A MARTFÜI RÉM (STRANGLED)
No doubt A Martfüi Rém deserved its 18 Certificate from the British Board Of Censors. The film contains scenes of nudity, unpleasant aggression among men, sexual intimacy, violence to women, and necrophilia. A Martfüi Rém may not be a film anyone would want to watch with the kids but it is not explicit. Like the serial killer who has to satisfy his unpleasant needs, the movie shows what it must. A Martfüi Rém qualifies as a genre movie because it concerns the actions of a serial killer and the subsequent police investigation. Before the murders there are moments of suspense, and the policemen even chase the villains a couple of times. Yet A Martfüi Rém is a downbeat and restrained movie. The thrills, indulgence and gratification that are common to the genre are resisted.
The tale is a true one. In the 60s in the small Hungarian town of Martfü six women were killed. The first murder occurred in 1957. The man that the police arrested for that crime was innocent. The guilty man was arrested several years later. Despite murders being committed when the first man was in jail there were policeman who preferred to ignore the obvious.
Thanks to cameraman Gábor Szabó, A Martfüi Rém has an impressive sense of time, space and place. He also avoids the visual clichés although the chase of a poacher on a motorbike is not as subtle as the rest of the film. The murderer had a wife and child and, when not slaying some of his neighbours, lived a quiet life. The town and the people in it are ordinary. The bus that arrives is new and bright. It suggests how a visit from someone outside of the town would have been a highlight in the day to day routine of the residents. The images at the rail station not only emphasise the geometry of railway lines and parallel platforms but also reveal the isolation that we all endure when we are obliged to wait alone. Alfred Hitchcock caught that same anxiety in his masterpiece North By Northwest when Cary Grant waits next to the bus stop by the cornfield. In the opening scene of A Martfüi Rém workers finish their shift and leave the factory. The scene resembles the opening of another Hitchcock chase movie Saboteur. Cameraman Gábor Szabó, though, adds subtle red shading. The extra colour is attractive but also ominous. There is the warmth of community but also the possibility of a threat beyond the understanding of workers too tired to be alert. The countryside in A Martfüi Rém is not neglected but it is never romanticised. Instead, it exists as surroundings, something that defines a small town and a way of life. It is in the countryside where the innocent man recreates for police observers the crime he never committed. This scene has been done often but the location is unusual and the innocent man takes advantage of the pretend and ill at ease victim. He tries to have a grope. All of this makes the scene original and unique.
The pursuits of the even less fortunate real victims add tension and suspense to the film but the drama feels natural rather than contrived. It is as if something has to happen because incidents are no more than the consequence of how we pass the time. Much of our lives is spent waiting for something to occur. The waiting is filled with dreams and nightmares because we imagine both promise and threat. We are protagonists as well as victims. Nothing is rushed in A Martfüi Rém but when the connection of the killer to a woman he has attacked is revealed we have a plot development that should shock and hook even the impatient. The outfit that the killer wears to ride his motorbike is an inspired touch by someone. The dour appearance is ordinary but iconic. It alerts us to the monsters that exist in ordinary men.
Like Peter Lorre in the Fritz Lang movie M, the actual murderer in A Martfüi Rém makes a belated appearance. Not too late, though, for the audience to understand his strange nature. The killer and the innocent man have a similar appearance and something like the same amount of screen time. What happens to an innocent man is an outrage and that is acknowledged by Arpád Sopsits the film director. No attempt, though, is made to present a dull and uninspiring victim as sympathetic. The killer is creepy but interesting. His ego is satisfied by knowing that his desires will be a mystery to others. His presence and smirk taunt not just the police but all the cinema audiences that will be curious about him. Not all the scenes between the killer and his wife succeed. One in particular manages to be both crass and underdone. Much, though, is impressive, and the sexual relationship the killer has with his wife links to his murders and the hidden desires he has for other women. A neat if horrendous circularity exists in his behaviour. His behaviour ranges from fetishism to indiscriminate perversion. Fetishism requires disguise like the red wig the wife wears to excite her husband. How the victims look, though, is irrelevant. They are convenient and anonymous figures that the killer spots in the dark. He is not a master of fate. Like Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, the killer in A Martfüi Rém is fate. More random than the creation of Cormack McCarthy and Javier Bardem this Hungarian serial killer is also something waiting to happen to the unwitting.
Much has been made of the political context in A Martfüi Rém. The murders in Martfü happened when the Hungarian Government and people were obliged to be obedient to the Soviet Union and authoritarian communism. The political context does exist. The policemen watch Russian tanks invade Czechoslovakia. A senior policeman insists that there are no serial killers in Hungary. Another warns about exposing the failure of the initial investigation and the weaknesses of authority. A Martfüi Rém provides more than political polemic. The bureaucratic policemen are a mixed bunch. Some are flawed and are tempted to be inert when they witness corruption, others have twisted ambition and one is prepared to rebel. Careers are discussed while the cadaver of a murdered victim is being examined. The flaws are not restricted to the bureaucrats. The wife of the policeman who has the conscience about the miscarriage of justice is cynical and self-serving. Such behaviour from human beings is familiar. In a bureaucracy survival and covering your back are cherished. Responsibility to families and the desire for progress enable the comfortable to ignore the plight of others. The one reference to God in the film exposes the loyalty to the Communist Party as hypocrisy but it also is a reminder that whatever hierarchical system is put in place humans will be tempted by status and excess reward. Their main concern will be that they are the recipients of the prizes.
The same points about corruption and oppression were made by the bold and gifted British novelist David Peace in his Red Riding Quartet. The four novels were based on the investigation into the murders of the Yorkshire Ripper. Peace damned the Yorkshire Police and described them as immoral criminals. Arpád Sopsits the film director of A Martfüi Rém recognises human weakness and the excesses of an authoritarian system but most of the time he avoids the condemnation that Peace preaches. Near the end of the film, though, there is one scene that Peace would have understood and approved. The scene is not explained and the assassins are not identified. In a film where mystery haunts every scene this is the most ambiguous of all. The lack of knowledge about what has happened is important. We realise that the extent of the inhumanity created by hierarchical systems is unknown. It is our ignorance which should concern us most of all. Many of the casualties of an oppressive hierarchical system are unnoticed. There are numerous incidents and there is much suffering that the fortunate feel entitled to ignore. Those who enjoy the rewards dismiss the few instances of suffering that they witness or encounter as utilitarian fate, something that would be intolerable in their own lives but fine for those who lack sufficient strength to resist or adapt. As David Peace has insisted and as the revelations about Harvey Weinstein have made clear, this horror is not restricted to an authoritarian communist system. The MeToo campaign may have suffered a little from the contributions of pious celebrities but the aim is laudable and deserves support. A campaign that demands we think about what has been hidden in the past and apply some basic mathematics to imagining the aggregated abuse is not only welcome but also overdue. Exposed cruelty may be disturbing and it requires a response but the buried secrets are the true horror.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.