Hukkle (2002)/The Angelmakers (2005)

Director/Screenwriter: György Pálfi
Director: Astrid Bussink

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The past few days, “cinematic” has been a notion that has been much with me. On Saturday, I saw Silent Light, a film whose plot was overwhelmed by obsessively formal shot compositions and beautiful images of sunrises, stars, and other glories of nature. Over at Coosa Creek Cinema, Rick Olson wrote Cinematic, Whatever That Means to examine his own reaction to Wong Kar-wai’s so-called “pure cinema” and other films like Wong’s. And I was reminded of what might be the epitome of a cinematic film and my idea of the perfect marriage of visual and narrative—Hukkle, a dialogue-free telling of the true story chronicled in Astrid Bussink’s The Angelmakers.

The opening shot of Hukkle, one of many that take us extremely close to unseen worlds in nature, shows the scales of a snake moving sinuously through the grass. What kind of snake is hard to tell at first, as the camera catches only partial glimpses of its sides, the bends in its body. Eventually, however, we hear, then see, its rattle. The camera pulls back, and a diamondback rattlesnake is revealed in all its frightening glory. This opening sequence is as eloquent as a Shakespearean prologue, though we won’t know it until director Pálfi slowly inserts all of the pieces of the film’s central puzzle.

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An old man, his face furrowed like a field ready for planting, shuffles through his home, preparing to go out. He has the hiccups. He finds his way to a bench on the main road of his rural Hungarian village and sits down. His hiccups, like the steady tick of a clock, lift one loose leg of the bench slightly to squeak in response. He will remain on this bench the rest of the film, seeing only what passes in front of him on the road, making the incessant, unintelligent noise of a hiccup (“hukkle”) the entire day.

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The village has the bucolic charm one might find in a Merchant/Ivory film—lovely stands of trees and ponds photographed like postcards, verdant fields made into pleasing shapes through aerial photography, quaint cottages from out of a fairytale. On closer inspection, of course, the village is teeming with the mindless cruelties of nature. Close-ups of bubbles give way to a small frog swimming innocently in a pond, then being swallowed by a huge catfish, which then becomes the prey at the end of a fishing rod, lunch for an entire family, and well, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Human intercourse is the main concern of this film. A young man delivering milk in a horsedrawn cart falls asleep. Soon enough, he awakens and alights at one stop to funnel water into a can on his cart. He steals away and hides behind a tree to leer at a young lady in the field who is listening to music on her Walkman. The water overflows and tips the can over. We watch his team take off and walk along the wooded path without him with the certain knowledge of beasts that know the route by rote.

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Men bowl on an outdoor lane, shouting happily at their play. From a man’s face, the camera cuts to a close-up of the swollen bollocks of a pig being driven along the road by his owner. They pass by the hiccupping man. Soon, the pig is doing his studly duties, as the man and a large woman look on approvingly. The camera, however, finds something a bit more interesting to focus on. It moves between the man and woman and concentrates on the movements of an old woman in the house next door. Like the opening shot of the snake, it’s not easy to make out what she’s doing. Eventually, however, we can see her pouring something into bottles and storing them on shelves.

Next we see a tight shot of a needle making a large hole in fabric. Then, three screws are seen spinning in a gray disk. A hand reaches up to hold, then push, the disk. The camera opens out into a textile factory where women are sewing garments. One woman gets up and receives a cloth-wrapped bottle from another woman.

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Soon, village life goes more somber as a young girl joins the many small animals that die from one thing or another in this film. A policeman arrives at the fishing hut of a villager who has died. He takes photos of the scene while the woman who called him picks up and empties a water bottle. The bowlers gather with thinning numbers of players. In the end, only one is left. A wedding takes place, and the women sing a Hungarian folk song. The old man continues to hiccup on his bench, his guttural sounds mixing with a cacophony of animal and insect sounds that eventually drown him out.

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Pálfi reveals a dark and merciless tale by paying attention to the details that escape everyday notice or that add up to nothing meaningful in and of themselves. Like the hiccupping man, viewers can only see what is placed in front of them, a notion Pálfi makes fun of by inserting a scene of the film itself jumping out of its sprockets and then pulling back to show a villager moving into a tavern through a curtain made of strips of film. Pálfi emphasizes that we are not the only ones who are blind to the realities of life around us and in a political sense, of life in other countries, which he dramatizes in an absurd computer-generated scene of an American fighter jet roaring close to the ground and passing under a bridge in the village, then soaring up to the heavens. Did that fly-by tell its pilot anything about life on the ground? Does even Pálfi’s magnetic microcinematography? It’s clear that being too close up is as bad as being too far away.

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The director of The Angelmakers interviews the villagers of Nagyrev, where Hukkle was shot and where the specific story upon which it was based took place. I say “specific” because this particular part of Hungary contains a number of villages where murder most foul was committed—140 in all, primarily men. Dutch director Bussink also seems to have taken some inspiration for her shots from Pálfi, including livestock and housing, and suggesting something rotten at the core by documenting a dying rural town (though certainly, rural towns die without the help of a history of arsenic poisoning).

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She films a women’s folk-dance club, mirroring the wedding shot at the end of Hukkle showing women dancing and singing, and interviews the members about their participation in the club. One woman complains that her husband wouldn’t let her join the club, but she talked him around to the point where he now admonishes her not to be late. Would his continued refusal have been grounds for execution in days gone by? These days, the women universally agree that divorce is the only way to go.

A woman whose great-grandmother was one of the killers who died in prison has assigned herself the job of unofficial historian of the crimes. She talks about how the town’s midwife leeched arsenic out of flypaper and provided bottles of it to women who wanted to lighten their burdens. She talks about her grandmother’s sadness that both her parents were taken away, though the woman didn’t realize until she was an adult that it was through murder and prison that these losses occurred.

Two women who were alive at the time of the murders said they occurred for a variety of reasons—some women lived with abusive men, divorce was illegal, some felt burdened by husbands made sick and invalid from fighting in World War I. Some also killed women who were in the way due to age and infirmity. It was common knowledge that these murders were taking place, but only the officials in Nagyrev actually arrested anyone. There is resentment that Nagyrev is singled out for infamy when the murders were widespread.

The Angelmakers is a short film, but its grasp of the intricacies of a rural town bleaching in an unwanted spotlight is impressive. The interviews are well chosen and tightly edited to bring out the essence of each interviewee’s story, from a divorced woman who perseveres in her “oddball” yoga practice to calm her anger to a seriously depressed man who is the source of all information on the death of the town in a modern age. We see underneath the surface, just as Hukkle literally scratched below the dirt to see how life is corrupted and killed in almost unthinking ways.

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Rosika, a 93-year-old woman who lives in the midwife’s former home, says the woman saw the police coming to her door and was prepared. Rosika points to a spot high on her pantry wall as the place where the noose the midwife used to hang herself dangled. “Does it bother you?” asks Bussink. “It used to,” she says. “But now I’m used to it.”

It’s time, I think, to reveal the words of the wedding song in Hukkle:

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
If you love your husband dearly
Good meals will keep him cheery

I’ll away to that far valley
I’ll away to that far valley
Where even birds go very rarely
Where even birds go very rarely
As the stork I too am lonely
As the stork I too am lonely
I have no one to console me
I have no one to console me
Days of sadness, life of sorrow
Days of sadness, life of sorrow
Star of sadness scars the morrow
Star of sadness scars the morrow

The Angelmakers ends with a ferryman returning to Nagyrev’s infamous shores, unworried despite it all. l

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    25th/03/2009 to 9:59 am

    These sound fascinating. Hopefully, they’re on Netflix.
    I also liked that your write-up mirrored the film so that it didn’t give things away too quickly, and I had to puzzle what happens out.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/03/2009 to 10:29 am

    Rick, I’m sure you can find Hukkle on Netflix, but The Angelmakers might be a bit harder. It’s worth the effort, though.
    It’s hard to write about the feature film without ruining it. Learning what is happening is like a detective story.

  • Greg spoke:
    25th/03/2009 to 10:45 am

    Wow, I’m with Rick, this does sound fascinating. And I’m sure Fox will appreciate the pig pictures. Glad to see Hukkle is on netflix, I’ll add it to the queue and ratchet it up a bit.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/03/2009 to 11:01 am

    I know Fox has seen Hukkle, though he never figured out what it was about (a not uncommon occurrence). He’s probably committed the pig humping scene to memory.

  • bill r. spoke:
    25th/03/2009 to 1:14 pm

    Ooh, Hukkle has been in my queue for ages. I wish I’d known you were going to write this up — I would have had it sent to me so’s I could join in. Anyhow. Thanks for the head’s up on The Angelmakers on Sundance.

  • Shane spoke:
    2nd/04/2009 to 5:39 pm

    The knowledge that widowhood is only a heartbeat away lives in many cultures. I lived for decades in a family where it was known which women had killed their husbands and how. The southern women’s credo ” you gotta sleep sometime” could send shivers through your spine and has caused more than one guy to seek other accommodations just to assure another day.

  • Vicky spoke:
    11th/05/2009 to 7:58 am

    Angelmakers is screening in Beijing on June 7th ’09 if anyone’s in the area!

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