The second film I saw at Trieste S+F was Laika, a Czech animated satire about the early days of the Soviet space program. This was the second to last film I saw – a Hungarian live-action black comedy that is even more bitter about the days of Baikonur and Gagarin and Sputnik, positing the slightly credible conspiracy theory that before Gagarin (portrayed unflatteringly here) went up and came back alive, the Russians made sure his ‘first man’ feat was possible by launching expendable human test subjects to near-certain doom and then told the world they were dogs.
Lajos Serbán (Tamás Keresztes), a Hungarian gypsy, has been obsessed with rocketry since childhood, when his use of human excrement as fuel led to his mother’s death in a tragic, scatalogical joke atrocity involving an outdoor toilet which lifts off and blows up with her in it. You can tell how far director Lengyel Balázs – who co-wrote with Lovas Balázs – is willing to go for effect when this cartoonish gag ends with young Lajko (Varga Zétény), his father Flórián (Tibor Pálffy) and sundry others are showered with the poor woman’s blood. Encouraged by ‘uncle’ Jenö (József Gyabronka), a closet gay commissar, Lajko happens to be attempting to reach the stratosphere in a hot air balloon – aiming to be the fourth communist to reach such altitude (the other three died) – during the 1956 uprising, which gets him arrested and sentenced to death. His torture is interrupted, in an echo of Brazil and Kafka, by an accountant complaining that his interrogator always goes over budget when abusing the enemies of the state – and he takes being dunked in a bucket of water as an opportunity to test his ability to hold his breath, which is just the thing to get him qualified as a cosmonaut.
Packed off to Baikonur, with proud Jenö and amoral Flórián, Lajko finds that he’s in an informal Olympics with other disposables – a Mongolian Buddhist, Helga the Nazi experiment (Anna Böger) and an Estonian seperatist suicide bomber. No less than Leonid Brezhnev (Benyuk Bohdan, looking more like a slimline George Dzundza) shows up to officiate, and the film posits that the revival of the Russian custom of manly men in uniform kissing each other on the lips was inspired by the future Premier’s repressed gay desire. Zigzagging across and back that fine line between funny and sick, we get jokes that will offend everyone – including a Mengele riff that lampoons The Boys From Brazil – and a balance between progressive and crass that doesn’t always work. It’s a film whose hero is a non-stereotype Roma, logically taking his people’s traditional nomadic instincts to the stars, but which finds room for every negative stereotype about thieving, lecherous, brutal, macho gypsies in the form of Flórián, who tells his son that if he meets his mother in the Heavens he should pass on the message that her husband misses her cunt. Similarly, Jenö is a sweet, funny, idealistic gay communist – but there are a lot more jokes that depend on audiences squirming at the notion of Brezhnev snogging guys. And the heroine, a tire-flipping clone hulk decanted to be the first woman on the moon, is an unrepentant fascist who calls Lajko ‘monkey man’, but the film finds time to feel sorry for her.
Eventually, Lajko goes into space … and has a vision of his mother … and the black comedy parade rolls on for some laughs on the age-old Russian hot topic of being sent to Siberia. It’s not exactly subtle, but is often funny.