In some sense, director Peter Strickland has become regarded as a cult film director, thanks to films like Berberian Sound Studio (2012)—which follows a British sound engineer isolated in an Italian recording studio as he does sound effects for a giallo film—and The Duke of Burgundy (2014), about two women in a long-term sadomasochistic relationship that has seemingly lost its spark. While he has undoubtedly attracted a following among genre film fans, for me Strickland’s brilliance lies in his flirtations with and subversions of genre. Berberian Sound Studio is effectively a Bergmanesque drama about a man’s descent into madness that happens to occur during production for a giallo film, rather than being a giallo itself. And The Duke of Burgundy is far from the Jess Franco-like lesbian exploitation source material that many critics were so insistent it borrowed from; though hints hover somewhere in the background, just out of sight.
The same can be said of Strickland’s debut film, Katalin Varga (2009), which blends rape-revenge tropes with a mild folk horror theme, resulting in what is essentially an unusual and gripping domestic drama and crime thriller all in one. Katalin Varga is the most neglected of all Strickland’s films and seems to have been passed up almost entirely thanks to its relatively unavailability: there was no British theatrical release, though a UK Blu-ray eventually came out, but one has yet to emerge in the US. But the film really deserves a wider audience; not only for its beautiful cinematography and interesting treatment of genre influences, but because it is an obvious precursor to this themes of isolation and repressed, but deeply felt emotion. During its running time, the film reveals its plot quite slowly and hesitantly, so be forewarned that there are spoilers throughout this essay.
The film follows the titular Katalin Varga (the gorgeous Hila Péter), who lives in rural Romania with her husband, Zsigmond (László Mátray), and her young son Orbán (Norbert Tankó). Thanks to village gossip, one day Zsigmond discovers that Orbán his not his child. It is revealed throughout the course of the film that Orbán is the result of a rape which occurred approximately a decade ago and Katalin never told Zsigmond, because—mostly thanks to social stigma—she was convinced he would leave her or banish her. When he does tell her to leave the house and take Orbán with her, she goes on a journey across the country to the Carpathian Mountains to find her rapist and get vengeance at last.
Strickland financed the film with a small inheritance. In an interview with The Guardian, Strickland said, “Almost everyone said I was insane, suicidal, deluded, etc, and that it’s impossible to make a film for less than £200,000 even in Romania. I had barely a third of that. There were many times when I seriously doubted what I was doing. I often thought of just buying a flat, as almost everyone advised. But I asked myself, ‘Should I buy myself a one-bedroom flat in Bracknell or should I make a revenge film in Transylvania?’”
The setting of Transylvania’s Carpathian Mountains will naturally evoke Dracula and Eastern European horror for genre cinema fans, perhaps intentionally, and the modern world lingers on the edges of the film—in the few large towns Katalin and Orbán pass through briefly and a clunky cell phone makes a brief appearance—but this is a largely pastoral affair filled with golden wheat fields, bleating sheep, and ruins that pepper the landscape, which Katalin and her son traverse largely in a horsedrawn cart. This Romanian and British coproduction was shot in Hungarian (and some Romanian), making this a rare instance of an English-speaking director venturing forth into another country for a foreign language feature debut. Strickland said, “For me, this film represents a movie Transylvania – but not in the Dracula sense. Everything is heightened – the goat bells, crickets, wind … It’s a conglomeration of what I felt as an outsider.”
This sense of isolation is prominent throughout his filmography: Berberian Sound Studio deals with a literal outsider in the form of a non-Italian speaking Englishman in Italy (itself a giallo trope), while The Duke of Burgundy’s dual female protagonists exist in a sparsely populated world comprised of all women. Katalin of Katalin Varga also seems to be a perpetual outsider. It is implied that she is living in her husband’s village—thus she is the one who must leave—and the film never really addresses where she is from. The rape occurred while she was hitchhiking across the country and her pursuit of vengeance seems partly inspired by the fact that without her husband, she has nothing, nobody, and nowhere.
The carefully paced, almost pensive film follows this journey back through the fields and to the mountains. Strickland said he was inspired by The Night of the Hunter (1955), Charles Laughton’s fairytale horror film-cum-noir where two children are pursued through the American South by their murderous stepfather. With a minimal amount of dialogue, Strickland seems to ponder Katalin’s flight in tandem with her past trauma, but also her decision to pursue vengeance and how she plans to go through with it, especially with an inquisitive child at her side. The woods haunt her in an almost literal sense, with eerie camera angles and color grading, as well as unnerving score work (from Strickland’s own Sonic Catering Band and friends like Steven Stapleton of Nurse with Wound) accompanying scenes where she stares into the trees. It is later revealed that this was the site of her rape.
Strickland forgoes conventional rape-revenge or exploitation tropes to relate this tale. Katalin first finds and kills Gergely (Roberto Giacomello), a womanizing bystander who laughed cruelly while she was brutalized. She allows him to seduce her by a fireside dance and then bashed his head in with a rock, an act that takes obvious effort and causes her clear psychological distress. In general, Katalin Varga is careful to avoid black and white moralizing; no one is evidently good or evil. The most complicated figure of the film is the rapist, Antal (Tibor Pálffy). He’s portrayed as hardworking. His wife loves him and, worst of all for Katalin, he and Orbán immediately bond.
Katalin takes a short boat ride on the river with Antal and his doting wife; while trapped out on the water together, she casually relates the story of her attack. Strickland forgoes flashback sequences and there is a strange, icy tension to the scene that suggests violence could be imminent. It is Katalin’s sense of determination that is truly chilling and aside from an occasional bitter laugh or snide look, she spares no detail; the dialogue in this scene is beautifully visceral.
She says, “the stench of gasoline on his hands overwhelmed me” and she speaks of the feeling of the dirt on her face, rough hands restraining her. She turns it into a sort of fairytale—the film begins with her lie to Orbán that they are taking a trip to grandmother’s house—and the rape tale effectively begins when she says, “They laughed as they dragged me deeper into the forest.” After the rape itself is over, she discusses losing herself in the forest. She says, “I turned my head away and counted the stones around me. I was overcome by sickness and wished they would bury me. […] I waiting for the darkness to hide my shame from the world. […] A fawn of the forest came to my side and told me not to weep, ‘Jesus died for these men’s sins.’ I asked the fawn, ‘Whose sins have I just died for?’ More creatures of the night came by my side… The rain washed away the blood and come. The animals gathered enough twigs, leaves and grass in their mouths, claws and beaks to cover my naked body and keep me warm for the night.”
Earlier in the film, at separate instances, both she and Orbán sing a sort of “call and response” folk song about the cruelty inherent in nature itself:
Are you sleeping shepherd?
I’m not even dozing.
Were the wolves here?
Not even the angels.
Did the dogs bark?
They didn’t even laugh.
Katalin later admits to Antal that she associates the woods with him; she says, “The forests are a reminder of you.” There is the sense that, as in Greek tragedy, the very land itself is corrupted and an expurgation must occur. Antal’s wife explains that despite their happiness and love, they have no children; she says they’re cursed and one of them must have been a sinner. Though Katalin never directly states that Antal is her rapist, his wife kills herself before dawn, an act of almost inevitable violence with a strangely sacrificial quality. Her death allows Antal to be punished without Katalin committing more violence—though he tells her, “Kill me, it’s what I deserve”—and it draws Katalin, Antal, and Orbán together as an impossible family unity.
But, as in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, vengeance begets vengeance. As he wrote in The Libation Bearers: “Oh, the torment bred in the race,/ the grinding scream of death/ and the stroke that hits the vein,/ the hemorrhage none can staunch, the grief,/ the curse no man can bear./ But there is a cure in the house, and not outside it, no,/ not from others but from them,/ their bloody strife. We sing to you,/ dark gods beneath the earth.” In killing Gergely, reportedly a loving father despite his behavior towards women, Katalin’s is being pursued by his blood-thirsty relatives—a tense pursuit that winds its way throughout the film, though we don’t always know why—setting in motion an ultimate act of violence that is unexpected and disorienting, cementing that natural order in such a world can never be restored, not even by dark forest gods lingering beneath the earth.