The Witness

Peter Bacso’s The Witness is a comedy about Stalinism, oxymoronic as such a description might sound. The film was made in 1969, but immediately banned by the Communist government of Hungary, and only released in 1981. The film is apparently famous and widely popular in Hungary, but it is not very well known elsewhere. The American DVD is marred by missing subtitles in a few scenes, though for the most part my class and I were able to keep track of what was going on.

In terms of form, The Witness is a thoroughly mainstream film, skillfully directed, but in no respect avant-garde or experimental. This, in fact, is part of the film’s interest. For one thing, it is what allowed The Witness to gain its massive popularity at home. For another, usually in the US (and, I imagine, more generally in “the West”) we generally only get to see art films from Communist Eastern Europe. As far as I know, there was a massive popular film industry in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary; but almost none of these films are available subtitled in English, and on VHS or DVD. (All I know about Communist popular cinema comes from the wonderful 1997 documentary East Side Story).

So an additional benefit of seeing The Witness is that it gives us a sense of the stylistics of Communist Eastern European popular film: and in fact, this stylistics seems very close to its Hollywood counterpart. The Witness is in color and wide screen. Its production values are a bit more modest than those of standard Hollywood films of the same period. But its invisible editing style is entirely familiar (Bacso favors broad shots, and expression through mise en scene more than through montage — but not any more so than was typically the case in Hollywood from the 1950s until the innovations of the “New Hollywood”). And Bacso works his sight gags pretty much the same way as Hollywood studio comedy of the time did. (Though, alas, there is nothing as visually outlandish as some of the things we get in Frank Tashlin’s or Jerry Lewis’ comedies).

Anyway, what distinguishes The Witness is of course its political content, of a sort that one simply doesn’t find in American comedy (nor, I would imagine in the great mass of popular films produced in Eastern Europe prior to 1989). The film is set in the Rakosi era (Rakosi was the dictator of Hungary from 1948 to 1956; his regime was known as the most hard-line Stalinist and repressive of any in Eastern Europe). The comic protagonist, Jozsef Pelikan, is a hapless fool, a bit along the lines of the protagonist of Andrzej Munk’s Bad Luck. Pelikan is a naive, earnest, and loyal Communist, basically honest, and just wanting to do what is asked of him. Of course, his enthusiasm and “overidentification” get him in trouble time and time again. He starts out as a dike keeper on the Danube, striving to stop the river from overflowing, and also to keep his dog from pissing on the flower bed where the flowers are arranged to spell out a message of dedication to the Leader. But he keeps on getting promoted to higher positions, with greater responsibilities. Each time, he messes up in some way, and is sent to jail. But he is always released and given a yet better job. It turns out that he is being groomed to testify in a show trial against a friend of his, a former government minister, who has been purged from the Party and accused of being a spy in the pay of the fascists and imperialists.

The Witness

The rhetoric of the Communist regime is one of the main targets of Bacso’s satire. The film features such incidents as the successful growing of the “Hungarian orange” (though one of Pelikan’s children eats it, and it has to be replaced with a lemon) which will make the imperialists quake in their boots; and the socialist amusement park, where the haunted house terrifies visitors with its vision of the Communist specter that is haunting Europe. Or again, firemen arrive hours too late to put out a fire — the house has already completely burned down — and explain that they couldn’t have arrived any earlier, because they were conducting an investigation to make sure that the report of the fire was real, and not an imperialist provocation.

When Pelikan is rehearsing the testimony he is supposed to give against his old friend, he meets (among other “helpers”) a speech therapist who uses what are basically Method Acting techniques to try to get him to take on the role of an honest, indignant worker, and a hard-drinking scriptwriter who never wants to repeat himself, and is very proud of producing confessions and testimony that are free of cliche (because they are filled with accusations so absurd that nobody has ever thought of them before).

The whole movie is filled with a twisted logic worthy of Lewis Carroll (“verdict first, trial afterwards”) and Groucho Marx (“who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”), but which sounds familiar even to me as classic Stalinist bureaucratese, and must have been totally recognizable to the original Hungarian audience. Pelikan provides the perfect foil, as he patiently tries to understand, for instance, just how it could have been that, when he thought he saw his friend the ex-Minister fishing on the river bank, the ex-Minister was really sending secret, treasonous messages to fascist frogmen.

The most interesting character in the film, aside from Pelikan himself, is his Party contact, the creepy Comrade Virag (Lajos Oze). Virag is a bit like a vampire, effete and neurasthenic, and continually manipulating Pelikan through an amazing (and no doubt carefully calculated) combination of seeming self-pity, an excessive assumption of intimacy and familiarity, continual pleading and wheedling, and subtle threats. It’s Virag who plies Pelikan with delicious morsels only available to the Party elite, Virag who bombards Pelikan with the Groucho-esque argument that he should believe the Party in preference to his own memories, and Virag who puts on an act of suicidal despondency over the fact that Pelikan has let him down (by not wanting to testify).

The testimony, when Pelikan finally gets to it, is of course another disaster. Despite his loyalty and eagerness to please, Pelikan simply cannot believe the contorted tale that he is supposed to be telling. He really loses it when he meets, in the courtroom, a former secret policeman under the wartime fascist regime, who had tortured him back then, but who is now being rehabilitated for the service of testifying that the Communist ex-Minister on trial was indeed a fascist collaborator.

From there we get a telescoped conclusion — Pelikan is on death row, but he learns he is pardoned just as his execution is about to take place. The film then jumps via a brief montage sequence from 1951 to the present (1969, when the film was made), a time of greater prosperity and less paranoia. This being a comedy, it turns out that nobody was actually executed — which means that the film ends up pulling its punches a bit, I suppose. But the main point, about Stalinism’s surreal and paranoid logic remains intact. (Apparently Bacso made a sequel in 1994, satirizing the capitalist logic that by that time had entirely replaced the former Communist one in Hungary. But this, like so many other Eastern European films, is unavailable in the US).

The rhetoric of Stalinism, and more generally of “actually existing socialism” before 1989, is quite different from the rhetoric of fascism, or for that matter from the hypocritical and falsifying rhetoric that is deployed for various nefarious purposes (cf. Bush and company) in our capitalist-liberal-democratic societies. Though I’ve cited Lewis Carroll and Groucho Marx in comparison — and I could have cited Kafka as well, of course, who is so over-cited in situations like this that to do so verges on cliche — what The Witness really captures is the specificity of socialist/bureaucratic discourse, the ways that it is tied in both to surveillance (there are several scenes where the secret police come to Pelikan’s house to investigate rumors — which are in fact true — that he has illicitly slaughtered a pig) and spectacle (the show trial, the celebration of the “Hungarian orange”) of a particular sort — one that is quite different from the “war on terror”, the “society of the spectacle”, and the reign of the commodity as we experience them today in America (and at this point, I imagine, in Hungary as well). The Witness is brilliant in the way it communicates this specificity and (for us) unfamiliarity through a form that in itself is entirely familiar and accessible.

One Response to “The Witness”

  1. Dejan says:

    The archetypal Hollywood-style director in Yugoslavia was Veljko Bulajic, whose movies cannot be separated from similar war movie fare in Hollywood; in fact Hollywood sometimes sponsored Bulajic’s films (like the megaproduction BATTLE OF NERETVA scored by Bernard Herrmann). The difference is that the Partisans fighting the Nazis display a communist mentality (camaraderie and moral virtue) . Nowadays this would appear camp because we don’t take things like moral virtue with a straight face. But presenting the partisan’s fight in moralising terms, on the other hand, is quite in line with humanitarian capitalism of today’s social-democratic elites. I saw this repeated in Jan Svankmaher’s LUNACY with the representation of the softly toralitarian hospital: it can be seen as either capitalist or communist.

    As for other mainstream fare in Yugo, there was a whole array of films extolling the national virtues of the Serbs in the 1990s, and they were essentially continuing the Veljko Bulajic genre, also invariably set up as historic (Second World War) dramas or comedies. This reminds me of the way the Holocaust is used in Hollywood (Schindler’s List). All the horror and the blame is awlays to be found in in the past, as if nothing horrific is happening now.

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