by Peter J. O'Connell
1945. First U.S. release: Nov. 2017. Runtime: 91 mins. In Hungarian and Russian with English subtitles.
Radio news of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan stirs little interest in the Hungarian village where director/co-writer Ferenc Torok's 1945 is set. The August bombing will end World War II in the Pacific, but the war in Europe ended three months earlier. What will come to have explosive—literally and figuratively—impact on life in the village, though, is news of some arrivals at the train station a short distance away.
This Hungarian film picks up a trope—trouble brought by train--from two classic American films. In the Western High Noon (1952), an outlaw's arrival by train reveals a community consumed by cowardice and depicts the stresses placed on a man who reluctantly finds that he must play a heroic role there. In the film noir Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), an investigator's arrival by train leads to the revelation of a collective crime at the center of a community's recent past.
The train in 1945 does not bring either an outlaw or an investigator. Instead, it brings two men in black, one older (Ivan Angelusz), one younger (Marcell Nagy). The two men are Jews, wearing traditional dark garb. They have several trunks with them. They hire a horse-drawn wagon to transport the trunks, while they walk slowly behind toward the village.
The walk of the Jews will take place, as did the action in High Noon, pretty much in real time. Their relatively short, silent journey, intercut with what is happening in the village, comes to take on a relentless, suspenseful quality. What do they want? What will they do? What is in the trunks?
The village has been preparing for a festive event, the wedding of the son (Bence Tasnadi) of the Town Clerk (Peter Rudolf) to a woman (Dora Sztarenki) from another prominent family. But speculation sparked by the quiet, steady walk of the Jews begins to upstage that celebration and bring into the open tensions that show the picturesque village to be a place of cries and whispers, secrets and lies.
When the Nazis and their Hungarian allies deported Jews to the death camps, Jewish property was distributed among locals. Thus, in the village the haughty Town Clerk received a drug store. Others received houses and fields. Are the two Jews harbingers of more to come who will reclaim what is rightfully theirs?
Fear of this possibility grips some villagers, who seek to hide confiscated property. Others are plagued by feelings of guilt and shame. The emotions that begin churning cause longstanding problems unconnected with the war to come to the surface—family conflict, loveless marriages, loathed engagements, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, clerical hypocrisy.
The Jews arrive at their destination and do what they came to do in the moving climax of this wonderfully written, directed, and acted film. Its black and white cinematography sets the mood perfectly. And its restrained imagery—a train unloading boxes, black smoke drifting skyward, a tattooed arm ever so briefly seen—function as haunting reminders of a crime far greater than those in a Western or a film noir. See 1945, even if you have to take a train to get to the theatre!