The “tracking shot in Kapo,” a little-seen film by Gillo Ponecorvo, has become shorthand for a type of aestheticization of the Atrocities of War, an easy out for criticism to label depictions of horror on moral levels via aesthetics. Many critics (including myself at times) often feel queasy attacking a film on moral grounds (the usual “what gives us the right to judge” connotations etc etc), but formal discussions become fair game to sneak such articulations in. This is our expertise after all.
Miklós Jancsó’s tracking shots don’t offer easy aesthetic answers in terms of their morality. Formally they are breathtaking: dollies, zooms, whip-pans, the whole works to create a lucid sense of space, one that is not about tracking us through a space, but disorienting us. Jancsó shifts emphasis throughout – information (ie. the characters) enters and exit the frame; they become the dominant center before suddenly retreating to the background. It’s different from what Robert Altman would do, because Altman treated everyone equally. Jancsó’s shifts are more sudden and jerky; scenes are always interrupted by the presence of new information.
If morality of films were only judged by their formal elements, Jancsó would be more damning than Kapo. Except Jancsó’s political explorations justify such aesthetics. He lived in a country that was literally torn: first during the war, and secondly between its Soviet influence and its Western aspirations. A film like The Red and the White, the agreed upon canonical title of his work, presents a seemingly unending war in which victors, villains, and victims are all one in the same. His idea of a tracking shot is not to sweep us up in emotion. It’s to throw us around into the shit.