1945: The Qualms of Peacetime

Image courtesy of Menemsha Films.

*** (out of 4)

Ferenc Török’s 1945 opens on an unnamed Hungarian village, where all the residents are busily making preparations for the wedding of the town clerk’s son (Bence Tasnádi). Barely three months have passed since Nazi Germany’s surrender, the Pacific War still hasn’t officially ended…and the Soviets are just a few years away from converting Hungary into a satellite state. But from the looks of it, most of these townspeople have nonetheless managed to push thoughts of World War II and its fallout to the back of their minds. Until, that is, the local stationmaster (István Znamenák) arrives with a piece of horrifying news: two Jews (Iván Angelus, Marcell Nagy) have disembarked at the nearby train station, and they’re on their way into town.

On the whole, the primary value of 1945 lies in the antidote it provides to historical amnesia. The Holocaust has by now become virtually synonymous with Nazism; some 75 years on, it’s tempting to think that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was a uniquely murderous ideology that he forcibly imposed upon his unwilling neighbors. But like Paweł Pawlikowski (Ida) and László Nemes (Son of Saul), Török seeks to remind us that the truth was more complicated. In 1945, the villagers’ panicked reactions to the stationmaster’s news illustrate the fact that the Nazis never had a monopoly on bigotry. As the film goes on to indicate, moreover, many residents of Nazi-occupied countries voluntarily denounced Jews to Nazi authorities – and those same residents often shamelessly appropriated the property of deported neighbors. (Side note: as recent events attest, the issue of Nazi collaboration remains a source of great controversy in many parts of Europe. Which is only another reason why Török’s efforts are noteworthy.)

To better illustrate the power of historical amnesia, Török eventually turns 1945 into a kind of remake of High Noon, Fred Zinnemann’s classic Western. Like in 1945, the conflict in Noon arises when an unwelcome visitor arrives in town by train; both works, furthermore, spend a lot of time showing how people react to the news of said visitor’s (or visitors’) arrival. Yet while Noon’s visitor is an unlikable Hollywood villain, the visitors in 1945 are two genocide survivors. And whereas the visitor in Noon gets taken down by a classic “good guy” marshal, the Jews in 1945 have to contend with the town clerk (Péter Rudolf), an unscrupulous politician whose main goal is to ensure that the two of them won’t be able to recover whatever property they lost during the war. Here, the contrasts Török evokes come loaded with bitter irony: by tacitly drawing parallels between the clerk and an archetypal hero like Will Kane, 1945 aptly speaks to the way that so many Europeans rationalized away their complicity in Nazism’s crimes.

Image courtesy of Menemsha Films.

And yet, despite this remarkable perspicacity, Török’s work is ultimately undermined by one major flaw. The power of recent Holocaust films like Ida partially arises from the fact that they feature Holocaust victims (or descendants thereof) as their protagonists. But in 1945, the two Jews receive next to no development or dialogue; rather, their presence merely provides a springboard for the film’s exploration of the townspeople’s psychology.[1] Török, in a sense, has much to say about how non-Jews dealt with World War II’s aftermath – but he’s curiously restrained when it comes to doing the same for Jews, the war’s biggest victims. In that way, 1945 implicitly privileges the guilt-based suffering of genocide’s enablers over the involuntary, abject suffering of genocide’s victims; analogically speaking, if this were a film about race, it’d be more like the white-centered Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner than Get Out.

Still, even if 1945 doesn’t go as far as it should, it does what it does extremely well. Like with Ida, the use of black and white gives the film an austere appearance that dovetails with its material’s moral conundrums. Török’s penchant for long shots, moreover, emphasizes the physical distance between characters, a tendency that neatly reinforces the narrative’s theme of disconnect. And as in Zaza Urushadze’s Tangerines, the camera’s panning and tracking shots illustrate the idea that the supposed “tranquility” of rural life is just a façade. Every single frame of this film, in short, provides a testament to Török’s intelligence, mastery of technique, and confident sense of direction. In the future, all he needs to do is make sure he’s harnessing these tools for the best possible ends.

Image courtesy of Menemsha Films.

***

1945 (2017)

Country: Hungary. Dialogue in Hungarian.

Starring: Péter Rudolf, Bence Tasnádi, Tamás Szabó Kimmel

Running Time: 91 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Produced by: Ferenc Török, Péter Reich, Iván Angelusz

Written by: Ferenc Török, Gábor T. Szántó. Based on Szántó’s 2004 short story “Homecoming.”

Directed by: Ferenc Török

***

[1] In fact, the two Jews are the protagonists of the short story on which the film is based; Török consciously chose to shift the narrative’s focus to the townspeople instead.