Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.
The film is essentially the short, pointed history of a particular spot overlooking the Volga River during the Russian Revolution. Local Hungarians fight for the communist (Red) side, battling the Tsarist (White) soldiers. Originally intended to be a film about the birth of the Bolshevik state, this is instead an anti-war film that depicts no winners or losers and no heroes in the conflict that erupted. Everyone here is a victim in some sense, even those who are clearly aggressors and morally repellent.
To add to the confusion, it’s often difficult to tell which side of the war a particular person or group is on. It’s not difficult to tell when plain cruelty is being depicted, but it’s frequently impossible to tell if those inflicting the cruelty are Reds or Whites. For the purposes of the film, this may well be intentional. It’s possible that I simply got lost in the confusion of the battle that was being depicted, but I can’t imagine that this effect, not knowing what side a particular cruel officer or soon-to-be victim is on, is entirely a planned result of Jancso’s film.
I won’t make the mistake of saying that I enjoyed this film, either. This is not the sort of film that was created to be enjoyed. Instead, it is very clearly a “message” film about the atrocities of war, the moral confusion of battle, and the terror that it engenders. Just as we often aren’t sure what’s going on, many of those who end up victimized, captured, or killed aren’t sure of why, or are simply so resigned to their fate that they can’t be made to care about their imminent demise.
Take, for instance, a sequence near the start of the film in which prisoners are given a head start to escape. They run, and most find themselves having run the wrong way and reach a dead end. At the end of their allotted time, they dutifully line up to be shot in turn, not resisting or even caring about their death, but submitting to it meekly. There are frequent executions here, many of them seemingly out of convenience rather than anger or hatred. Some are made more cruel simply by being so perfunctory, like swatting a fly.
I won’t pretend here—I was very happy to have this film over and wanted it to be over long before it actually was. This has nothing to do with the quality of the film, but entirely with just how uncomfortable much of it was. If it makes sense, Csillagosok, Katonak is uncomfortable for all of the right reasons and confusing in all of the right ways. It is a brilliant piece of filmmaking, and much of that brilliance is precisely how difficult it is to get through. It’s not hard to watch; it’s hard to contemplate.
Csillagosok, Katonak demonstrates more than anything the complete futility of war, the utter hopelessness of the enterprise. Our inability to pick a side or even to see one side as more in the right or less cruel than the other is unquestionably the point here, and it’s a point well and repeatedly made.
This is a hell of a film in that I am very glad to have seen it and in that I do not think I want to watch it again. While not nearly as gutripping as Idi i Smotri, it treads much the same ground and with much the same effect.
Why to watch Csillagosok, Katonak: The fog and confusion of war has never been better depicted.
Why not to watch: You’ll never know where it’s going.