The locals are panicked and paranoid: Two Jews with somber faces and unstated motives have arrived in their village, possibly to exact revenge on the town for its betrayal of Jewish residents during the Nazi occupation. That’s the premise of the gripping and beautiful “1945,” a small but singular Hungarian drama opening Friday at The Clay.
Directed and cowritten by Ferenc Török and adapted from a short story by Gabor T. Szanto (sharing the screenplay credit), the film is a Holocaust drama, village-life tale and human-nature fable shot in expressive black and white.
On its surface, it suggests a Western, with a town drunk and hints of a showdown. More deeply, it addresses complicity and anti-Semitism in World War II Europe.
The story transpires on an August day in 1945, when Soviet soldiers have replaced Nazi occupiers in the Hungarian village. A year earlier, citizens, in varying degrees, helped bring about the deportation of Jewish residents and confiscated Jewish property. Most egregiously involved was the domineering town clerk, Istvan (Peter Rudolf).
On the day Istvan’s son (Bence Tasnadi) is set to marry a peasant girl (Dora Sztarenki) — Istvan has arranged for the couple to run a formerly Jewish-owned drugstore — two Jewish men arrive on the train.
The pair — a purposeful-looking Orthodox father (Ivan Angelus) and his grown son (Marcell Nagy) — hire two peasants to transport their two trunks, whose contents they’ve identified as perfumes and cosmetics, to an unnamed destination.
Paranoia, anxiety and guilt take hold. Istvan thinks the Jews may want revenge. Will they demand the return of seized Jewish property?
“I’ve got a bad feeling,” says Istvan’s opiate-addicted wife (Eszter Nagy-Kalozy), who witnessed her husband’s betrayal of a Jewish friend and remains repulsed by it. She might also be referring to the wedding: The bride may be less in love with the groom than with his drugstore.
The filmmakers appear to be aiming for something mythic or tragic as the Jewish men walk toward their mystery destination and as their presence results in dramatic events, including a conflagration. It’s not quite profound.
Still, the stellar movie succeeds as a portrait of cowardice and collective complicity in vile times.
Torok creates satisfying tension and illustrates how fear, anti-Semitism and avarice caused everyday people to send friends and neighbors to their likely death.
Cinematographer Elemer Ragalyi’s images of weathered visages, horse-drawn wagons, the walk of the two Jews and skies blackened by clouds (natural and manmade) beautifully combine visual splendor and dramatic storytelling.
The cast excels. Rudolf’s Istvan powerfully personifies the moral collapse that so many Europeans displayed during the Nazi era.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Peter Rudolf, Eszter Nagy-Kalozy, Bence Tasnadi, Dora Sztarenki
Written by: Ferenc Török, Gabor T. Szanto
Directed by: Ferenc Török
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes