- Review by Christopher Kestell
1945 is a Hungarian drama from director Ferenc Török, based on the short story ‘The Homecoming’ by the film’s co-writer Gábor T. Szántó. Set in a small village in rural Soviet-occupied Hungary towards the end of the second world war, the film confronts the complicity of the Hungarian populace in the persecution of the Jewish people during the holocaust, and ponders upon themes of duty and our often flimsy justifications.
The film’s plot spans a single day and centres primarily around the town magistrate Mr. István. It is the day of his son’s wedding when he receives word from a train station-master that two Orthodox Jewish men have arrived, carrying a suspicious cargo of “perfume” and balms. This knowledge sparks widespread anxiety throughout the village. Why are they here? What is their business? Are they strangers? It is quickly revealed that many of the villagers have prospered from the deportation of those Jewish people who once thrived in the village, being granted the homes and businesses left vacant by their eviction. Looming on the film’s horizon, the two black-suited Jewish men cut menacing figures as ghosts of the past, constantly ratcheting up the tension as they approach, threatening the unsettled future of the villagers, and dragging the village’s shame to the forefront. This is a dramatic structure of the greatest tension and tragedy, as lurking danger tears the guilty and the innocent up from the inside.
Filmed entirely in black and white, Török skilfully blends the drab trappings of village life and relationships with highly stylised shots, shifting the focus of the viewer and displacing the pastoral scene, much like the disruption caused by the approaching Jews. This weaving of visual priorities is crafted seamlessly, and results in a film that is beautifully and provocatively shot and edited.
At the beginning of the film, the ensemble performance would appear hackneyed, as if the cast were portraying a collection of bombastic tropes. However, it soon becomes clear that this is itself a clever technique, luring the viewer into the village’s secure space, only to drag them back out of it with increasingly nuanced and heartfelt individual efforts. Most notable are those of József Szarvas playing the drunken and hapless collaborator András, and Péter Rudolf as village magistrate István. Rudolf’s enthralling performance must be given a large share of the credit for ramping up the tension of the film, with his increased exasperation and animalistic drive. There is not a lacking performance in sight here.
Mention must be made of Tibor Szemző’s minimalist score. Lightly scratching violins and Eastern European percussion somewhat confuse the auditory palate throughout, pushing the viewer further towards the edge of their seat. This element cannot be underestimated and deserves the highest praise.
First shown at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2017, and released later that year in Hungary, 1945 finally gets its Irish release date on October 12th at the Irish Film Institute. This film is a fine example of masterfully clever storytelling, and is not worth missing out on.