Strangled (2016)

Strangled first published by RealCrime Magazine

In the mid-Sixties in Martfü, a Hungarian town best known for its shoe factory, local women are being killed, or left for dead, by a sexual predator. Alcoholic detective Bóta (Zsolt Anger) and the new supervising prosecutor Zoltán Szirmai (Péter Bárnai) begin to wonder whether Ákos Réti (Gábor Jaszberényi), jailed after confessing to a similar crime back in 1957, may well be innocent – but they are under pressure to find a culprit fast, in a communist system that rejects any suggestion of imperfection in its judiciary, and that sometimes prefers the maintenance of convenient fictions to the pursuit of truth.

Based loosely on historical events, Árpád Sopsits’ Strangled (aka A martfüi rém, ‘A Martfü spectre’) derives genre thrills from real crime (shot on location in the actual town), while also exposing the personal and political oppressions of Soviet-era Hungary. His identity revealed relatively early in the film, the serial killer (Károly Hajduk) is often accompanied on his murderous outings by a synth sequence from composer Márk Moldvai that echoes (and anticipates) John Carpenter’s score for Halloween (1978), marking Sopsit’s period piece as a kind of proto-slasher. Meanwhile the investigative procedural follows a pattern familiar from Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003) and David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007): while the film’s setting in the past might come with a certain sense of nostalgia, this is tempered by our awareness that the old-fashioned, bungling approach to police work, involving extra-legal brutality, casual spoiling of crime scenes and in-house corruption, serves as much to deter as to deliver justice.

The sort of doggedness, professionalism and innovation that young Zoltán brings to the investigation comes as a breath of fresh air, but there is little room for those qualities in this closed communist system, which is far more concerned with unquestioningly upholding the status quo, even at the expense of facts and fairness – leading, after the case itself is wrapped up, to an extremely cynical coda that juxtaposes two very different kinds of state execution. The motives of the strangler may remain ultimately unknowable, but the crimes of the state against its servants and citizens prove just as impenetrably pernicious. Both killer and country, however, are governed by their own abusiveness and impotence. Accordingly the film’s English title alludes to an entire populace in the grip of totalitarianism.

© Anton Bitel