1945 01

By Jeremy Carr.

On the day of her son’s wedding, presumably the central event of 1945, drug-addled Anna (Eszter Nagy-Kálózy) ominously observes, “I’ve got a bad feeling.” At the time, this comment refers to the approaching marriage of her timorous son, Arpad (Bence Tasnádi), to the notoriously unfaithful Kisrózsi (Dóra Sztarenki). But the offhand remark also coincides more generally with the film’s almost horror movie-esque sense of conscious doom. There is, from scene one, an overriding air of impending menace, of secrets, ulterior motives, and ubiquitous disquiet. The specifics of this potential threat are concealed at first, and for a remarkably long time thereafter, which works well to sustain the tension, but what initiates the pivotal crisis of the film, having nothing at all to do with the conjugal ceremony, is the unassuming arrival of two Orthodox Jews in this small Hungarian village.

Directed by Ferenc Török, working from a screenplay co-written with Gábor T. Szántó, here adapting his own short story, 1945 takes place on the eve of World War II’s conclusion, just prior to Japan’s unconditional surrender. Though the European conflict had wrapped up months before, there is an invasive residue still managing to upend and unsettle this rural community. There are obvious, concrete remnants of the war, appearing in the form of lingering Soviet soldiers (an underlying thread connecting the townsfolk is the desired return to national autonomy), and there are more internalized, discreet fragments manifest in a communal angst, derived from the past (war weary exhaustion) and the future (expectations of how they shall all proceed). There are hesitant questions of what remains and what’s to come, literally stated or simply implied from a glance or reticent posture.

1945 03As 1945 begins, all of this is a preexisting condition, a malady that is in part self-inflicted, as is soon discovered, and Török and Szántó sharpen a plunging narrative wherein the viewer is dropped blindly and headlong into a town on the moral precipice, granted little in the way of exposition, but supplied ample corresponding anxiety. Triggering the apprehension is the way 1945 unfurls from preliminary scenes of tightly-wound, isolated stillness. This deceptive tranquility, and illusory isolation, is promptly breached at a train station, where the innocuous appearance of the two Jewish men – the older Hermann Sámuel (Iván Angelus) and his adult son (Marcell Nagy) – incites immediate panic. The principal protagonist in the ensuing uproar is István (Péter Rudolf), the pugnacious town clerk married to Anna (and the real-life husband of Nagy-Kálózy). István is the “protagonist” only insofar as he is the predominant catalyst for (re)action, for he is as much the dubious hero of the picture as he is its fundamental villain, and to Rudolf’s credit, he plays the part fluently both ways. While István most visibly expresses the equivocal association of these itinerant visitors, with two mysterious trunks in tow, he is surrounded by a buzzing hive of skeptical onlookers, their wary glances shot over fences, obscured by tree branches and bushes, and framed through reflecting widows.

This icy reception, and the subdued, compelling presentation managed by Török, suggests the suppressed culpability at the bitter core of 1945. Personal betrayals and individual animosities are given micro-realization in the wedding party and its associated drama – Kisrózsi’s first fiancé, Jancsi (Tamás Szabó Kimmel), still has a place in her heart and her bed and is, on the political front, suspiciously hospitable to the Soviet liberators – but the duplicity and enmity are more profoundly produced by a potent, deep-seated guilt. Discussing the previous engagement of his daughter-to-be, István rebuffs the probable scandal and declares, “The past is gone.” Again, this is a self-reflexive nod to 1945’s own thematic hub, and in this case, the past is no such thing. There are portentous murmurs, talk of certain people returning, of having to give something back. Perhaps this is why the Sámuels have arrived. Perhaps they are there to confront the uncomfortable reality of this rural outpost: the fact that many of its residents are surreptitiously living in the requisitioned homes of departed and deceased Jews.

1945 02Proceeding at an unflinching, steady pace, 1945’s measured buildup is amplified by Tibor Szemzö’s droning, unnerving score and an atmosphere of collective trepidation. There is a pervasive impression of escalating pressure, guiding the film and its chief characters toward an ultimate reckoning. As oppressive guilt saturates the populace like the blistering August sun, which scorches the countryside and emits a blinding light through residential windows, the high-contrast, black and white cinematography by Elemér Ragályi generates a coarse visual edge, befitting the film’s acerbic personalities. With everyone expressively at odds, primed by social, political, and psychological forces, the silent, stoic performances by Angelus and Nagy are inherently, if unintentionally, intimidating by comparison. Eventually, all things lead to a fiery climax and a public point of no return. The warm weather breaks and a rainstorm, rather deliberately (not unlike some of the obviously loaded dialogue), showers down upon the freshly exposed exploitation.

Török emphasizes the balance of space and time throughout 1945, extending the inevitable and evoking volatile impermanence. And with its time table delivery – first concerning the wedding preparation, then the drawn-out journey of Sámuel and son, slowly reaching town to do whatever it is they’re going to do – Szántó’s narrative has acquired parallels to Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), alluding to its similar stress on spatial and temporal advancement. To that end, 1945 also recalls Béla Tarr’s 1994 stately opus Sátántangó, which likewise hinges on the fateful onset of two men in a town besieged by unease and despair (the moral ambivalence, solemn complicity, and visual austerity also bring to mind Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, 2009). Owing to its overtly war-related context, though, 1945 has more extensive repercussions. Like Tarr, Török plays on everyday banalities and annoyances (contending with familial strife, István cuts himself shaving), but here, there are broader reverberations. Over the soundtrack at the start of 1945 is a news report about the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. This is a large-scale event, devastating to millions, but it is an occurrence that stands in marked distinction from the comparably trifling dramas of 1945. Yet even if such discord is never to appear in international news reels, these defining moments are decisive for this insulated Hungarian hamlet, its past and present inhabitants. In effect, then, Török’s film is about the haunting aftershocks of war, which may not be as forceful as the initial quake, but they persist all the same.

Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.

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