the sacks burn in the foreground, two women approach the soldiers guarding the fire and demand that they throw down their arms. One woman even grabs a soldier’s gun and throws it on the ground. While the soldier casually picks it up, the two women begin walking towards the bailiff, the camera slowly panning left and zooming in to frame out the soldiers (see image below). It isn’t until the bailiff turns around and starts chasing after them — the camera now zooming out and panning right with his movement — that it becomes apparent that the soldiers have deserted him. In other words, due to the framing, it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when the soldiers make the decision to walk away.
The bailiff then finds himself surrounded by a group of men who put him in a sack. However, as the men carry him away, our view of what’s happening is obscured by a chorus line of farmers who pass in front as they circle the fire (see below). Since the bailiff is never seen again, it seems likely that he was killed by the farmers. In fact, the second time that the chorus line passes behind the fire, as they reappear on the other side, they step over something that could be the bailiff’s corpse, though the flames prevent us from getting a good look. As the murder takes place offscreen — and what’s more, as it’s never alluded to in the dialogue — the viewer must infer what’s happened.
As the chorus line moves away from the fire, the camera pans left with their movement to reveal a pair of musicians sitting on the ground, and then tilts up to shown Bálint standing apart from the group with a troubled expression on his face. As he turns away and begins walking, the camera continues tilting up to reveal a company of riflemen standing in formation. The most obvious explanation for the company’s sudden appearance is that they’ve come in response to the bailiff’s murder. However, rather than using a dissolve or some other stylistic device to signal the passage of time, the film’s long take style makes it seem as though the riflemen have been standing there the whole time (in which case, why didn’t they help the bailiff?).
Unlike The Battle of Algiers and Rossellini’s La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (also 1966), Red Psalm doesn’t have much value as journalism, as in addition to being difficult to follow, it takes a great deal of poetic license with the facts. So rather than the story ending with the farmers being executed by the military, the film invents a conclusion that flies in the face of believability. The final shot of the movie begins with a rifle being loaded in close-up and then tracks right to survey the remaining farmers as they prepare themselves for death. Tilting down, the camera continues tracking to reveal a number of dead bodies lying on the ground. The camera then tilts up to show an officer drinking a toast while a brass band performs a triumphant tune. As the camera keeps tracking, one of the women seen earlier in the shot wanders into the frame. Since the narration elides the execution of the farmers, it’s unclear how the woman managed to escape the firing squad, thus underscoring the incongruousness of her survival when seemingly all of her comrades have been killed.
Accordingly, the mise en scène invites disbelief rather than suspending it. The first time we see the woman in the shot, she and the other farmers are dressed in matching white outfits, but when she reappears following the deaths of her comrades, her dress seems to have spontaneously turned bright red. Subsequently, when the woman steals a pistol from a soldier on horseback, the force of her taking it causes him to fall off of his horse, and as the soldier doesn’t get back up, it appears that he was killed by the fall. Each time the woman pulls the trigger, several men fall to the ground, and at no point do the soldiers fire back or react in any other way. The woman then turns to the camera and sings a revolutionary song. When she finishes, she raises the gun to reveal a red ribbon tied around the barrel; since we don’t see it being tied on, the ribbon seems to have materialized out of thin air. The lack of any logical explanation for all this indicates that — like the resurrection of the cadet, and more ambiguously, the old man’s suicide (which looks fake) — the woman’s highly improbable victory over the ruling class isn’t meant to be taken literally.
Not surprisingly, given the demands that the film places on the viewer, Red Psalm wasn’t well received by either the Hungarian authorities or the public. Studio boss István Nemeskürty criticized the movie for its “anarchistic fermenting-whirling impulses” and “cynical use of nudity for profit.” And while Raymond Durgnat claims that the film was seen by half a million people in a country of eight million¹, according to Béla Tarr, Jancsó movies were anything but popular in the early ’70s: “Everyone hated him in Hungary then, everyone laughed at him, saying it’s craziness, just nude girls walking up and down, nothing happening, no story. They didn’t understand anything, but for me he was fresh air.”² In the West, despite winning the best director prize at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, the movie wasn’t widely distributed in the United States after getting a bad review in The New York Times (“[The film] is virtually a negation of the whole, necessary relation of cinema to life”).³ Due to its elliptical, often illogical narrative, and the style which produces ambiguity and skepticism, Red Psalm is obviously a difficult film — even by the standards of Jancsó’s earlier The Round-Up (1966) and The Red and the White (1967), which look almost classical by comparison. But for me, that’s part of what makes the movie so much fun.
1. Durgnat, Raymond. “Red Psalm,” Rouge no. 8, 2006. Available online.
2. Tarr, Béla (in conversation with Jonathan Romney). “Playing Jesus Christ,” Sight & Sound, April, 2008. Available online.
3. Greenspun, Robert. “Miklós Jancsó’s Red Psalm Screened,” The New York Times, October 2, 1972. Available online.