08 May 2019

"On the Socialist Ghost Train”

The original, uncensored version of The Witness at Cannes Classics.

It is now 30 years since the change of regime started in Hungary. Nothing characterises the ousted socialist dictatorship better than Péter Bacsó’s biting satire A tanú/The Witness. Filmed in 1969, it became a cult movie in Hungary despite the fact that (or precisely because) for ten years it was locked up by the Kádár regime.

The Witness, a film that lifts the veil on the mockery of show trials, is set during the Rákosi era in the 1950s. József Pelikán, a dike-reeve, lives with his large family in a small house on the dyke, far from civilisation. It is his job to monitor the water level of the Danube. One day he comes across a poacher fisherman who turns out to be an old friend, Zoltán Dániel, who was made a minister of state in 1949. In 1944, the two of them had battled against the fascist Arrow Cross party, and Pelikán had hidden the one-time resistance fighter in his cellar, precisely where he now conceals the pork sides of an illegally slaughtered pig. When the State Security Force (ÁVO) turns up in response to an anonymous tip, it is the minister himself who betrays his friend and reveals his one-time hiding place to the police. After this, the naive Pelikán finds himself caught up in a series of incomprehensible events. Pelikán is driven in a secretive black limousine from the prison to the managing directorates of an amusement park, swimming pool and then orangery in order for comrade Virág, who is pulling all the strings in the background, to eventually ask him for a big favour: will Pelikán be the key witness in a show trial against his friend, Zoltán Dániel, who stands accused of spying and treason. Pelikán, a simple person, is ideologically insufficiently ‘developed’ for lying. It proves hopeless teaching him the trial text he has to stick to, as the charge is so absurd that he forgets his role and himself ends up in prison – for the fourth time. The day of the execution arrives. He shouts in vain for the executioner; the prison director congratulates him on winning his freedom and Pelikán returns to the dyke.


“József Pelikán, that’s me,” announced Péter Bacsó. “I too started as an absolute loyalist in 1945, believing in the socialist utopia and becoming a fighter for its ideal." In this sense as well The Witness is a typical auteur film in which every motif is a reality that is based on specific, own experiences. Pelikán’s three tests with which the authorities ready him for the Great Trial are not satirical fabrications: during the Rákosi era the amusement park really was plastered with pictures of Engels; there really was a socialist orange orchard cooperative, the chief of which was decorated with the Kossuth Prize; and Mihály Farkas, the infamous Minister of the Interior during the Rákosi era, on whom the Bacsó modelled Comrade Bástya, really did empty a grammar school swimming pool for his own use. The Communist Manifesto itself is evoked “on the socialist ghost train”: “a spectre haunts Europe… and the fist smashes down.” But “Life is not a cream cake”, “I won’t start an argument”, “The international situation is heightening”, “A touch green, a touch sour, but at least it’s ours”. Satirical humour shows most perfectly the practice of the period, the mixing of reality and justice, in phrases that have since become proverbial. It is also apparent in powerful visual motifs, for example a painting of the dragon-slayer St. George, with Rákosi’s head, on the secret doorway in the residence of Comrade Virág, a character modelled on the chief of the State Security Force, Gábor Péter. This is the door through which Madam-Comrade Gogolák steps in order to serve piglet cutlets to the pretendpuritan, Pharisee Comrade Virág. The latter deals an ideological blow to his deputy because of her short skirt: “let’s leave the pornography to the opium of the decadent West!”

Péter Bacsó: The Witness

Just as the insert at the beginning of the film suggests, Bacsó, together with Marx, thought “he would happily like to part from his past”: we will not carry out what we are capable of laughing at.

In this ‘two-faced’ period characterised by post-1968 Hungary, the subject of the 1950s was extremely problematic. Society lived through 1968 and then through the reforms of the New Economic Mechanism, yet the relapse following the invasion of Czechoslovakia determined the fate of the film. Although Kádárist policy attempted to distance itself from the 1950s, in truth it could not because the defining power structure of both the Rákosi and the Kádár systems was identical: single-party dictatorship of the proletariat. The social criticism of The Witness was too savage, with the leading personalities of the Kádár system recognisable in the main characters. The authorities shied away from these popular comic forms seen by the masses. Even though the screenplay was approved, György Aczél, the all-powerful figure of Hungarian culture policy, considered The Witness to be an ‘experimental film’ without any guarantee that it would ever be screened, just like all the films made by the Balázs Béla Studio. The shooting and the series of shutdowns, the cutting of certain scenes and inserted shots – the squabble between authority and art – was typical of the late 1960s. The authorities suggested behaviour along the lines of ‘I’m angry at you, not against you’, while Péter Bacsó – in the interest of having the film screened – was prepared to make several cuts and insertions.

Péter Bacsó: The Witness
“I cut the entire prison scene of Zoltán Dániel - Pelikán, so by doing this I make it impossible to draw even the most tenuous connection to the Rajk trial,” he wrote in notes to the Film Directorate. In the scene, Zoltán Dániel says to Pelikán: “Look, Jóska... I certainly did not end up here by accident... One can be guilty even when one does not know about it.” The authorities were concerned with possible associations to Rajk, the Minister of Interior found guilty at the first show trial, because a mass demonstration at his reburial on 6 October 1956 largely contributed to the outbreak of the ‘56 Revolution.

The film was sealed up for ten years, although it was seen by more viewers at ‘secret screenings’ than it would have had it been distributed. It was only in 1979 that it was officially shown in a small cinema, at a time when the series of ‘fifties’ films started with the global success of Vera Angi and The Stud Farm. At the special request of Gilles Jacob, the Cannes festival director at the time, Aczél permitted the film to be screened at Cannes. In 1981 it proved extremely popular in the Un Certain Regard section and the screening rights were purchased by 32 countries.

Péter Bacsó: The Witness

The original uncut version was reconstructed by the Hungarian National Film Fund – Film Archive on the basis of the only uncensored version surviving in the stock of MOKÉP, the film distribution company during the age of socialism. This version differs from the version screened in 1979 in that it still contains the cell scene referring to László Rajk, and the conversation between Pelikán, Gulyás and the Priest is extended, where the Priest contrasts the millennial stability of the church with the new communist system. The inspiration behind the film, a quote by Karl Marx, appears at the beginning, whereas in the standardised version it is at the end. The scene of ‘Comrade Virág and Pelikán on the tram’, although shot, does not appear in this original version. This was a sort of explanatory frame in the film, generally made at the request of the censor. In the era, such frames were inserted in other films as well, as is the case for The Upthtrown Stone and Ten Thousand Suns. This was done in order to distance the story and give the viewer the possibility of an overview, and thus help get the film shown.

“Just a single copy survived in print form, meaning it was not possible to duplicate it. It lacks the highly dramatic scene when József Pelikán visits Zoltán Dániel on death row. This was cut out of the film and destroyed, and I could not reconstruct it,” Péter Bacsó told András Gervai (The Witnesses, Saxum, Budapest, 2004. 105.) This is the version that the Film Fund has now reconstructed with the help of digital techniques.

Péter Bacsó: The Witness

While the film’s content was being assembled on the basis of the reconstructions of the film positive, the Film Archive stumbled across the negative outtakes of the censored parts during the processing of werk materials received from Mafilm! Filmlabor could then integrate these into the film in full and colour grade them to the restored material of the standard version. This made it possible to see the censored version in excellent quality.

The complete, 4K restoration of the film was carried out as part of the long-term digitalisation and filmrestoration programme of the Hungarian National Film Fund, supervised by the Film Archive.

Eszter Fazekas
Restoration manager
Hungarian Film Fund-Film Archive