Film Review: “1945” Is a Complex Picture of a Society Afraid to Contemplate Past Sins

Nov 28, 2017 by

Hungarian director Ferenc Török’s newly released film, “1945,” elegantly portrays in poignant cinematic fashion a few psychological truths: Never underestimate the viewers’ intelligence, never overestimate their information, never underestimate the power of guilt, and never overestimate an individual’s ability to do what is right.

The year 1945 marked the end of World War II, the defeat of the Nazis, and the liberation of the remnant of European Jewry. In Hungary, where this film is set, the year saw the withdrawal of the Nazi occupiers and their allies, ending the mayhem they wreaked throughout the country. However, it also marked the beginning of the Russian occupation.

In 1945, Communism had not yet trampled the rights of the Hungarian people, many of whom hoped that, with the end of the war, a new spirit of Western Democracy might be allowed to thrive. It was reasonable for minor, small-town leaders in tiny villages dotting the Hungarian hinterlands to dream of becoming elected officials, beloved and obeyed by the local populations.

“1945,” based on an acclaimed short story, “Homecoming,” by Gábor T. Szántó, takes place, in classical theatrical tradition, in just one day in the summer of that year. The film opens as the people of a small Hungarian village prepare to celebrate a somewhat misguided wedding between a young pharmacy manager and pretty peasant girl whose morals leave something to be desired.

Into this mix, a train stops, and two silent, serious Orthodox-Jewish men disembark.

None of the villagers know who the men are or for certain why they have come, but all have suspicions about the older bearded Hermann Sámuel (played by the film’s recently deceased producer, Iván Angelus) and his son (Marcell Nagy).

“They’re back” is the frantic whisper passed from husband to wife; from station master (István Znamenák) to town clerk (Péter Rudolf) who is also the secular authority in the village and, incidentally, the father of the poor groom; and from there to the local priest (Béla Gados).

While antisemitism certainly plays a part in this near-panic, as the story weaves itself, it is clear the villagers have other, more self-serving reasons to fear the arrival of the men whom they suspect may know secrets from the recent war that the locals—poor and not-so-poor, respected and not-so-respected—would rather forget.

They may be heirs of the village’s Jews who were deported just one year earlier, and they may have come to demand the return of property now illegally in the hands of the locals, who have no intention of either owning up to guilt or dealing justly with the newly arrived strangers.

Alternatingly infuriating and heartbreaking, “1945,” shot in period-evoking black and white in Hungarian with English subtitles, is not a Holocaust drama per se. It is a period piece which deals with the aftermath of the war, a time in Hungarian history which has not been investigated in depth. But the ghost of the Holocaust is a ubiquitous presence.

“I wanted to present a social tableau that would portray life in Hungary just after the war and just before the introduction of nationalization and Communism, when, for a moment, there was an inkling of the possibility of democratic transition. Fascism was over, but Communism had not yet begun; we tried to capture the atmosphere of those few years in this film,” said Mr. Török in an interview about “1945.”

He recognized that it was “a tragic time in history with which everyone is connected in some way or another.”

As the story spins out, the heartrending reasons for both the individual villagers’ consternation and the Jewish men’s presence are revealed. Viewers who know what lies ahead for the villagers may be forgiven a what-goes-around-comes-around moment. Many of the villagers will richly deserve the brutal tragedy of the Russian-Communist dictatorship that is waiting for them.

“1945,” which is distributed by Menemsha Films, is currently playing in Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York. It will soon be shown in other theaters in the tri-state area and then throughout the country. It should not be missed.

S.L.R.

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