Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Veteran Hungarian writer-director Péter Bacsó has been producing his share of controversial films since 1950. The Witness (A Tanú) from 1969 was reportedly a criticism of the Stalinist takeover of Hungary in 1949 but the director continued working right through the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Sztálin menyasszonya, known as Stalin's Bride and Stalin's Girlfriend is a pointedly anti-Soviet film that uses a farcical framework as part of its criticism of totalitarian oppression. The form may be comedic but the film is deadly serious about its subject. The only laughs present are extremely bitter.
A Russian village, perhaps in the 1930s. A train comes to take away all privately-held valuables for "the use of the masses." Handsome Zorka (György Cserhalmi) reluctantly surrenders his beloved horse Sonatina to the Soviet comissars, but spends time in jail for knifing a worker who abuses the horse as it's loaded on the train. From then on he hangs around the town café refusing to join in the farm collective, an attitude that earns him disfavor in the eyes of the party representative policing proper Soviet behavior. Paranya (Juli Básti), a mentally defective outcast, wears a potato sack and is usually covered with mud. She cannot possibly fit into the new order, as the narrow-minded bureaucrats have been given no leeway to deal with people with 'special' problems. Paranya takes abuse from the local boys while the local teacher rebuffs her infantile gestures of affection.
One day Paranya reacts to the new portrait of Stalin by proclaiming loudly that she's the great leader's girlfriend. The police chief turns her over to the state authorities, Having been given no leeway in interpreting actions inconsistent with party policy, they decide that Paranya's inability to respond is evidence that she's a foreign agent. But torture produces no confession. Unable to close the case and unwilling to admit a mistake, the frustrated inquisitors decide that someone else must be "guilty." After all, the miserable girl only proclaimed her love for Stalin. Paranya is returned to the village and the responsibility for her arrest is passed down to the lowest policeman on the force. Denounced, he's taken away. But now that Paranya has the official sanction of state, she becomes a menace. Confused by her torture sessions, she responds to any crisis with hysterical fits, imitating her inquisitors by accusing innocent individuals of being spies. One by one they're hauled off to prison, never to return ...
Stalin's Bride is an absorbing, somewhat depressing fable about life under Communist rule made by people who experienced the system first-hand. More likely than not, the Stalinist era in Eastern Europe will continue to be a dominant theme for generations to come, just as our American Civil War was still a living reality at least halfway through the 20th century. Jörg Schoch's narrative uses inescapable logic to demonstrate how Communist policies supposedly meant for the good of the masses, translate almost immediately into oppressive and inhuman policies.
The key is Stalin's terror-based leadership style. The comrades worship Stalin mainly because it's unhealthy not to; a woman doing her washing routinely voices fatuous pro-Stalinist sentiments as a way of staving off suspicion that she might be a closeted reactionary. The petty commissars live in abject fear of making a mistake, and compensate by becoming humorless autocrats. The first order of business is always to find someone to blame, and since accusations need no basis of logic or reason, it's better to denounce someone before they denounce you. Errors are never acknowledged, as any documented mistake will be invariably be interpreted as treasonous negligence. This tendency was satirized in a joke in the old The National Lampoon comedy magazine: A Russian aircraft designer accidentally creases a blueprint, and the engineers are so afraid of the consequences that they pass the blueprint along without comment. The airplane is built with a big fold in its fuselage. Test pilots will be killed trying to fly it, but at least the engineers won't have to face a firing squad.
Zorka's village crumbles into a dysfunctional mess under Soviet rule, with the only civic improvements being a portrait of Stalin and a red pole under a public address loudspeaker. The constable can't control Paranya any more than he can the local drunk or Zorka's refusal to join the ranks of the collectivized workers. The mentally challenged Paranya has feelings and needs that would make her a pariah no matter what the system of government. Like Peter Sellers' Chauncey Gardiner in Jerzy Kosinski's Being There, she functions as a catalyst uncovering the essential hypocrisy of society. Unable to funnel her through the usual police process -- a confession followed by a summary execution -- the police have to toss her back and look for another scapegoat so their case can be closed.
Péter Bacsó's simple but effective direction emphasizes absurd contrasts. We sympathize with Paranya only up to a point, as actress Juli Básti doesn't play her as an adorable gamin. Her personality shattered, Paranya screams out the same threats that were screamed at her under torture: "Dirty traitor, Dirty spy!" Dire consequences befall anyone who accidentally upsets her. The only truly likeable character is György Cserhalmi's Zorka's individualist. He loves dumb animals and will eventually opt to do what seems the only humane thing under the circumstances.
Online information on director Péter Bacsó is sparse. He eventually became the director of a state-run film studio. We're informed that actress Juli Básti dubs American television shows into Hungarian, and presently provides the Hungarian voice for Nicolette Sheridan in Desperate Housewives.
Facets Video's DVD of Bunyik Entertainment's Stalin's Bride is a plain-wrap presentation of acceptable video quality. The non-enhanced 1:66 image has subdued color but is clean and bright. The clear Hungarian audio track is augmented with non-removable English subtitles. The copy presented for review was a check disc with one menu listing just one selection, Play. The disc has no chapter encoding. The crude cover art indicates that no stills or posters could be located for the film.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Stalin's Bride rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 3, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson