The Witness

English Title: The Witness

Original Title: A tanú

Country of Origin: Hungary

Studio: MAFILM 1. Játékfilmstúdió

Director: Péter Bacsó

Producer(s): MAFILM 1. Játékfilmstúdió

Screenplay: Péter Bacsó, János Ujhelyi

Cinematographer: János Zsombolyai

Art Director: László Blahó

Editor: Sándor Boronkay

Runtime: 106 minutes

Genre: Drama/Comedy

Language: Hungarian

Starring/Cast: Ferenc Kállai, Lajos Öze, Béla Both, Zoltán Fábri, Lili Monori, Károly Bicskey

Year: 1969

Volume: East European

Hungary, 1949: Jószef Pelikán is a dike-keeper during hard times in a strict communist regime where even bread is hard to come by. When he slaughters a pig at home, he is investigated, and although he gets away with his perceived crime the first time around, he is subsequently discovered when a friend, Comrade Minister Zoltán Dániel, inadvertently gives him away. After a brief spell in prison, he is released by an official, and thereafter is given a succession of jobs that continuously land him back in prison. When he is given the task of giving evidence against Minister Zoltán, he must decide whether to trade his friendship and personal integrity for political expediency.    

Like Miloš Forman’s Hoří, má panenko/The Fireman’s Ball (1967) and Jiří Menzel’s almost concurrently-made Skřivánci na niti/Larks on a String (1990), Péter Bacsó’s pointed satirical comedy A tanú/The Witness was banned in its native country for over a decade. It was immediately acclaimed when it was finally unveiled at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival and went on to become a cult classic in Hungary, with several lines of recurring dialogue achieving an almost unprecedentedly iconic status. It also made the name of its director on the international stage after a career already over twenty years old (he had begun as a screenwriter soon after World War II and made his directorial debut in 1960), and made this peripheral figure in the Hungarian New Wave one of the country’s premiere cinematic satirists.


The Witness was Péter Bacsó’s sixth film and his first in scope and colour. It takes aim at a inept and corrupt communist regime, and not unlike Larks on a String, also encompasses a swipe at obtuse language, sloganeering and official speak (from which emanated the oft-quoted lines: such as one Party official’s repeated assertion that ‘the international situation is intensifying’). Cleverly though, Bacsó and co-writer János Ujhelyi ­– who has very few credits as a screenwriter, working far more as a consultant and script editor for major directors like Károly Makk and Zoltán Fábri, who appears as an actor in The Witness embed this vision within a sense of both an organic and not so organic order of nature and the natural world. Thus, the film begins with a pig being slaughtered (illegally) to provide food, with fishing and with a scene depicting gophers being flushed out of their holes and killed, and later features the Danube flooding and rendering the protagonist homeless. It is a potent picture of a natural hierarchy to place beside the artificial imposition of the Party’s pecking order, where almost everyone is shown to be subservient to a higher power. Bacsó, perhaps the Hungarian New Wave’s most transparent, least stylistically ostentatious director, does not make a great deal out of this, but it nonetheless stands his film apart and puts his less-than-groundbreaking satirical targets in a fresh context. Similarly the use of inter-titles to introduce successive stages of the narrative give the film an almost self-reflexive sense of storytelling, of a tall tale being told, which further contributes to a sense of a counter-historicity to negate official doctrines (like those than banned The Witness in Hungary).           


The one flaw in this otherwise hugely enjoyably and genuinely engaging and empathetic film is that it never quite makes up its mind how idiotic its protagonist should be. As played by the popular actor Ferenc Kállai – who would go on to memorable collaborations with the likes of Béla Tarr, István Szabó and Zoltán Fábri – Jószef Pelikán is a practical, devoted family man, at times obdurate, confrontational and certainly a deferential communist. However, he never quite seems to be the naive dolt that his actions at times make him out to be, especially in those periodic scenes in which he is imprisoned along with a bishop and a fascist subversive, during which time his political commitment and justifiable injustice are convincingly and  intelligently extolled. As a result, several plot points, especially as regards his decision to become the titular witness and give evidence in court against his friend, clearly require a Švejk-level of imbecility and gullibility that do not truly tally with what we have seen of the protagonist, his actions and character.         


None of which detracts greatly from the film; it still has more than enough moments of both broad guffaws and absurdist humour laced with an intellectual tease worthy of Monty Python to compensate (the socialist ghost train at the newly-termed gaiety theme park is a particular highlight, making ingeniously literal use of Marx and Engels’ figurative spectre haunting Europe from their Communist Manifesto). And neither did the shelving of The Witness hamper Bacsó’s career: he became head of the Dialog Film Studio, and continued working in cinema and, latterly, in television. He went on to average almost a film a year between 1971 and his death (aged 81) in March 2009, when he was honoured with a deserved lifetime achievement award at that year’s Hungarian Film Week.

Author of this review: Adam Bingham