It is the 1860s and the Austro-Hungarian Empire has been tackling an insurgency in their territory led by a man called Sandor, but unfortunately for them they have been unable to identify him thus far, despite having conquered his men and presumably arrested him in the process. The main members of his army have been rounded up and taken to this fort where they are incarcerated, some with bags over their heads as they are made to exercise in pointless, repetitive ways, but every so often one of the men will be called away by an officer to answer questions to better ascertain who Sandor is. One man is shown the dead of the peasants who have been killed recently, and told that similarly he will never see his family again - no wonder when he is shot immediately afterwards.
Miklos Jansco held the position of Hungary's most celebrated film director, or at least he did until Bela Tarr happened along and, taking copious notes on how the older man set about his work, either was heavily influenced by his style or from a different perspective ripped him off wholesale, only at greater length, though with the same lugubrious tone to his subject matter. Jansco did not appear to have been put out by this, indeed he was somewhat flattered by the attention being "the man who taught Bela Tarr all he knows" brought him, but it is debatable whether he ever really bettered his efforts from the nineteen-sixties. The Red and the White is often cited as his finest film, but there are those who will also champion The Round-Up, made under the Communist regime.
Seeing as how The Soviet Union was breathing down his neck, it is perhaps little surprise that Jansco made a story lambasting the Germans, as The Soviets had never gotten over their victory, at terrible cost, against the Nazis in World War II and indeed made many films themselves celebrating that fact. This piece was not set in that conflict, but established that the rivalry between East and West Europe was deeply embedded in the character of the continent, and came out heavily in favour of the East, which was fair enough except that now at least West Germany was a democracy and presumably would have placed their past with all its horror behind them to look to what would hopefully be a better future. Yet this film, and others like it, were steadfastly unwilling to let go of what had gone before them, even a century before.
Really it was a simple story Jansco related here, all the better to be understood by even outsiders to this cause: we can tell the uniformed soldiers are hiding their brutality under a veneer of pageantry (they even have a brass band), when all they actually wish for is to slaughter as many of the enemy as possible. They can kid themselves they're civilised, but the bloodlust is in them, which makes the conclusion not exactly a shock, though nevertheless it is one of the grimmest of its decade without conveying an enormous amount of onscreen violence. That mood is one of oppressive, approaching doom, all the more bleak for its filming in stark black and white and the director's preference for long, unsparing takes, so do not expect the slightest element of humour, that Hungarian grimness seemingly part and parcel of Eastern Europe's approach to its turbulent history. We have seen in Serbia, Rwanda or Burma that the ghastly habit of societies murdering their neighbours has never gone away, and that does not make it the slightest bit more palatable in this unadorned tale; if its lack of bloodshed dates it, sadly it remains relevant to the worst of human nature.