Michael Thu Feb 14 00:17:27 2002|
A Tanu (the Witness) - 10
(Hungarian with subtitles, 1969) -- my wife has quoted this movie to me regularly since I met her, and amazingly, it came up on the list at the IU Hungarian Club's film series this year! The movie is hilarious, but the amazing thing about it is that it was openly critical of the Hungarian government and of socialism in *1969* -- yes, filmed and produced in Hungary. Apparently the government wanted to appear liberal or something, but after seeing it, they quietly discouraged its being shown beyond a few artsy-fartsy type places. But (natch) everybody in the country saw it anyway.
The basic story is of Pelikan Jozsef (Joe Pelican), a dike keeper on the Danube, a simple man raising eight children on his own in 1949 (i.e. immediately post-"liberation" -- the Soviets, of course, having liberated Hungary from the Fascists, who had liberated it from the Hapsburgs, who liberated it from the Turks, who -- presumably -- liberated it from itself). It was illegal to slaughter your own pig, because the Party could do it more efficiently than the outmoded feudal peasantry (this is an ironical tongue-in-cheek rendition of the way they really talked). Unfortunately, the meat shop was only open for roughly ten minutes a week. (This part wasn't fiction, by the way). In order not to let his children starve, Joe decides to slaughter Dezso, their pig. (The caption: "And so, Dezso died.") The next day, his old friend (who happens to be a minister in Budapest) drops by to do some fishing. In the meantime, he falls into the Danube, so Joe takes him back home to dry out his clothes. The police come in, investigating the reported illegal slaughter, and the minister starts berating them, saying what a people's hero Joe is -- why, in this very house, he hid us from the Fascists, in this very concealed cellar! Of course, when he opens the hidden cellar to show the policemen, there is a great deal of fresh meat in it.... So the minister says, "Do your duty, men" and Joe is taken to prison.
He's released soon thereafter, only to find that he's become the best friend of a certain *other* minister (Comrade Flower), and his own friend has disappeared. His replacement doesn't know where he is. Doesn't know when he'll be back. Doesn't know if he's still a minister -- but Joe can still leave that roast duck for him here, thanks.
Comrade Flower tries to get Joe into various positions of influence. Joe fails miserably at each, because he applies common sense to each situation, which, of course, makes no sense in the context of Hungarian socialism. Each time he is sent back to prison, having embarrassed the Fearless Leader in some way.
The third position is the funniest: he's the director of the Hungarian Institute for Citrus Research, in which they attempt to raise oranges in Hungary (check an atlas; this is impossible). After long efforts, they manage to raise precisely one orange, and a huge festival is held. Just before Joe is to present the orange to the Fearless Leader, his son eats it. Joe runs in panic to Comrade Flower, who gives him a lemon. Joe says, "but this is a lemon!" Comrade Flower says: "It's an orange." Joe: "An orange?" Flower: "Yes, I pronounce it to be an orange." So Joe presents the lemon/orange to the Fearless Leader, who bites into it and puckers up, and cries, "What is this?" Joe: "It's an orange." Flower nods sagely. Joe says, "It's the new Hungarian orange: a little yellower, and a little sour -- but it's ours."
He *doesn't* get thrown into prison, but when he goes home, the Danube has overflowed because no-one was watching the dike in his absence. The village blames him, of course.
Finally, Comrade Flower asks him to testify against his original minister friend in a show trial. This experience is hilarious through and through as they attempt to coach him through his testimony (written by a great author), and of course when he's asked to corroborate his testimony (which includes his friend diving into the Danube during his fishing visit to confer with enemy frogmen about the assassination of the Fearless Leader) he can't -- he breaks into laughter (Judge: "What did the frogmen look like?" Joe: "... like frogs.") and is sentenced to death, after saying, "Who will turn out to be a Fascist next? Comrade Flower? Our Fearless Leader?" The Fearless Leader, listening in the next room, gasps and cries, "ME?!?" and says naturally they'll have to look into this immediately.
On the morning of his execution, however, no executioner shows up. Turns out he was exonerated but they forgot to tell him. So he goes home and watches the dike for the rest of his life, a happy man.
It is utterly flabbergasting that this film was ever made. Hungary is a very interesting country -- they're the trigger that brought down the Berlin Wall in 1989, of course, since they unilaterally decided they weren't going to prevent vacationing East Germans from crossing their border into Austria. The ensuing wave of Trabants puttering into West Germany roughly twelve hours after that announcement is something I will never, ever forget.
So I guess the fact that they were laughing at socialism all along isn't too surprising. But it still surprised me. We should be so lucky as to have such effective lampooning of the fallacies and foibles of our own government.