Peter Bacso’s The Witness is a hilarious, biting Hungarian satire in the spirit of the great Czech New Wave films. Banned for a good while, the film isn’t only sharp in its message, it’s also beautifully blocked.
The use of the 2.35:1 reminds me a lot of Preminger though with more zooming. Bacso moves his actors a lot, frequently zooming in to a MCU as a character crosses frame in the initial establishing WS.
Like a lot of films of its ilk the production design is all red, busts, and portraits.
And there’s plenty of absurd pomp and circumstance-
(“absurd” because of the poor citizenry not pictured in the frames: Bacso’s point).
Ferenc Kallai plays Pelikan, a dike-keeper at the Danube who, through a series of events, is brought from his “lowly” position to one of witness for the corrupt prosecution.
There’s plenty of sloganeering in The Witness. Like this one, which comes back constantly:
“The international situation is intensifying,” is pretty empty and meaningless. Its usage reminds me of a similar bit of repetition – meant to implicate the regime in its preference for hollow messages and memorization – in Costa-Gavras’ great Z.
There’s more sloganeering built into the production design:
Anyone know this exact translation? I realize the quote is cut off, but I think it says something about being strong domestically. I also love this frame. So much negative space that doesn’t feel empty thanks to the words and that rich red curtain. The woman here has a fantastic face. The frame isn’t as such so as to make her feel lonely or isolated, but instead, confident. She rules that room.
A lot of the hilarity in The Witness is derived from life-and-death situations presented matter-of-factly. Pelikan spends a lot of time in jail, but never seems to fear for his life. Is he too dumb? Or does he prefer death/jail to living under Rakosi? Either way, his casualness is funny. The same is true of some of the party’s nonchalance: before taking part as witness in a friend’s trial Pelikan is accidentally given a copy of the sentence.
For my money, however, Lajos Oze is the funniest part of the film. He plays Virag, Pelikan’s Communist contact and handler. Virag has a close cousin in Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau. He’s not as outwardly bumbling as the latter, but he has the same deadpan stare and silence, stiffly emotive body language, and general countenance.
One of the great things about The Witness is that even though Pelikan is clearly not the sharpest tool in the shed, his Communist handlers keep coming back to the same well and bringing him into important positions (eventually including the eponymous one). Pretty clear message from Bacso: the regime is perhaps even more naive than the “idiots” they choose to elevate.
Bacso has a talent for set-pieces. Like this one, which starts in this MS before revealing the wide and the situation at-hand:
Not only is the framing pretty, but the first shot is pretty textbook visual suspense. Why is Pelikan sitting in a tree? What’s up with those feet on either side of him? It’s just nice composition and is made more absurd by the sequence. Were Bacso to start with shot #2 – the wide – we’d get the craziness of it all right away. As it’s presented, we get Pelikan’s insistence on memorization (he’s repeating words that he’ll have to say at the upcoming trial) first and only after that do we get the real hazard: that the Danube has drastically flooded (because, of course, Pelikan has been pulled away from his “less important” job to be a fixer in a corrupt court proceeding).