The year is 1957 and Hungary is labouring under the strict Communist regime where any form of slack behaviour at work or in authority is never tolerated. But this clamping down on any lax attitudes and results does not always bring about the excellent results those rulers believe it will, and there are doubts about the arrests made for various crimes in that some wonder if those sentenced are the right criminals, or indeed if they are criminals at all. Once such case occurs in a small factory town out in the countryside, where a woman has been raped and murdered but the man implicated in the crime, Réti Ákos (Gábor Jászberényi), is not necessarily convincing...
Strangled, or A martfüi rém as it was originally known in Hungarian, was a grim little picture, drawn from a real life case and intended by its director Árpád Sopsits as an indictment against the totalitarian regime that blighted his nation, within his living memory too, so he knew of which he spake. Actually, it was not that little as it sprawled across a couple of hours as if he was keen for the audiences to be completely clear about what those Communists allowed to happen, whether by deliberate corruption or simple ineptitude, so included every detail he could think of and even gave the impression there was yet more he could have packed in should he have found space for it.
Nevertheless, what could have seemed like an information dump was corralled into a semblance of a police procedural plot with thriller overtones, and at times horror ones as well when he depicted what the murderer got up to in queasily graphic detail, including necrophilia and mutilation, sparing nothing in allowing us to understand how much ghastly pleasure he attained from these acts, but crucially not shedding any light on why he was committing them since this was never established in the investigation. It's spoiling nothing to say Ákos is an innocent man forced into signing a confession by police beatings, which is why his story does not add up, but the confession is all they care about.
So while he rots in prison on a life sentence, appealing every so often on the insistence of his sister who is looking after his young son in lieu of any other parent in the boy's life, it appears to everyone in the town that the right man was caught - until, seven years later another murder occurs. While you did not get a wholly comprehensive idea of how this was affecting the ordinary community, we were left with no doubt that the police are highly disturbed, though as much because it makes them look incompetent as it is because young women are being so brutalised (the killer doesn't always succeed in ending the lives of his victims). This sense of self-serving domination of the town, of the nation in fact, has the effect of bringing home the depth of the corruption, where everything was in the service of making the authorities look ultra-efficient.
When actually they were anything but, it was all about the surface appearance for in reality they were bumbling and too quick to turn to victimisation and violence to keep any big reveal about their poor quality of governance quiet. The murderer was given away to the audience half an hour into the running time, proving to be the lookalike of Átos, though if you wanted a psychological examination of what made him tick all the director could muster was a rather blank representation of pointless evil for its own sake, which for those used to the searching quality of some Eurocrime dramas may not be entirely to their satisfaction. For a sense of menace, on the other hand, Sopsits has very adept, the oppressive pressure weighing down every scene in a palette of greys and blacks as the despair that the situation was a hopeless one was palpable. Even at the end, with its resolution, the corrupt remain in charge, with nothing to prevent miscarriages of justice in the future when the whole system is a miscarriage of justice. In effect, reminiscent of a Communist arthouse New York Ripper. Music by Márk Moldvai.