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-- Still from 1945 courtesy Menemsha Films; Director Ferenc Török, 5/21/2017, at the Panorama Europe Film Festival, Museum of the Moving Image, Astoria, Queens

A Hungarian village on August 12, 1945 -- with a contemporary eye and conscience

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed by Ferenc Török
Produced by by Iván Angelusz, Péter Reich and Ferenc Török
Written by Gábor T. Szántó and Ferenc Török based on the short story “Homecoming” by Szántó
Released by Menemsha Films
Hungary. 91 min. Not Rated
Not rated. In Hungarian with English subtitles
With: Péter Rudolf, Bence Tasnádi, József Szarvas, Ági Szirtes, Eszter Nagy-Kálóz, Iván Angelus Hermann, Marcell Nagy, István Znamenák and Tamás Szabó Kimmel

1945 is a dramatically suspenseful, beautiful-looking, scarily evocative step back into that precarious year.

The film takes place specifically on August 12, 1945. It is the summer of liberation in Hungary, and the radios in the village broadcast news of the end of the war. Though Russian soldiers drunkenly breeze through in an army jeep, this is an interregnum. The residents are moving on with their lives, preparing shops to open and a wedding to celebrate.

Until a reminder of the year past appears, like Banquo’s ghost at the banquet – but they can all see the two Orthodox Jews in somber hats and coats arrive at the railroad station. The two men, Hermann Sámuel (Iván Angelus) and his son (Marcell Nagy), supervise two heavy boxes (labeled “fragrances” the station clerk gossips to the villagers), lifted onto a wagon and silently walk with it from the station and through the village. Are they the same Jews last seen in Spring 1944 forced onto other railroad cars? Questions of guilt, recrimination, resentment, and fear increasingly erupt on faces in the fields, houses, tavern, pharmacy, and church.

Director Ferenc Török thought for a decade about the 2004 short story “Homecoming (Hazatérés)” by Gábor T. Szántó, editor-in-chief of the Hungarian Jewish monthly Szombat, and collaborated with him to expand this fraught situation into pure cinema. Characters are added and three-dimensionally fleshed out, and as set in real rural villages and emotionally embodied by a superb cast, their motivations are gradually revealed under the pressure of watching that mysterious wagon-load proceed.

The villagers’ anxieties revolve around the gregarious town notary István Szentes (Péter Rudolf, popular in Hungary as a comic actor on TV), who has managed deed transfers for people over the past year, as well as the life and upcoming marriage of his restless son Árpád (Bence Tasnádi). His wife Anna (Eszter Nagy-Kálózy) is an acquisitive snob, looking down on her blonde, buxom prospective daughter-in-law Kisrózsi (Dóra Sztarenki), who is being sorely tempted by her ex-boyfriend Jancsi (Tamás Szabó Kimmel).

While this is Török’s sixth feature, it is his first wide international release. His first set in this period, he enlisted his mentor, octogenarian cinematographer Elemer Ragalyi (Jakob The Liar; foreign language Oscar winner Journey of Hope; Emmy-win for Rasputin) to help recreate the atmosphere he remembered of his childhood village at that time. Ragalyi’s exquisite black and white imagery is redolent of the Western that inspired this pacing and tension, Fred Zinneman’s High Noon (1952). (His 1948 The Search in rubble-filled post-war Berlin is also one of my all time favorite films of the post-war period.)

Combined with the chilling sound design by Tamás Zányi (Son of Saul) including using the horse’s “clip clop” as a “tick tock” countdown, the electronica music score by Tibor Szemző (with occasional echoes of klezmer violin leit motifs) adds contemporary moral and political awareness. The film’s late producer Iván Angelusz cited Géza Radványi’s Somewhere in Europe (Valahol Európában) (1947) and Félix Máriássy’s Springtime in Budapest (Budapesti tavasz) (1955) as the few films to deal with the immediate post-war years in Hungary (only the former is available in the U.S. on DVD), but didn’t face their history of collaboration. (Lajos Koltai's 2005 Fateless (Sorstalanság) touched on these issues.) With the rise of right-wing nationalism and anti-Semitism in Hungary today, there is also resonance with the racist secrets of John Sturges’s Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and the frightened paranoia of Rod Serling’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (1960) and “The Shelter” (1961) episodes of Twilight Zone by the time the visitors’ purpose is revealed to the panicked community.

Developed with funding from The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, 1945 pointedly and thrillingly demonstrates the selfish attitudes that sustained the Holocaust by the time these two quiet Jewish men leave on the train, without needing to show the brutal fate of the rest of the Jews who left just one year before.


(My capsule “Best of 2017” review)

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:

Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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