The Witness (A tanú)

Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet and Cold War dissident, explored the writer’s dilemma under Stalinism in The Captive Mind.

In the field of literature [socialist realism] forbids what has in every age been the writer’s essential task — to look at the world from his own independent viewpoint, to tell the truth as he sees it, and so to keep watch and ward in the interest of society as a whole.

Telling the truth could land you in jail if you were an Eastern European artist in the 1950s. Many compromised with the regime, betraying their ideals, along with their friends and associates. Worse still, acting the part of a loyal servant of the regime became natural. As Milosz warned, “After long acquaintance with his role, a man grows into it so closely that he can no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates, so that even the most intimate of individuals speak to each other in Party slogans.”

Honesty was impossible if you wished to survive. Your vision, the meaning you found in the world, could only be conveyed if it conformed to the party line. But in Péter Bacsó’s brilliant satire, The Witness, released in 1969 but banned in Hungary for ten years, the truth surfaces through black humor.

Kallai Ferenc plays a poor schlemiel, József Pelikán, a dike keeper  who is promoted by the Communist authorities into a series of positions for which he is totally unqualified. 090318-witnessHere he is, being arrested by the standard-issue secret police agents in their leather trench coats following the disastrous opening of his Great Socialist Fun Park.

One disaster leads to the next. The orange grove he oversees produces a single orange, which one of his children eats before it can be presented to the leader. Pelikán hastily substitutes a lemon at the ceremony, daring the assembled dignitaries to show him up in front of the crowd: “The new Hungarian orange. It’s slightly yellower, it’s slightly sharper, but our own.”

After each failure, Pelikán is thrown into prison, but others are persuaded to confess to his mistakes and he is given another chance to mess up. Eventually he learns why the authorities have taken such a kindly interest in his case. He is now complicit with the regime, and must show his gratitude by serving as a witness at the show trial of a former colleague from the Resistance.

The man has been accused of espionage, a charge that Pelikán has difficulty believing. There’s nothing suspicious about him, he protests.

“The suspicious thing about spies is that they are not suspicious,” his handler assures him.

“I’m not suspicious and I’m not a spy,” says Pelikán.

“How do you know?”

The hapless Pelikán stubbornly maintains his friend’s innocence. “Show me one man in this country whom I won’t be able to turn into a guilty person in five minutes,” his handler retorts.

Persuaded at last, Pelikán is given the script of his testimony to critique. Several aspects strike him as implausible, including the part where the so-called traitor jumped into the Danube and started to converse with some enemy frogmen. His objections are overruled, however (the scriptwriter claims artistic license). Pelikán is taken to a drama coach, who trains him to understand his character’s motivations so he can perform with genuine feeling. He is dressed for the part — “I’ve got it! Worker circa 1950,” the costumer exclaims — but cannot go through with it at the actual trial. Even with the judge prompting him, he refuses to stick to the script.

Meanwhile, the entire town is under water because nobody is manning the dike. People are floating by in boats loaded with their household possessions, including livestock. Pelikán and his family are in a tree, surrounded by rising floodwaters, and he is still spouting his testimony, the lies and slogans, oblivious to the reality that he is about to drown.

Kind of amazing, that Bacsó was allowed to make this picture in the first place.

2 thoughts on “The Witness (A tanú)

  1. That sounds pretty delicious. I love logical twists such as that dialogue excerpt contains: spies are suspicious precisely in seeming not to be suspicious; even a person’s knowledge of him- or herself can be wrong–how do you know you’re not a spy?

    Maybe insufficient coffee is the reason I found your summary confusing near the end. In one paragraph you have Pelikán refusing to stick to the script, and in the next you report that he’s still spouting the lies and slogans of his testimony. Does that mean he goes along with the effort to discredit his friend, only he insists on doing it in his own way?

    I’m curious how you learned of this film and in what form you watched it.


    1. Second question first: I’m embarking on a Hungarian project. This is my favorite film so far — I’m a sucker for black humor. It’s available on DVD.

      The scene with Pelikán in the tree occurred just before the trial, actually. I wanted to end the review with it, so I put it out of sequence. (Damn those copyeditor instincts of yours!)


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