Stark drama tackles postwar Europe’s Dirty Little Secret
Directed by Ferenc Török
Cast: Péter Rudolf, Bence Tasnádi, Dóra Sztarenki
Though far removed in place and time from the Western genre, the opening sequence to Hungarian filmmaker Ferenc Török’s scab-picking postwar drama 1945 bears a more than passing resemblance to the opening of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. In that justifiably famous sequence, a group of shady characters wait silently around a train station for someone to arrive. Despite the languor of the duster-wearing mob and the near-total lack of dialogue, there’s a palpable tension. Someone is coming. Someone dangerous. In Leone’s film that long-awaited train passenger turns out to be Charles Bronson’s mysterious, harmonica-playing gunslinger. In 1945 it turns out to be—pause for dramatic effect—the Jews.
Set in a remote Hungarian village on the last, lingering edges of World War II, 1945 generates a strong undercurrent of paranoia. The Allies have dropped their atomic bombs on Japan, the Russians have “liberated” Western Europe and the Nazis have retreated back to Germany. The locals are even comfortable enough to be celebrating the impending nuptials of a pretty peasant girl named Kisrózsi (Dóra Sztarenki) and up-and-coming young businessman Árpád (Bence Tasnádi), manager of the local pharmacy and favored son of domineering village bigwig István (Péter Rudolf). But the arrival of two strangers at the train station—somber, bearded Sámuel Hermann (Iván Angelusz) and his handsome son (Marcell Nagy)—seems to send everyone into a tizzy, exposing the long-accumulating anxieties of everyone in the village.
The panicked station master tells the cart driver picking up luggage to stall the newcomers as long as he can and races off on his bicycle into town. Hunting down István, he delivers the shocking news in hushed tones: “The Jews are here.” At first, of course, viewers assume the standard anti-Semetic overtones to the villagers’ reactions. But something else seems to be at work here. The town isn’t nearly as bucolic as it would seem on the surface. Those liberating Russian troops are treated with deference and fear—like the occupying army that they are. Shy-looking bride-to-be Kisrózsi dumped her strapping former fiancé Jancsi (Tamás Szabó Kimmel) for a chance to marry into Árpád’s bourgeois family. Those gold-digging tendencies have not gone unnoticed by Árpád’s nasty, drug-addicted mother (Eszter Nagy-Kálózy), either. Under the surface, things are already very much on edge here.
It’s not long before the truth starts to peek around the corners in this secret-keeping village. Though no supporters of the Nazi cause, a great many of the locals made out pretty well during the war, snapping up the homes, businesses and property of Jewish people who were shipped off to concentration camps. Not the least of those ill-gotten gains is the pharmacy that István owns and where Árpád works. The fact that the Hassidic visitors making their way slowly to the village reportedly have a crate full of perfume with them only reinforces the fear they’ve come to reclaim their family business. A bill is coming due, and there are a lot of people in this village unwilling to pay up.
Writer-director Ferenc Török (Isztambul, No Man’s Island) builds this film’s tension patiently and precisely. Borrowing its movie-long anticipation from another famous Western, High Noon, 1945 plays out as an inevitable march toward an unavoidable confrontation. The dialogue is minimal and often incidental. The characters, their interactions, the backdrop: everything clicks together with a slow and dreadful predetermination. Shot in a deeply shadowed black and white, the film looks almost ethnographic—like the Dust Bowl photographs of Dorthea Lange. Add to that the accurate period production design, the well-worn costume work and the excellent ensemble cast (particularly longtime Hungarian actor Rudolf, who commands the film, start to finish, with his oily, two-faced politician’s personality). The sum total is a hard-hitting historical drama that feels raw and real and looks beautiful in the most humble of ways.