Vol 0, No 27
30 March 1999
Documenting Freedom (Part II)
Janos Gulyas's Karpotlasra az jogosult - 46 ev a szovjetunioban
Andrew J Horton
To read Documenting Freedom Part I
After being lulled to sleep by Elek's charming and sedate look at the stormy life of Erno Fisch, Janos Gulyas's documentary Karpotlasra az jogosult - 46 ev a Szovjetunioban (Entitled to Compensation - 46 Years in the Soviet Union, 1996-98) is something of a cold shower. The interviewees almost seem to shout at the camera and rail against it as the film unravels an intriguing tale of social injustice, wild romanticism and a bravery which seems oblivious to common sense. More than this, Gulyas gets to the heart of his subject - former convict Antal Kulcsar - and not just the intriguing historical events that surrounded him.
Kulcsar's neighbours in the sleepy Hungarian town of Nyiregyhaza have mixed views of the man: some have never seen him and have no idea who he is; others are disgusted by him; another group take pity on him. He is an old man who drinks heavily, has no money and has been housed in appalling conditions - in a tiny flat with no kitchen, heating, water or lavatory. Despite having spent a grand total of 46 years in various Russian prisons and gulag camps, Kulcsar has been denied payment by the Hungarian Social Compensations Committee. How could one not take pity on him?
Kulcsar narrates his own sorry story. An officer in the war, he was captured by the Russians and sent to the Gulag. Ever keen to rise up against the system which had wrongly imprisoned him, Kulcsar became a pathological escapee, attempting breakouts on five occasions and coming tantalisingly close to getting himself out of the Soviet Union. Each time, though, he was recaptured and his sentence extended, until in 1990, he managed to take asylum in the Hungarian embassy in Moscow and was finally allowed to leave the country, 46 years after first being captured. As a POW, Kulcsar maintains he had a right to attempt escape and that his prolonged incarceration was unjustified. The Social Compensations Committee took a rather different view and concluded that escaping was a criminal offence rather than a political one, and therefore compensation is not owed to Kulcsar.
Rebel without a cause
Gulyas paints a sympathetic portrait of a man who has stood up against the Soviet system. Incidents throughout his prison years confirm Kulcsar as a man able to fight the unfightable with a humour equal to the fictional hero of Jaroslav Hasek's novel The Good Soldier Svejk. Kulcsar on one occasion caught a pigeon on the window sill of his cell and roasted it on a fire he had made using books on Marxism from the prison library. When the prison guards asked where the books had got too, Kulcsar stunned them by saying that he had eaten them. They let the matter drop.
Kulcsar's presence as a raconteur is enhanced by his grumpiness. Gulyas provides us with an interaction with his subject which is totally lacking in Elek's work. Kulcsar almost snarls at the camera and berates the interviewer. When the last interview is over he demands money from the crew saying, "I gave you an interview, now you give me something." The audience couldn't help but laugh, and there was some applause for the irascible Kulcsar who is able to leap out of the screen and touch the audience and even threaten them a little.
Gulyas's study does not stop there, however. Having built up a hero in the man, he then unmasks him. Kulcsar was never an officer in the army and historians dispute the version of events he says he witnessed. He is inconsistent and prone to hyperbole, and the evidence seems to point to the fact that he was never a POW at all and that he was arrested on criminal grounds. Moreover, his ceaseless battle to escape is finally exposed as a personality flaw rather than a trait worthy of admiration. On one occasion, Kulcsar tried to escape three days before he was due to be released and sent home.
At the end, Kulcsar remains as a rather sad old man who has only lived to deliberately get himself into trouble, a pathological pain in the neck, a liar and a womaniser. Even so, one has to retain some admiration for a man who gave up all material luxury and personal comfort to live the romantic life of adventure and danger he wanted. Now that life is over, he has turned to drink, something he claims he never used to touch before. One can see his point. After nearly half a century of trying to outwit the brutal gulag system, life in Nyiregyhaza must seem frightfully empty and dull. The lack of official recognition of his quixotic exploits must be a final bitter blow. Curiously, for Kulcsar freedom existed in fighting his oppressors, rather than in actually being free.
Andrew J Horton, 30 March 1999
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