“There are Jews in the village. Go tell the others.”
The year is 1945. News of the U.S. bombing Nagasaki has just reached an unassuming Hungarian village, where everyone in town is preparing for the wedding of the Town Clerk’s son to a local girl. The impending end-of-the-war has minimal impact on the villagers’ day to day lives. That is, until the Jews show up.
You see, just one year prior, the Holocaust had reached the little town. All the local Jews had been deported, most of them taken to their deaths, and their gentile townsmen had simply taken all of their belongings and property. Gentile families now live in the houses of Jews — Jews who had been forcibly removed from their homes and, if they were lucky, relocated to what were euphemistically known as “labor camps.”
And now, on the day of the Town Clerk’s wedding, two Jews arrive in town, bringing with them two giant cases they claim are full of perfume. The whole town devolves into panicked chaos: what if these Jews are coming to claim their rightful inheritances? Are they here to force non-Jews out of their ill-gotten residences? Some townsmen adamantly (and respectably) take the position that if asked, they should willingly give up their stolen homes and property. Others (namely, the Town Clerk) have too much invested in their new lives to even consider doing any such thing.
“1945“ is a tinderbox of tension. Director Ferenc Török builds suspense with endless, long takes of the two Jews walking to the village from the local train station; I cannot recall another film that uses the threat of incoming Jews quite the same way. This is not a comic movie, but the very fact that two Jews strolling along a dirt path is here used as the ultimate threat makes for some nicely heady comedy (there’s a train-station official who rides through town on a bike, letting the people know that “the Jews are coming!” in a very Paul Revere sort of way).
The film’s climactic anti-climax is well done (discounting the very obvious “twist” regarding the content of the Jews’ perfume cases); Török clearly has a lot on his mind about guilt and honor and forgiveness, and you’d have to be blind — or at least very, very farsighted — to miss the film’s “lessons” about these themes. It’s not a very subtle film — you might say that it has a kind of black-and-white view of morality (get it? Because this movie is literally presented in black and white. You’re welcome.)
That’s not to say the message in “1945” isn’t worthwhile. It is, and it’s presented in the most beautiful black-and-white imagery I’ve seen in some time. Each and every one of those endless shots of the Jews approaching the town are visually striking. “1945” also boasts an extraordinary performance from Péter Rudolf, who plays the Town Clerk (and the film’s primary “villain” if you can call him that). Rudolf’s Clerk is an obvious analogue for the whole of post-war Hungary, attempting to put the past behind them, ignoring the atrocities they were intrinsically accomplice to, and moving forward with their lives (by marrying off their children, for example). The Town Clerk is one of the most staunchly opposed to the idea of returning anything to the Jews; there’s a scene wherein he confronts his soon-to-be-married son about his son’s reluctance to keep their formerly-Jewish convenience store: here, Rudolf is absolutely terrifying. But you somehow feel for this man who just wants the world he has constructed around himself to proceed as planned, who doesn’t want to have to deal with the guilt and the shame; he’s ultimately something of a tragic figure. His life wasn’t unaffected by the war, after all.
On the negative side, it must be said that an inexplicable love-triangle subplot involving the groom and his cheating bride is wildly out of place and should have been cut early on. Totally unnecessary, this stuff feels very much like filler in what is a conspicuously short and sparsely-plotted movie. It’s even apparent in the cinematography of these scenes that the filmmaker is not particularly interested in the characters or invested in the melodrama.
It’s far from a perfect, or even great, film, but “1945” is certainly both commendable and recommendable. It has something to say about complicity of everyday people in the crimes of society, and says so in a fairly quiet, methodical, unassuming (if a bit obvious) way. It’s worth seeking out on the big screen due to its impressive black-and-white imagery (although the soundtrack can be a bit oppressive at times). Altogether a worthwhile effort, even if it’s not as inspiring as it likely thinks it is. [B-]