'1945': Film Review | Berlin 2017

Courtesy of Berlinale
A restrained but familiar drama.

Hungarian director Ferenc Török's latest, an adaptation of a short story by Gabor T. Szanto, is a black-and-white drama set in the immediate postwar period in rural Hungary.

The arrival of two Orthodox Jews upsets the wedding day of a rural town clerk’s son in Hungary in 1945, a mournful choral drama in elegant black and white from Magyar director Ferenc Török. More a portrait of a community’s collective guilt and shame than a character drama about a handful of individuals, this adaptation of the short story The Homecoming from co-screenwriter Gabor T. Szanto examines how a town really feels about having moved into the homes and started eating off the plates of the Jews that vanished during the war, raising the twin specters of culpability and dishonor when two men of that faith return.

Handsomely shot by veteran cinematographer Elemer Ragalyi (Anne Frank: The Whole Story), this is a respectable if somewhat predictable addition to the canon of movies dealing with the immediate postwar period that should see decent returns in local specialist venues. It might attract more attention abroad if chosen as Hungary's submission in next year's foreign-language Oscar category, though it now has fierce competition in On Body and Soul, which just won the Golden Bear in Berlin, where both films premiered. Menemsha Films has picked up stateside rights.

Török is best known for his loose-limbed debut, Moscow Square, a portrait in smudgy colors of a group of high-school kids in 1989, the year the Iron Curtain came down. The historical period he examines here is similarly in flux, with the Nazis having barely left and the liberating Soviet forces still around, though Communism is still several years away and everyone in the small, unnamed rural community is trying their hardest to get back to normal.

The arrival of an elderly Orthodox Jew (Ivan Angelus) and his adult son (Marcell Nagy), transporting two mysterious wooden boxes from the train station to the town, upsets everyone. Might they be relatives or friends, or acting on behalf of the Jews who used to live there? Have they come to claim the property and possessions of local Jewish families that the remaining villagers have divided up amongst themselves? As they silently march behind the horse-drawn carriage carrying their goods, the villagers, having been hastily informed by the stationmaster (Istvan Znamenak) that the two black-clad strangers are coming, start to worry or even panic.

The imperious, mustachioed town clerk, Istvan (Peter Rudolf), is outwardly defiant, continuing the preparations for the nuptials of his milquetoast son, Arpad (Bence Tasnadi), as if nothing were the matter. But even that is no easy task: The future bride, Rozsi (Dora Sztarenki), seems to love Arpi’s drugstore but it quickly becomes clear that her heart belongs to the sexually forward Jancsi (Tamas Szabo Kimmel), who speaks Russian and has no qualms about loving up either the Soviets or the bride-to-be.

Very different reactions in the parish are sometimes apparent under one roof: Bandi (Jozsef Szarvas), the village drunk, is wracked with guilt and wants to give everything back straight away. But his steely, overly pragmatic wife (Agi Szirtes) prefers to hide her newly “acquired” carpets and silverware in the basement. “If anyone asks, the stuff isn’t here, the Germans took it — or the Russians,” she says, exposing both her own selfishness and the chaos of the immediate postwar period that the characters were using to excuse their behavior.

The lean screenplay by Török and Szanto isn’t much interested in individual psychology. The film opens on Istvan, who feels closest to a traditional protagonist though he barely grows or changes over the course of the narrative. Similarly, the subplot involving Arpi, his wife-to-be, Rozsi, and her lover, Jancsi, feels rather perfunctory and clichéd in terms of its scant character development. But the film is interested in human behavior and group dynamics on a wider scale. For example, the love triangle, as contrasted with the actions and feelings of the villagers faced with the two strangers, highlights how people might be intellectually willing to do the right thing or to reasonably compromise. But in the end, reason might still have to make way for the devastating force of selfish desires.

As a portrait of group behavior leading down a gloomy path, the story is ugly but also quite familiar. It echoes Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold in the way the villagers' actions are almost preordained by a combination of their own positions and the expectations of others. But it never reaches the unsettling insight of either that novel or something like Haneke’s proto-Fascist parable The White Ribbon, also shot in black and white.

Instead, the drama’s restrained and solemn tone is occasionally interrupted by somewhat ungainly moments that border on the melodramatic — like Török focusing his camera on a pair of tiny shoes that belonged to a child who perished in the war; or Istvan accusing his bed-ridden wife (Eszter Nagy-Kalozy, Rudolf’s real-life spouse) of having slept with the Jewish friend he betrayed to the authorities. Thankfully, these off notes are few.

In terms of its look, 1945 is heavily indebted to films from the 1930s and '40s, especially in the way Török and cinematographer Ragalyi do their blocking and assemble elements visually within the frame. The convincingly lived-in sets and numerous exteriors are by ace architect and production designer Laszlo Rajk, who also worked on the recent Hungarian Oscar winner Son of Saul. Tibor Szemzö’s music evolves from a spare and sinister percussion theme to a more full-bodied score that incorporates traditional, Jewish-sounding strings as the strangers approach their tragic destination.

Production company: Katapult Film
Cast: Peter Rudolf, Bence Tasnadi, Tamas Szabo Kimmel, Dora Sztarenki, Agi Szirtes, Jozsef Szarvas, Eszter Nagy-Kalozy, Ivan Angelus, Marcell Nagy, Istvan Znamenak, Sandor Terhes
Director: Ferenc Török
Screenplay: Ferenc Török, Gabor T. Szanto, based on the short story The Homecoming by Gabor T. Szanto
Producers: Ivan Angeluzs, Peter Reich, Ferenc Török
Director of photography: Elemer Ragalyi
Production designer: Laszlo Rajk
Costume designer: Sosa Juristovszky
Music: Tibor Szemzö
Editor: Bela Barsi

Casting: Gabor Fischer
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)

Sales: HNFF World Sales

91 minutes