The Witness, Peter Bacso, (1969).
The Witness from Peter Bacso is a comedy about one of Hungary’s most hideous periods of history. The film takes place in Hungary during the Stalinist era, between 1948 and 1953, which was a time of terrible repression in Hungary. The genre of comedy is used to pointedly satirize these harsh years.
The film uses the focal point of a show-trial to criticize Stalinist Communism from within. During Communism people were not just shot and murdered without explanation the way that has always been such a staple of Fascist regimes. Instead, the government would put together elaborately staged court trials. The show-trials were often based on lies and orchestrated not to serve justice but to remove people. A realistic façade was important, presumably, to show political and national order. The trials were, essentially, theatrical productions with paid actors for witnesses and lawyers. In The Witness Pelikan, a common citizen and worker, is selected to testify in one of these show-trials by Virag who is presumably a rather high ranking member of the local government. The intention to have Pelikan testify as a witness, though, is not revealed up front. Instead when Pelikan is arrested he gets bailed out by Virag as a favor which Virag insists will need to be paid back “some day.” In the mean time Pelikan is given prestigious jobs to serve the government, all of which he fails miserably at.
The comedy of the film is served through how it comments on the incompetence of the system.
Pelikan is given the jobs not because he is qualified but because he is in favor. With each new job Pelikan ends up arrested and imprisoned anew. Pelikan’s incompetence in his jobs is mirrored by the incompetence of the state system. The film is keen about showing the absurdity in the system’s insistence to follow order and observe forms. Virag is the embodiment of the bizarre and twisted logic that everything tries to follow but that doesn’t work at all. The firemen reach Pelikan’s house fire after it has already consumed the home, when Virag and his team build Pelikan a new house they forget to include windows or doors. Everything is backwards. The best example is the trial which works least well of all. The show-trial does not in any way even attempt to fulfill the purpose of what a trial is supposed to be. A show trial is indeed an utter betrayal of the so called justice system and really defies the whole point of what a court system is meant to be all about.
The Witness uses exaggeration to satirize the state during the Stalinist era. The preparation leading up to the performance of the trial itself is phenomenally executed. The series of jobs that Virag consistently sets Pelikan up for is like a series of preparatory tests to attempt to familiarize Pelikan with the glorious Hungarian Communist system. However, the endeavor proves miserable and disastrous. Pelikan means well but does everything backwards, he is clueless. A the end of each job, Pelikan is back in prison, in the same social profile of a cell which includes Pelikan, the common worker, a priest and a former Nazi officer, who represents the past and old regime. Each time, Virag bails Pelikan out again. He is picked up by a black sedan in which he must ride with two quiet, very secretive and comical-looking officers. Each time they take him back to Virag’s office where Virag waits with big, elaborate dinners for him, of which Virag himself never partakes. It is in Virag’s office, while Pelikan eats, that the two main characters have there most revealing conversations. Virag is always worn down and tired looking. He constantly sighs and complains about how he never sleeps. His favorite slogan is to say “The international situation is intensifying,” and such things which suggest that there is urgency to act immediately. To act on what or for what reason is less clear. When Virag finally breaks the news o Pelikan that he is to be the star witness in a trial it is revealed that they want Pelikan to testify against an old friend of his. Pelikan resists and argument ensues. Pelican complains that there must be a mistake because he knows that his friend must be innocent. A heated Virag argues intensely that anyone anywhere can be guilty and that he can make a guilty party out of anyone in Hungary. Virag intently asks Pelikan if the last time he saw his friend he didn’t notice anything “suspicious” about him and the way he acted. When Pelikan says absolutely “no” Virag responds, decisively, with “exactly.” Confusingly Virag leads Pelikan astray from the argument and makes very little sense. Virag argues that “Not being suspicious at all is most suspicious of all.” Virag’s reasoning is bizarre much like the twisted logic that everything seems to be so serious about following pointlessly.
The trial is the culmination of the satire. Pelikan and Virag visit the writer in charge of formulating Pelikan’s statement. The statement is entirely full of outrageous lies, even mentioning that the defendant was seen conversing with “frog men” but Virag takes it very seriously. The writer is by no measure the kind of guy who should be working in the investigatory objective science of law. He writes as if it were a creative endeavor, and thinks himself quite good for fiction, which happens to be what this backwards, perverted trial is seeking. Perverted in the sense that it perverts away from its, supposedly, “real” or “intended” goal. The day of the trial, everybody is appropriately nervous. Virag hands Pelikan his statement to review before going out to testify. In his nerves he hands Pelikan the wrong paper, the verdict instead. Indeed, the verdict is decided and written before the trial even begins.