Strangled (A martfüi rém)

Hungary (2016) Dir. Árpád Sopsits

“There are no serial killers in this country”

The above quote wasn’t a prideful boast regarding the efficiency of the Hungarian police but an official edict from the top brass to cover up the fact that there IS a serial killer and they can’t catch him. But the shocking story driving Strangled, based on real events, is a lot more complex than that.

In 1957 in the small town of Martfu, Patai Erzsébet (Anna Mészöly), on her way home from her job at a shoe factory, is met by her lover Akos Reti (Gabor Jeszberenyi) but they have an argument. The next day Patai’s dead body is found and Reti is arrested for her murder, despite his sister Rita (Szofia Szamosi) protesting his innocence. To Rita’s shock, Reti confesses and is sentenced to death but his punishment is commuted to life imprisonment instead.

Seven years later, a young woman is attacked and killed under similar circumstances to Patai’s murder but the large gap in incidents and the fact Reti is in prison rules him out. While this strengthens Reti’s case for an appeal, the police refuse through not wanting to admit their mistake, putting immense pressure on detective Bota (Zsolt Anger) and prosecutor Szirmai Zoltán (Peter Barnai) to catch the real killer.

Martfu was a small town noted for its shoe factory until these shocking events brought it national infamy instead, hence the police being desperate to bury the resurrection of the murderer after seven years by any means necessary. But this isn’t your average police corruption/cover up case as Hungary was in a state of political upheaval following the 1956 Revolution against their Communist leaders.

This uprising saw the country shift towards a Socialist led society but a Soviet imposed government soon crushed this, with many rebels either, jailed, deported or executed, leaving most people to walk on egg shells. Therefore, the idea of the country’s law and order being undermined by a serial killer was more than just saving face it was seen as a threat to the ruling bodies.

However, this knowledge isn’t essential to watching Strangled but it does help to explain and understand the knee jerk defensive reactions of the authorities and why Reti was hang out to dry for a crime he didn’t commit. No, that isn’t a spoiler given he was in prison when the later murders occurred and it plays into the fractious dynamic between Bota and Zoltán, the latter once the protégé of the former now instilled with a different set of values.

Bota is haunted by his actions of 1957 and Zoltán’s arrival and determination to delve into the archives of the Reti case to help shed some light on the current murders open up a can of worms many would rather stayed shut. Hitting the bottle and butting heads with his superiors does Bota no favours whilst Zoltán isn’t making many friends either but he is able to get what he wants “unofficially” by pointing out how much graver the consequences would be to his panicking bosses.

Interestingly, the true killer is revealed early on, turning this from a mystery thriller to a nail-biting game of cat and mouse as he continues to strike unabated. His psychological profile is an unusual one in that he becomes aroused by the violence he perpetrates, his rapes now becoming necrophilia. It’s not exactly a case of general misogyny since his victims are randomly chosen from strangers to women known to him.

The scenes of the attacks are not extremely graphic but are very uncomfortable to watch nonetheless, the tormented screams of the victims make for a harrowing soundtrack to their struggles against the killer before strangulation silences them for good. The killer’s contorted facial expressions and guttural gasps of pleasure from his one-sided coital romp are a nightmarish vision, sufficiently disturbing to warrant the film’s 18 certificate.

Yet the killer’s ultimate weakness is his perversion which haunts him as much as his acts do the audience, but the insatiable lure is too strong, like an addiction. However he is to be hoisted by his own petard when one victim lucky enough to fight him off turns out to be someone a bit too close to home, unaware that she was wearing a wig at the time – yet this does nothing to deter him from striking again.

Reti meanwhile stands as victim of the corrupt legal system and the vanity of the party image in asserting its control over the will of the people. With too many inconsistencies in Reti’s story deliberately overlooked in order to have someone be made an example of for public assurance, and the continuing refusal of his appeal for the same reasons, this is a stark and damning indictment of how the ethos of “sacrificing one life to save many” can be horrifically abused for the wrong people to gain from it.

The film’s production values are incredibly high, perhaps a reflection on how the topic of the period of the revolution and its immediate aftermath was a verboten for discussion for 30 years, giving this a real prestige movie feel to it. The mise-en-scene is very noir-ish with the attacks occurring at night, the use of shadows and atmosphere proving effective in building dread and horror.

Given the grim and gruesome nature of the material, the cast attack it head on, with the resolve of the women playing the victims in particular proving admirable under the circumstances. Károly Hajduk playing the killer initially convinces us of his depravity with his wiry frame and unremarkable looks but turns a bit too unhinged by the end. Gabor Jeszberenyi is equally captivating as poor Reti descends into hell whilst Zsolt Anger and Peter Barnai offer competent distractions as the bickering cops.

Strangled is a sublime and vital work that can be viewed without the political subtext encroaching on the tense drama or lessening the impact of the shocking reality of this disturbing story.