A Bitter Homecoming in Hungary
The plains of Hungary are the setting for “1945”, a film about two Orthodox Jews, an elderly father (Ivan Angelus) and his adult son (Marcell Nagy), who return to their village at the end of World War II. As the story unfolds, the elders of the village that now has no Jews are upset as the pair approach because the village’s residents have stolen and plundered the Jews’ homes, businesses and valuables, and are worried about these now being reclaimed. Tension mounts as the father and son approach, by horse and wagon, as a planned wedding is underway and is unexpectedly cancelled when a tragedy intervenes.
Director Ferenc Török worked for ten years to adapt the story for the screen. Shot in black and white, the film is the portrayal of a special day in the life of a small Hungarian village at the end of the Second World War as it deals with a past that is best forgotten and a threatening future.
The presence of the two Jews sires fear in those who profited from their persecution. The comparison with the growing sense of nationalism in contemporary Hungary is clear to see as here victims who are portrayed as dangerous invaders by those in power. While for some nations, 1945 was the year of liberation from Nazi-fascism, other states in Eastern Europe simply went from being dominated by one foreign power to being dominated by another, turning a prosperous future into terrible misfortune: the final shot showing the black smoke from the train in the middle of the countryside is in this respect symbolic; what should have been a cause for celebration (a wedding) that turns into tragedy, in which no one is free from blame, from the parish priest to the mayor, from masters to servants. It is no accident that the only positive characters end up leaving the village.
The small village is a microcosm of Hungarian society and the camera observes the victims discretely, always from the sidelines or from the other side of windows or bars. The narration is painful but necessary not only to understand what happened in the past but also for what’s happening now. There is the sense of a threatening future and that certain tragedies aren’t accidental but the result of the dissemination of demented ideas of the likes of nationalism and racism. In substance this is an honest film that commits itself to portraying Hungary in the immediate post-war period, showing that the fear of that which is foreign never pays off.
As the two men disembark from the tiny train station, local whispers spread. Shopkeepers and housewives peer through their curtains fearfully; the town clerk and the sheriff quickly prepare themselves for a conflict.
The source of the conflict is also deeper than one might initially assume. This is a provincial European town that, like so many others under Nazi occupation, closed ranks on its non-Gentile population. Its policemen, town officials and even parish priests conveniently ignored the mass deportation of their Jewish neighbors, often in exchange for silverware, trinkets and homes.
The film takes place over the course of one day as these lost neighbors return home. We see a claustrophobic view of moral degeneration that becomes apparent when the town shows its defensive anger. The townspeople never expected their former neighbors to come back.
As the two returning Jewish men embark on an untold mission, carrying trunks and walking silently across the city, panic ensues. The townspeople wonder if they will demand their property or seek vengeance? Town clerk Istvan (Peter Rudolf) is particularly vigilant. He is a prominent and well-off citizen who bristles at the thought that any of his previously owned possessions might have to be returned. As the degree of Istvan’s own culpability in wartime events becomes clear, he begins to backslide into paranoid rage. Torok uses intimate and unsparing close-ups on Rudolf’s wide-set face and those of the film’s characters. He juggles the topography of this small town and the faces reminiscent of early westerns.
It just so happens that the day of the strangers’ visit coincides with the wedding of Istvan’s son. As the father and son travel with quiet dignity to their intended location, the sense of panic around the town reaches its peak. The locals seem so concerned with holding on to their ill-gotten gains that they never pause to consider a different possibility. The film focuses on deceit and lies and their caustic nature that breaks apart a cover István’s managed to maintain during the war.
Suspicions raise fears of reclamation and István finds not all participants of his scheme have been able to expunge guilt. As he’s eventually told face-to-face, the whole town knows the degree to which he wrangled a fine house and local drugstore from the Jews and so the question director Török poses is whether the pair’s arrival is for justice, or something simpler since their arrival isn’t with a police escort.
The film’s strongest material is in the themes of corruption that corrode almost every citizen. We learn that teenage daughters nervously shake, wives take drugs, brides cheat on their fiancés, and the men seek refuge by the bottle. We get an eerie glimpse into the central lifespan of a lie after its been seeded, and nears the end of its power.