Monday, September 19, 2011

There Was Once . . . A Small Town in Hungary

Kalocsa’s synagogue was built with 40,000 bricks donated by the Archbishop, the town’s feudal ruling authority. Though relatively small in number, Kalocsa’s Jewish citizens were an integral part of the town economy and the backbone of its middle class. Surely there was the occasional expression of anti-Semitism, but none of the town’s surviving deportees remembered any before the War reached Kalocsa in earnest. Researching Kalocsa’s history, local high school teacher Gyöngyi Mago was alarmed by how few traces remained of the town’s once thriving Jewish population. Hoping to record their history and erect a proper memorial, Mago contacted every survivor she could track down, including filmmaker Gabor Kalman, who documented her efforts in There Was Once . . (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Though it still stands, the Kalocsa synagogue had been repurposed several times for secular uses. As a result, the commemorative tablets listing the names of Kalocsa citizens murdered in the Holocaust was moved to Budapest. Mago hopes to return them to the town as part of a memorial ceremony. Both the current archbishop and the town’s mayor are supportive of the idea, as is Kalman and several other former Kalocsa deportees. However, there are vague rumblings heard from Hungary’s new militant extremist party, clearly modeled on the Arrow Cross. Yet, with the official establishment firmly on-board, things proceed orderly enough.

On one level, TWO is a pretty compelling case-study of the Hungarian Jewry experience in the Twentieth Century. As a historian, Mago makes a particularly salient point explaining how Communism compounded the tragedy of the Holocaust. In fact, many more Jewish Hungarians returned to their homes than is often commonly understood. However, when they saw the inevitable rise of another totalitarian regime, they reluctantly emigrated, applying the hard learned lessons of history.

Shockingly, an ugly crime mars Mago’s carefully planned ceremony. However, this incident is left conspicuously unresolved, which gives the film an unbalanced feeling. While it raises some concerns for Mago and her family, the film concludes with something of a passing of the familial torch that should leave viewers satisfied and even inspired, nonetheless.

TWO is traditional in its approach, but obviously such subject matter resists unconventional treatment. Mago and Kalman relate tragic family histories with sensitivity and insight. Indeed, the notions of documenter and documented mix together, with Mago the historian recording the oral history of her subject, Kalman, while his camera captures Mago at work as an activist historian.

Throughout TWO, Kalocsa outwardly looks like a beautiful and inviting city. It would almost be a perfect film for the tourism bureau, were it not for the somewhat unsettling third act. Yet, everyone speaking on camera says all the right things. It is hard to underestimate the lingering psychological damage wrought by years of fascism and Communism, manifested in the Neo-Nazi-Arrow Cross wannabes. That is why the everyday heroics of Mago are so significant and why Kalman performs such a service in recording them. Informative and at times quite moving, TWO is definitely recommended when it opens this Friday (9/23) in New York at the IFC Center and in greater Los Angeles at the Laemmle Sunset 5.