This fascinating work from Hungarian director Ferenc Török (No Man’s Island, East Side Stories) combines story elements including the immediate aftermath of World War II, the beginnings of Russia’s occupation of Hungary, a small town’s collective guilt over its behavior toward its Jewish population during the war, and a Hitchcockian-level mystery about the appearance of two strangers at the local train station and the curious cargo they have brought with them.
The title of the film (and the year it’s set) is 1945, and it takes place almost in real time over just a couple of hours—from the arrival of two Orthodox Jewish men (a father and son, played by Iván Angelusz and Marcell Nagy) at the station until they board the train again on their way out of town. But as soon as they step foot at the station and unload two small trunks, the rumor mill begins to question what their motivation in the village could be. The driver of the cart hauling the trunks is told by a local official to make their journey take as long as it can while the locals discuss and prepare to receive them. But what follows in the immediate hour or so after their arrival is pure chaos and anguish, as the town begins to unravel as the residents take stock in what they did and/or allowed to happen.
These events falls squarely in the midst of preparation work for a massive wedding in the town between Arpad (Bence Tasnádi), the son of local clerk Szentes (Péter Rudolf), and a peasant girl, Kisrózsi (Dóra Sztarenki), who still has feelings for her former fiance, held captive during the war but arriving back in the village just as she’s about to walk down the aisle. The groom’s mother (Eszter Nagy-Kálózy) is a bitter, drug-addicted woman who believes the peasant girl is only after her son’s money (he runs what seems to be the town’s only drug store).
As word of the strangers’ arrival spreads, rumors get started that the men are there to reclaim all of the property and goods that were taken and redistributed by the locals when all of the Jewish residents were taken away by the Germans. Secrets and lies are revealed, relationships (both familial and romantic) fall apart, and a deep, ridiculous panic sets in—all before the father and son even arrive. I won’t reveal the purpose of their trip, but suffice it to say, you won’t feel particularly bad about the lives that are exposed, even ruined, as a result of past terrible behavior.
Co-written by the director and Gábor T. Szántó (based on his short story “Homecoming”), and shot in crispy, beautiful black-and-white, 1945 packs a mighty gut punch in its final act, as it builds tension about the fate of these two men dressed in black who walk side by side without speaking behind the cart. Every step they take and stop they make on their short journey is analyzed, misinterpreted and reacted upon in ways that may make you forget to breathe with anticipation. But on this mid-August day (only about three months after the end of the war), the lives of everyone in this quiet little village are changed forever.
This small film features a massive day of reckoning for everyone on screen, and is highly satisfying, sometimes darkly humorous, and wonderfully acted. You may have seen stories of betrayal like this before, but never told this way.
The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre and at the Landmark’s Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park. Director Ferenc Török will be in attendance at the Music Box Theatre for Q&As on Friday, April 6 after the 7pm showing, and on Saturday, April 7 after the 2pm and 4:30pm showtimes. In addition, he will be at the Landmark in Highland Park on Saturday, April 7 at 7pm, and Sunday, April 8 at 4pm and 7pm.