There are only two Jewish characters in the 2017 Hungarian film “1945” — and they don’t say much. Nonetheless, their presence hangs over the small village they visit on a summer day at the end of the war, foreboding like the heavy dark plumes of smoke emitting from the train which brings them to town.
Directed by Ferenc Török, this black and white gem explores a subject rarely depicted in mainstream Holocaust films: the theft of Jewish homes and businesses by the neighbors of the rightful owners after their deportation to the camps. The film goes beyond that, though, probing questions of greed, blame, culpability and, for the Jewish characters, closure.
The story commences with the arrival of an Orthodox man and his grown son to a Hungarian village as its residents prepare for the wedding of the town clerk’s son. At the film’s start, István Szentes (Péter Rudolf), the clerk — who also owns a successful pharmacy — is captured peering at his reflection in a mirror as he shaves with a sharp blade. His son Árpád (Bence Tasnádi) is getting ready for his wedding to a beautiful peasant girl, but the mood of the film is far from celebratory. Strained familial relationships, infidelity and chronic depression permeate the atmosphere. No one seems happy.
The chaos harbored shallowly beneath the surface of labored normalcy is exacerbated with the arrival of the two Jews and their mysterious and cumbersome trunks.
When word spreads to the townspeople of their arrival, a Pandora’s box of emotions and actions are let loose, as neighbors warn each other: “They’re back.” The townspeople presume they have come to take back the property of the village’s deported Jews — the homes, the businesses, the silver, the rugs.
The 90-minute film unravels as a sort of Old World parable, replete with horse-drawn wagons and townsfolk with weathered faces dealing with their collective as well as individual guilt.
Based on the short story “Homecoming” by Gábor T. Szántó, the film depicts a community that has tried to bury its recent past while living with the spoils it has accrued through its outright or passive complicity to evil. There is a haunting quality to “1945,” with the two Jewish men taking on the role of metaphorical ghosts.
When the reason for the Jews’ visit to the town is finally revealed in an intimate and moving scene toward the end of the film, the dichotomies between past and present, as well as spiritual and physical, come sharply into focus.
“1945” returned to Pittsburgh, playing at the AMC Waterfront, after having won the Audience Award at the Pittsburgh Jewish Film Festival in 2017. PJC