by Ronald Bergan
The Guardian, Saturday 14 March 2009
Last month's lifetime achievement award for the Hungarian director and screenwriter Péter Bacsó, who has died aged 81, was not only a tribute to his large body of distinguished work for more than half a century, but his achievement as a survivor. He lived most of his life under repressive regimes, first under the extreme right-wing government of Miklós Horthy, then under the Nazis and then the Stalinists.
Because of the rigours of censorship imposed on the arts, Bacsó, like many of his contemporaries in the eastern bloc, had to resort to a subtle use of metaphors, symbols, allusions and subtexts to communicate with the public above the head of the censor, creating a cultural code less readily accessible to foreign audiences.
But, as in the case of his most celebrated film, The Witness (1968), they did not always get away with it. The film, set in Hungary between 1948 and 1953, the time of the Stalinist show trials, tells of loyal party member József Pelikán, who illegally slaughters the family pig and is imprisoned but swiftly released. For some reason, Virág, a government minister, has taken an interest in Pelikán, giving him prestigious jobs to serve the government, at which he fails miserably. In fact, he is being groomed as a prosecution witness at the trial of a former minister on a trumped-up treason charge.
Blending comedy with tragedy to show up the absurdities of the system, the film wounded official political sensitivities, and it was immediately withdrawn and shelved for 10 years. When it was finally shown in Hungary, The Witness attracted a cult following, and some of Virág's expressions, such as "not being suspicious at all is most suspicious of all", have entered the lexicon.
It also satirised the communist-era attempts to cultivate oranges in Hungary, which failed. In the com"; More on Slot Machines How to Read a Slot MachineSlot Frequency vs. film, a lemon is substituted at the last moment and presented to the great leader on an official visit to an orange grove. The leader tastes it and says: "It's small, yellow, bitter, but it's OURS!" This gave rise to the term Hungarian Orange, which was adopted as the name of a weekly satirical magazine.
Bacsó was born in the Slovak city of Kosice, which had a large ethnic Hungarian population. He moved with his family to Hungary in the early 1940s and graduated from Budapest's theatre and film university in 1950.
He then began writing screenplays, half a dozen for Károly Makk, including Love (1971), adapted splendidly from Tibor Déry's autobiographical novel of falsehood (political and personal) and illusion in 1953 Budapest during the rule of the despotic Russian puppet Mátyás Rákosi. The film had to wait five years to be cleared by the censors. Makk's A Very Moral Night (1979), as an exercise in nostalgia, set in a turn-of-the-century bordello, had no such problems.
Because of his close friendship with Imre Nagy, the leader of the 1956 Hungarian revolution, Bacsó was unable to direct a film for four years after the failed uprising. From 1960, he directed an average of one a year, going as far into satire as was permitted, despite the process of de-Stalinisation. It was only in the 1980s that he began to give full rein to his anti-Stalinism with black comedies such as Oh, Bloody Life! (1985), set in the 1950s and concerning the deportation of "suspicious" Hungarian citizens; Banana Skin Waltz (1986) and Stalin's Fiancée (1991). The latter, a sharp tragicomedy, has a simpleton Russian woman who gets into trouble when she believes Stalin is a god.
In 2001, Bacsó directed Smouldering Cigarette with his customary irony and period verve. It was based on the life of a renowned nightclub singer of the 1940s who helps a penniless Jewish songwriter to survive Nazi occupation. Bacsó himself wrote lyrics for a number of popular songs. His last film was Almost a Virgin (2008), a wry comedy about a young prostitute who becomes a successful businesswoman.
Although seriously ill for the past few years, he appeared in Budapest in a wheelchair to receive his lifetime award, presented during Hungarian Film Week. "I never wanted to create an oeuvre, but just to enjoy making films," he said.
Bacsó is survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter.
• Péter Bacsó, film director and screenwriter; born 6 January 1928; died 11 March 2009