1945 (Ferenc Török, 2017) 4 out of 4 stars.
Director Ferenc Török’s sixth feature film, 1945 opens with the seemingly innocuous image of two Orthodox Jewish men stepping off a train. Their arrival – and the horror and fear it provokes – recalls the great Hollywood Westerns of yore, where avenging angels and/or violent outlaws enter a town, only to upend its careful order by slaughtering the guilty, the innocents, or some combination thereof. But all these two men do is walk, slowly, along a dusty road, followed by a hired cart that contains a wooden box – a coffin of sorts – as everyone around them cries, “The Jews have arrived.” This being 1945 Hungary, such a fact and statement are bound to raise eyebrows, indeed. After all, over half a million Hungarian Jews vanished into the Nazi death camps, some willfully pushed there by erstwhile neighbors and friends. Why come back?
That is the essential dramatic question of the film, both for us and for the hapless – or not so hapless, as it may turn out – villagers towards whom our nameless friends inexorably march. We cut back and forth between them and the inhabitants of a small community filled with many a soul suffering from what can only be the guiltiest of consciences. Working with a collection of fine Hungarian actors, director Török (No Man’s Island) creates scene after fraught scene of mounting tension where the words left unsaid cause the strongest upset. The film is adapted from a short story, “Homecoming” (an English excerpt of which is available online) by the Jewish Hungarian writer Gábor Szántó, and the sense of lost lives, lost culture, lost hopes and lost friendships – all that was destroyed by the Holocaust – pervades every frame of every scene.
The smoke billowing from the opening and closing train, present in both story and film, can certainly be read as an elegy for the dead of Auschwitz and other death-camp crematoria. Beyond such overt symbolism, however, the film deals in the complexity of human sin, of betrayal, complicity in betrayal, retribution and forgiveness, if forgiveness is possible. The black-and-white images, as well as the subject, itself, recall Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning 2013 Ida, as well as Steven Spielberg’s own 1993 Oscar-winning Schindler’s List. Beautiful, harrowing, and ultimately deeply cathartic, 1945 is a thoughtful meditation on the worst qualities of the human animal, and on those better aspects that offer hope for a brighter future.