A Tanú (The Witness) (1969)
Director: Péter Bacsó.
Starring: Ferenc Kállai (József Pelikán, Dike Keeper), Lajos Öze (Árpád Virág), Béla Both (Comrade Bástya), Zoltán Fábri (Zoltán Dániel), Lili Monori (Gizi), Károly Bicskey (Elemér Gulyás), György Kézdi (Virág's Detective), József Horváth (Railwayman), Róbert Rátonyi (Operetta Actor).
satire of Stalinist government in Hungary
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire movie.
1949 Hungary. Middle-aged József Pelikán considers himself an idiot, but he is a contented idiot. He loves his job as the caretaker of the dike that holds the Danube River at bay. He constantly inspects the dike and kills the gophers, the worst enemies of the dike. But he has a hard time making ends meet. He has a family of eight children without his wife, who ran off with a Rumanian soldier.
In order to feed his children, he slaughters their one pig. The only trouble with this is that it is illegal to have a pig and it is illegal to slaughter a pig for food. This is the Stalinist era in Hungary. The police have been told that Pelikán slaughtered a pig and they come to check on it, but do not find anything.
Minister Zoltán Dániel, a friend of Pelikán, fishes near Pelikán's house. Pelikán talks with Dániel until Dániel has to rush to his fishing pole because he has a fish caught on the line. He has a huge catfish on the line and in the struggle he is drawn into the waters of the Danube. Dániel loses his fish and swears his friend to silence. Pelikán takes Dániel to his house to dry him and warm him up. The police come to check on the illegal slaughter of the pig. Dániel sticks up for his host telling the police that Pelikán was nearly beaten to death in 1944 by some Fascist policemen for not revealing the hiding place of Dániel and others. Pelikán hid them for five weeks in his cellar. He then tells the policemen to go ahead and search the place and he opens up the cellar door in the floor. He and the police look down and see lots of sausages and other pork products made from the illegal pig.
Pelikán finds himself in jail. There he meets again with Elemér Gulyás who was a one-time Fascist responsible for the loss of Pelikán's upper front teeth. Pelikán is not happy to see the man. Later a priest is thrown in jail with them. His daughter Gizi visits him in jail and tells him that his punishment could vary anywhere from a fine to death, depending on if the authorities want to make an example of him.
But one day Pelikán is released from jail. He is told that orders from the top have declared him innocent of all charges. Pelikán tells his jailors that he actually did slaughter the pig, but they insist that he is innocent and that's that.
Pelikán goes to see Dániel at his office, but he finds that he is not there. He asks questions about Dániel of an official in his office, but he constantly gets the answer: "I don't know". That night a black sedan arrives and two toughs grab him, blindfold him and take him to a mysterious building. Pelikán soon finds out that the building houses the offices of the high government official Árpád Virág. Pelikán tells the official that he confesses everything, but the man is not interested in that. He tells Pelikán that "We are going to ask for your services. The international situation is intensifying". He then sends Pelikán home.
Virág and his two sons stop in to see Pelikán at home. He is there to give Pelikán a more important post than the one he has. He will be the new swimming pool director. At work, Pelikán finds a big line of people waiting for the pool to open. He demands to know from his assistant why the pool is not open. The assistant tells him a man is in there swimming. He tries to tell Pelikán the identity of the man, but Pelikán is too outraged to listen. He rushes in, ignores a guard who points a gun at him and starts to ball out the man swimming. It turns out that the man is none other Comrade Bástya the top man in the local government. Pelikán finds himself back in jail.
Just as quickly as he went in, Pelikán is out of jail and back eating dinner with Virág, who tells him that the whole swimming pool fiasco was blamed on the assistant and he has been liquidated. Pelikán tells him: "Have pity on me. I'm a complete idiot." But Pelikán receives another important post. He will be head of the Orange Research Institute to create an Hungarian orange. The crop ends up being a single orange which is carefully nurtured and protected. There is going to be a big celebration of the new Hungarian orange. At the celebration there is music and professional dancing girls. Pelikán checks on the orange only to find it gone. It turns out that one of his own sons has eaten the orange. Virág comes to the rescue by giving the research institute director a lemon to replace the orange. At the appropriate time Pelikán presents the lemon to Comrade Bástya who finds the Hungarian orange to be very sour indeed. All the orange researchers and the director get medals. Meanwhile Virág is becoming more harried and starts more and more to resemble Hitler.
One day the black sedan arrives and Pelikán is taken to visit Virág again. The official tells Pelikán that he will be a star witness for the government in a case against Zoltán Dániel for being a spy, a traitor and a Fascist police informer. Pelikán tries to explain that the accused is a friend of his and that the man is not any of those names he was called. But the government official is not interested. He tells Pelikán: "Everything that is not suspicious is suspicious". Pelikán is puzzled by the remark and asks not to be a witness. Virág doesn't want to hear it.
Pelikán's house accidentally burns down. He complains to Virág that the firemen arrived very late. Virág tries to convince the poor man that the fire was not an accident at all but a very suspicious fire set by an arsonist. Virág has his house rebuilt, but without doors or windows.
Virág and Pelikán visit a man named Tuschinger who is writing the trial testimony for Pelikán. The script says that Zoltán Dániel went into the Danube River in order to talk with enemy frogmen. Pelikán is bewildered by it all. Comrade Bástya arrives to check out the script. He is very disappointed that the script writer does not consider him important enough to have an assassination attempt on his life in the script.. Changes are made to the script. Pelikán tells the top official that he does not want to be a star witness. This makes Comrade Bástya very unhappy with Virág. Virág becomes depressed and Pelikán has to talk him out of committing suicide. To please the man, Pelikán says he will be the star witness. Virág tells him: "Show me one man in this country whom I won't be able to turn into a guilty person in five minutes!"
Pelikán is now prepped for his trial. He gets a voice coach, a medical physical, a psychological examination and a tailor. The Danube has broken through the dikes. Pelikán and his children find themselves stranded up a tree.
At the trial, Pelikán is shocked and outraged to see the fascist Gulyás as one of the witnesses. Pelikán gives a short muddled response to the judges and then launches into a denunciation of Gulyás. He demands to know why the fascist is a witness for the government. Gulyás turns the tables on Pelikán by saying that both Pelikán and Zoltán Dániel were fascist police informers.
Pelikán finds himself in jail once again. He is to be hanged. But when the time for execution arrives, the executioner and everyone else except the jailor and Pelikán do not show up for the event. Both men start to shout for the hangman, but an official comes out instead. He looks in his files for information on Pelikán and finds that the charges have been dropped. Pelikán returns home and to his work on the dike.
Good movie. I thought it was a serious movie until I found myself laughing out loud over the remark about how they blamed the entire swimming pool fiasco on the assistant and liquidated him. It was also funny to see Virág come to resemble Hitler making the point that is there that much difference between Hitler and Stalin anyway. They are both bad. Ferenc Kállai as the simple idiot József Pelikán was great. He had the exact look of a very simple man without any political ambitions. He just wants to be a dike keeper. His being in jail, out of jail, back in jail, out of jail, again in jail and out again was also very funny. The whole point is to make fun of the Stalinist era.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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