A perfect example of a small-scale arthouse film that manages to tell a story that is simultaneously contained and particular on one hand and broad and universal on the other.
1945 is a perfect example of a small-scale arthouse film that manages to tell a story that is simultaneously contained and particular on one hand and broad and universal on the other. It does this through deploying a sharply-honed sense of time and place, recognizable, yet specific characters and black-and-white photography and a mise-en-scéne that manage to look like they could be both anywhere in general but also one particular place specifically. The overall effect of this careful balancing act is a moving, engaging film.
1945 is set in an unnamed Hungarian village on a single day in mid-August 1945. The war has ended, the Nazi occupation has been repelled and elections are scheduled for Hungary to create a new government. In the village itself, a wedding is being prepared. Meanwhile, at the train station a few miles away, two clearly Jewish men have exited the train and are making their way towards the village with a few cases of goods. The film very slowly reveals vital information about the village as the plot progresses, but from this start, there is palpable tension that will only steadily increase over the film’s runtime.
It should not be surprising: Hungary endured a long Nazi occupation and, prior to the war, had had a substantial Jewish population. Really, that is too simplistic: Hungary had long been (and still is) a hotbed of anti-Semitism and many Hungarians welcomed their German overlords, happily betraying their Jewish neighbors and rivals. It was, arguably, ground zero for the Holocaust. 1945 captures this with profound humanity, through subtle gestures, facial expressions and tiny details in the set design and costuming.
The unnamed village reveals so much about genocide and war. The Russian Red Army now occupies the area and is unloved while the radio blares news from the war with Japan or pontifications about the elections. The villagers are survivors and victims, but also perpetrators and opportunists, collaborators as well as patriots. The Town Clerk, the protagonist whose son is getting married, especially embodies this dual role; he incriminated his Jewish best friend to the Nazis in order to acquire his drug store, the most prominent and profitable piece of capital in the village.
Into this maelstrom of tortured personal relationships, wartime trauma and dueling occupation regimes enter the two Jewish strangers. They are coming into the village on a most auspicious day: the wedding day of the son of the most powerful man in town. What results is emotionally powerful, shocking and difficult to fully articulate. It is fantastic visual storytelling—the closing shot is so pregnant with multiple meanings that every viewer will interpret it differently but remember it for a quite a long time—and a compelling argument about the vicissitudes of war and the challenging process of repairing societies broken by military violence.
1945 is a film that flaunts its cinematic influences, particularly Phoenix, Ida, The Red and the White and Closely Watched Trains. Even while clearly indebted to these previous works, 1945 features distinctive cinematography that proves director Ferenc Török is more than capable of producing his own visual style, one as indebted to the desert vistas of “Breaking Bad” as it is to the steam trains of the Soviet-bloc New Wave. The film balances contradictions: it is both claustrophobic and expansive, both familiar and strange. The August day during which it is set was clearly a scorching hot one and the characters’ physical discomfort becomes a metaphor for their emotional turmoil.
Tense and joyous, inducing lamentations and smiles, 1945 is a paradoxical puzzle of a film and a delight to watch. It captures small-town rural life and discusses historical memory in captivating ways that both point backward to cinematic history and yet offer something new. The most salient achievement of the film is the way it takes a very specific and particular story and makes it feel universal: one anonymous village in Hungary in August 1945 is transformed into everywhere on any day.