1945: Guilt, grievance and secrets boil over in a Hungarian village with a dark wartime past

By Jim Slotek

Rating: A

“The Jews have arrived,” is not how one usually says, “Welcome to town.” But in the guilt-stricken Hungarian village where Ferenc Török’s compelling 1945 is set, the arrival of two silent Jewish men on a mission is enough to make everyone lose their minds.

The day in question is a busy one. The town majestrate Istvan (Péter Rudolf) is about to marry off his son Arpad (Bence Tasnádi) to a local girl named Rozsi (Dóra Sztarenki). It’s her second engagement in a year, but Rozsi – like everybody else in the town – is a creature of shifting allegiances, self-interest, guilt and secrets. 

 Two silent Jewish visitors turn a Hungarian town upside down by their mere presence in 1945

Two silent Jewish visitors turn a Hungarian town upside down by their mere presence in 1945

Istvan pretty much runs the town. Or he did, until the Russians pushed out the Nazis. Now the future belongs to people like Rozsi’s ex-fiance (whom she still loves), Jancsi (Tamás Szabó Kimmel), whose proficiency with Russian gives him an “in” with the swaggering soldiers who are starting to call the shots as VJ Day approaches and Hungary begins to dig outself out of rubble.

But the wedding day unravels when a train pulls up with an elderly Jewish man named Hermann Samuel (Iván Angelusz) and his son (Marcell Nagy). Without a word from the visitors, hushed talk turns spontaneously to promissory notes held for Jewish neighbours who’d been shipped away, of houses people are living in that don’t belong to them, of the cutlery and valuables, and even of the town drugstore that gives Istvan his rarified lifestyle.

Some drink to forget their guilt, some literally can’t live with it, some are ready to come clean at the first chance, and Istvan and the town priest (Béla Gados) struggle mightily to hang on to their story in case “the Jews come back.”

Based on a short story by Gábor T. Szántó and shot in a striking black and white that is so sparklingly lit and detail conscious, it invites the mind’s eye tends to fill in colours itself, 1945 is as powerful a fable about the relentless thrall of guilt as has ever been put to screen. 

A best feature winner at the Jerusalem Film Festival and an Audience Award nominee at the Berlin International Film Festival, it shows karma take hold relentlessly and spontaneously, tightening the tension minute by minute. The town shares a terrible secret, and a secret is a chain as flimsy as its weakest link. Or are the people who are willing to confess actually the strongest? 

For all that, 1945 is a subtle indictment of the crimes and cruelties of war. The reality of what happened in this town-without-Jews is revealed piecemeal, and what became of the former citizens is deliberately unknown to the people who betrayed them – as evidenced by their fear of them “coming back.”

A strong, simple story, with a dark insight into human nature, 1945 makes for powerful viewing.

1945. Directed by Ferenc Török. Starring Péter Rudolf, Bence Tasnádi and Iván Angelusz. Opens Friday, August 24 at the Cineplex Cinemas Empress Walk, Carlton Cinema and Mount Pleasant Theatre in Toronto, and at the Cineplex International Village in Vancouver.