On a humid Friday in the summer of 1945, two Jewish men, a father and his young adult son, arrived near a small Hungarian town by train. They had come to the Soviet-occupied space with some crates, and told the driver of the horse-drawn cart to navigate slowly, as the contents inside were “special.”
It was only a half-hour walk from the station to the village, but news of their arrival had already reached the townspeople. Many of them worried that the Jews were there to collect their property and belongings from before the war — much of which was coveted by the villagers.
This slow-burning tension comprises much of the running time of 1945, the opening film of the 25th annual Toronto Jewish Film Festival. (The Hungarian film will screen with English subtitles.) The postwar drama, which won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival in February, manages to feel both weighty and brisk.
Much of the film’s quick pace is due to the presence of a large ensemble and various plots. The main story revolves around the town notary, István (played by Péter Rudolf), who hopes to keep things in order before his son’s wedding that evening. That young man, Árpád (played by Bence Tasnádi), had recently learned that his bride was still in love with the man to whom she was betrothed not long ago.
But the impending arrival of the Jewish men (played by Iván Angelus and Marcell Nagy) and a mysterious set of belongings, sends waves of panic and postwar guilt through the town. Some expect that this is just the beginning of many confrontations with a brutal and uncomfortable past. A few even turn to heavy drinking, racked with guilt for doing too little to hide their Jewish neighbours.
Director Ferenc Török, working from a screenplay he wrote with Gábor T. Szántó (based on Szántó’s short story), does not reveal the reason for the travellers’ return, or the contents of their cases, until the last third of the film. Until then, the villagers (and the audience) are left to speculate.
The mystery enables a creeping tension that permeates much of the film. One can empathize with the Hungarians, while also trying to figure out if any of them are culpable of past wrongdoing.
The moral ambiguity of several villagers, and the mounting dread among the characters as they anticipate new arrivals in town, brings to mind the classic western High Noon (like the Hollywood film, 1945 takes place on a wedding day and within a compressed period of time.)
Meanwhile, the performances are uniformly strong. As the hot-tempered István, Rudolf is a commanding screen presence, as is József Szarvas, who plays András.
A heavy drinker, András becomes emotional when he hears about the nearby presence of the Orthodox Jews. He goes to church to offer a confession, hoping it will absolve him and his wife from having to return the goods they plundered.
Sadly, even with a wealth of conflicted supporting characters, the Jewish wanderers end up seeming unknowable.
Even if they are thinly conceived, once the characters reach their destination and the audience learns the meaning of their journey, they still earn our sympathy. With just a look, actors Angelus and Nagy communicate the devastation of adapting to postwar life.
Török’s film benefits from stark, black-and-white cinematography. Often, the camera is positioned outside of a doorway or window, sometimes blocked by a curtain — a stylistic choice that reflects the lack of transparency among the townspeople.
The final shot of 1945 is destined to linger in the viewer’s mind, well beyond the festival.
Török will be present for a Q&A during the opening night of the festival, May 4, when the drama has its premiere at the Varsity. The film also plays at 6 pm on Wednesday May 10, at the Cineplex Empress Walk cinemas.