- The Angelmakers
[End Page 504]
If there is a problem with him, I have asolution.
Szuzsanna Fazekas, midwife.
The women of Nagyrév, Hungary had a problem with their husbands during the early 1900s. Their men were abusive, alcoholic, crippled war veterans who were a drain on the families' meager resources, unemployed or simply "just in the way." At a time when arranged marriages were common and divorce was not an option, these women needed to find another way out of their domestic torment. When a local midwife suggested they poison their husbands by adding arsenic to their meals, the women of this sleepy, Hungarian village had their solution.
Astrid Bussink brings the village of Nagyrév and its mysterious past into the spotlight in her award-winning short documentary The Angelmakers. By gently coaxing present-day villagers, some of whom are descendants of the families involved in the original events, to talk about the series of "arsenic murders," arrests and subsequent trial that took place in their town, Bussink succeeds in unraveling some closely guarded village secrets. Some of the people interviewed are elderly women who still reside in the village. Although their recollections are hazy at times, these wonderful, whimsical, irreverent characters give this film its heart. An 83-year-old woman, remembering the day the authorities came to arrest the guilty women, says wryly, "after this the men's behavior to their wives improved markedly."
This relatively unexplored chapter in Hungary's past has been described as being "one of the most extreme examples of female uprising in history." Although things have improved as far as women's rights and privileges go, the women of Nagyrév are still fighting the gender politics that remain in the society today. We see how one contemporary group of women overcomes these gender issues by forming a local folk dance group against the wishes of their disgruntled and unsupportive husbands. These women are clearly frustrated with their struggle for these small privileges and are determined to retain their freedom. All is not well on the home front, György—I would let the ladies dance if I were you.
Images of the surrounding countryside and the deserted buildings that dot the now desolate and depopulated town give the film a real sense of foreboding. The market sellers, the ferry-man quoting lines from a Petofi poem and the meandering hunchback with a basket to fill give the film a folkloric quirkiness and an insight into modern day Nagyrév.
The original score by John Schaten, no doubt inspired by Hungarian folk music, is particularly haunting during the closing credits, when black-and-white photographs of the real women on trial for murder are shown, dismal and resigned. This is a poignant and reflective time for viewers and gives credence to the historical basis of the story.
For the skeptics, including Hungarian friends who have never heard of the case and insist it is fiction, you will find an abundance of information about these fair ladies and their ill-fated husbands on the Internet. By 1929 this quiet but potent uprising had ended. The authorities were notified, over 140 bodies were discovered and the murderesses were put on trial. For those keen to do further research, a trip to Nagyrév itself could have you poring over old court records at the town archives, where Dr. Geza Cseh is convinced "there are still secrets to be unearthed."
This is an intriguing tale by a young filmmaker who has added all the right ingredients and turned history into atmospheric and compelling viewing. Bleak but oddly refreshing, this documentary not only raises social, economic and cultural issues, it also gives us a glimpse into a town still nursing the secrets of its dark past. You will have mixed feelings as to whether or not these women should be labeled "murderers" and be surprised at what became of "Auntie Szuszi," the midwife at the center of this wicked and delightful yarn. As a Hungarian folk song says,
If your husband has you seething...