After seven decades, Hungary is finally starting to come to terms with its WWII-era history through cinema. It certainly didn’t happen during the Communist regime. Granted, there was an occasional film here and there, but the reckoning started in earnest during the 2000s. For their efforts, Hungarian filmmakers garnered an Academy Award for Son of Saul and a nomination for The Notebook. Unlike those films, the atrocities have finally ceased when this Magyar exploration of national culpability begins. Only guilt remains in Ferenc Török’s 1945 (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.
In a provincial village like this, everyone knows everybody’s business. That also means they know who denounced who—and who profited by it. When the elderly Hermann Samuel and his grown son arrive with two coffin shaped boxes, nearly every villager assumes they are heirs or agents of the town’s deported (and presumed dead) Jewish citizens. Naturally, their property was subsequently divided up by their former neighbors, particularly Istvan Szentes the town clerk and “Bandi” Kustar the town drunk.
The arrival of the Jewish strangers is especially awkward for Szentes, because this is his milk-toast son’s wedding day to the pretty country girl Kisrozsi. Their union would solidify his campaign for social position. However, the appearance of the mysterious Jewish men and Kisrozsi’s unabated attraction to her former lover, Jancsi, the village Communist who returned in triumph, could potentially complicate matters.
Essentially, there are two sides to 1945. When following the Samuels, the film has a stark, almost ceremonial tone. Yet, when it shifts its focus to the grubby, grasping villagers, there is a marked spirit of fatalism. Clearly, the mean-spirited Jancsi, who lords his camaraderie with the occupying Soviets over the village, is not any worthier of Kisrozsi’s affections than the socially awkward Arpad Szentes, perhaps even less so. Indeed, there is good reason to believe there are hard times ahead for both the bourgeoisie Sventes family and Kisrozsi’s land-owning peasant (kulak) clan. Török vividly conveys the deceptively calm and tensely uncertain tenor of those times, while witheringly exposing the town’s individual and collective guilt.
Despite all his character’s faults, there is something deeply compelling about Peter Rudolf’s portrayal of Istvan Szentes as a man who sold his soul, but might not be allowed to fully reap the expected benefits. Likewise, Dora Sztarenki is quite poignant as Kisrozsi, who has come to question her own Faustian bargain. Yet, the film is dominated by the images of the two mourners silently following their grim cargo to the cemetery. Török’s late co-producer Ivan Angelus is especially haunting as the elder Samuel.