Two strangers dressed in black arrive by train at a small Hungarian town.
It’s August, 1945, and this little corner of Hungary seems all but untouched by the World War that is just now winding up in the Pacific. Aside from the sparsity of motorized vehicles and the presence of bullying, loutish Russian occupiers and the bursts of pro-Soviet propaganda on the radio, the locals would seem to have few complaints.
They’re plump, almost prosperous, especially István, the town clerk, landowner and drug store operator. His son Arpi is about to marry the farmgirl Rozsi, and he’s finishing the day’s arrangements.
But something about these two strangers rattles István and almost everybody around him. Who are they, what’s their business here and what’s with those outfits?
“Jews have arrived!”
The cinema has never seen the likes of “1945,” a Hungarian Holocaust Western, a “High Noon” testing a complacent, complicit town, pricking the guilty consciences of most of the people.
Because their prosperity put blood on their hands, and any Jews who “return” or just show up with packing cases for luggage are a potential threat — unwanted business competition, legal action, reclaiming property taken from them or just plain revenge could be on their minds.
No wonder the station master (István Znamenák) tells the wagoner hauling the old man and his son’s cases to “take your time” (in Hungarian, with English subtitles) getting them to town. The officious railwayman has to dash in by bicycle to alert the village.
No wonder István, played to small-town fat-cat perfection by Péter Rudolf, has a drink at every stop he makes after he gets the news. No wonder he’s sweating, blustering and chain-smoking his little cigars. He bullies his depressed, drug-dependent wife (Eszter Nagy-Kálózy) and his panic-stricken flunky (Jozsef Szarvas), “Bandi.”
“We have to give it back,” Bandi drunkenly declares, “ALL back.”
Nobody else thinks that way. The folks they took their houses, businesses and money from all those years before made their lives better by their absence, so the burning of evidence — promissory notes, etc. — commences in earnest. Venomous mistrust and hostility are the orders of the day.
Co-writer/director Ferenc Török (“Isztambul”) teases out the suspense here, folding in layers of melodrama on top of the tension. The would-be bride (Tünde Szalontay) never got over the handsome farmer (Tamás Szabó Kimmel) who went off to war and came back an ardent socialist. Her would-be groom (Bence Tasnádi) isn’t half the man Jancsi is.
The Russians are not shy about throwing around their weight in an occupied Axis country. Any moment we expect a beating, robbery or rape, or just a summary arrest.
And nobody, not the priest, the spouses of the various guilt-ridden men or the local constable, is able to keep his or her darkest feelings about Jews buried for long.
“You just can’t get rid of them.”
The spare, black and white cinematography won’t take anybody back to the golden age of monochromatic films. But the compositions are simple and succinct and the score — the rattling of coins in a pocket punctuating scene after scene, like spurs clattering down a dusty street — underlines the Western vibe Török was going for here.
Few subjects have dominated film to the extent history’s worst genocide has, resulting in the “Holocaust film” becoming a cultural punchline, a way of backhanding Jewish Hollywood with its obsession with the 20th century’s darkest hour.
But “1945” takes a familiar subject and well-worn theme — collective guilt — and finds a new way to bring us into that story, to connect us to that crime and its aftermath. Here’s a clever, sideways take on the grimmest of human horrors, a clever parable that delivers the same heavy message, but with mordant wit and originality.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, alcohol abuse, smoking
Cast: Péter Rudolf, Bence Tasnádi, Tünde Szalontay, Tamas Sabo Kimmel
Credits:Directed by Ferenc Török, script by Gábor T. Szántó, Ferenc Török. A Menemsha Films release.
Running time: 1:31