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The Angelmakers

by Astrid Bussink, Director
The Cinema Guild, New York, 2005
DVD, 34 mins., colour
Sales: $US195; rental $US65
Distributor’s website: http://www.cinemaguild.com.

Reviewed by Kathryn Adams


"If there is a problem with him, I have a solution." Szuzsanna Fazekas, midwife.

The women of Nagyrév had a problem with their husbands during the early 1900s. Their men were abusive, alcoholics, crippled war veterans who were a drain on the families’ meagre 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 descendents, to talk about the series of ‘arsenic murders’, arrests, and subsequent trial that took place in their town, Bussink succeeds in unravelling some closely guarded village secrets. Some of the folk 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, who remembers the day the authorities came to arrest the guilty women, says wryly, "… after this the men’s behaviour 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 overcome these gender issues by forming a local folk dance group against the wishes of their disgruntled and non-supportive 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 ferryman quoting lines from a Petofi poem and the meandering hunchback with a basket to fill give the film a folkloric quirkiness and an insight in to 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 sceptics, 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 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 labelled ‘murderers’ and be surprised at what became of ‘Auntie Szuszi’ the midwife at the centre of this wicked and delightful yarn.

"If your husband has you seething
Belladonna you must feed him
Add some pepper, make it pleasing
He’ll be laid out by the evening
- Hungarian Folk Song.

Mind the goulash, chaps!



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