This New Hungarian Holocaust Film is Reminiscent of a Hollywood Western

November 2, 2017Wes Hopper

While a man shaves in his bedroom mirror, a radio report establishes the time period. The U.S. has just dropped the second of two atomic bombs on Japan, and the Allied powers have demanded Japanese surrender. The man shaving goes about his business, caught up in his own affairs. As he finishes, he nicks himself. The blood is an ill omen for the day ahead.

So begins 1945, Ferenc Torok’s latest film, set in rural Hungary during the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust.

Like its opening minutes, the black and white film, in Hungarian with English subtitles, is charged with historical allegory and symbolic dread.

The man is István (Péter Rudolf), the town clerk and central figure of this moral parable, who, during the course of the story, manages to express several shades of repugnancy. He’s preoccupied with his son’s wedding, making certain that Arpad (Bence Tasnádi) goes through with his vows, providing a new generation to run the family drug store.

István’s attention shifts when two Orthodox Jews (Iván Angelus and Marcell Nagy), possessed of steely determination, arrive at the train station transporting two wooden crates. István assumes their true intention is to claim what is rightfully theirs.

Word that the “Jews have arrived” spreads like wildfire, sending residents into paroxysms of fear and guilt as they rush defend the claims to their houses, businesses, even flatware and rugs acquired after the disappearance of their Jewish neighbors. The degree to which individual villagers were complicit in the fate of the town’s Jews is part of the mystery, but fear of Old Testament retribution is palpable.

In some ways, 1945 belongs to the subgenre of Jewish revenge fantasy, but it’s too complex to be just that. Torok favors archetypes over realistic and individual character portrayals. Even the two Jewish men, who could be father and son, are given no backstories or discernible personalities beyond their stoic resolve to complete the mission that brought them to town. The  ferocity of guilt and the slow approach of dread in 1945 are reminiscent of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and Edgar Allen Poe’s “A Telltale Heart,” but, surprisingly, the true inspiration may be the Hollywood Western.

The Jewish men insist on walking into town on foot, and their slow approach is underscored by the clop of horse hooves and a jangly score. Their scowls and their impenetrable looks give them an almost otherworldly quality, invincible and awe-inspiring. The villagers are terrified of the two and what their true intentions may be. Once they reach town, people peer out behind curtains and hunker down behind shop windows, like there’s about to be a shoot-out.

This turns out to be all smoke and mirrors. Torok is not trying to make a Western, but borrowing the trappings of the genre in ways that wouldn’t be out of place in a Clint Eastwood yarn.

By the time the Jewish men finally enact what they’ve come to do, the village has already torn itself asunder. As the dominoes fall and neighbor turns on neighbor, those most affected favor desperate action over self-reflection. The only exceptions are the village drunk (József Szarvas) and the town clerk’s wife (Eszter Nagy-Kálózy), one of the only characters portrayed in shades of gray.

Torok based his film on the short story by Gábor T. Szántó. Like a short story, the film choses to spend more time on the message than the characters, painting a picture of a larger society ruined by its own collective bad choices. It serves as a historical accounting for Hungary itself, with its portrayal of Hungarian indifference, and even enthusiastic collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust.

By some estimates, more than a third of all Jews murdered at Auschwitz arrived from Hungary. It wasn’t until 1998 that the Hungarian government offered to pay survivors restitution claims, and even then, the process was difficult. In recent years, the country has shifted politically rightward with, according to the JTA, “prominent politicians…promoting or tolerating the glorification…of Nazi collaborators and ardent anti-Semites.”

Viewed through this lens, Torok’s emphasis on societal commentary over character development makes sense, especially if his aim is to wag a finger in the face of Hungarian Holocaust deniers.

1945 is essentially a morality play with the message that no act taken in self-interest at the expense of others goes unpunished. It is also a warning and a provocation: Acknowledge the sins of the past, as your soul may depend on it.

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