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Two strangers come to town, and the tension starts to build, out on the streets and behind closed doors and curtained windows. There’s a sense that we are moving, inexorably, toward a showdown.

This might sound like the plot of an old-school western, but in fact, the quiet, concentrated, meticulously made 1945 (in Hungarian, with English subtitles) is a Holocaust film. Setting the story just after the war has ended, director Ferenc Török, who co-scripted with Gábor T. Szántó, examines the moral weight of history by looking at one small Hungarian village.

The two strangers who come to town are Jews (Iván Angelusz and Marcell Nagy), bearing two trunks that are said to contain dry goods, cosmetics and perfume.

Those trunks might as well contain dynamite, for the effect they have.

The two men are not recognized by the townsfolk. ("Beards and hats," says the station master, when asked to describe them.) But they come to stand in for all Jews, and especially those Jewish families who once lived in the town and were rounded up during the war by the Germans, sometimes aided — as we learn — by Hungarian collaborators. Afterwards, the businesses, houses and belongings of these Jewish families were transferred to their neighbours under spurious legal cover.

Town clerk István Szentes (Péter Rudolf) worries about his town’s unwelcome visitors, while Mr. and Mrs. Kustár linger in the background, in a scene from the Hungarian film 1945. (Lenke Szilagyi / Menemsha Films)</p>

Town clerk István Szentes (Péter Rudolf) worries about his town’s unwelcome visitors, while Mr. and Mrs. Kustár linger in the background, in a scene from the Hungarian film 1945. (Lenke Szilagyi / Menemsha Films)

As the men walk, solemn and silent, behind the cart loaded with their trunks, they become enigmatic screens onto which the townspeople project all their buried feelings — guilt, grief, fear, defiant hostility.

The wealthy town clerk (Péter Rudolf), a fake populist with a streak of petty authoritarianism, worries the unexpected arrivals might threaten the wedding day of his son (Bence Tasnádi), who is set to marry a determined young peasant girl (Dóra Sztarenki).

We also track the varying reactions of several other characters: the clerk’s despairing, opiate-addicted wife, a brash young communist supporter and the town alcoholic, who is drunk on brandy and self-recrimination and saying out loud the things everyone else is thinking. Meanwhile, his wife hides the Sabbath candles that have come with their new home, fearing the strangers have come to claim them.

Even as the townspeople attempt to put the chaos of the past behind them, present conflicts intrude. Intermittent radio broadcasts suggest infighting between socialists and communists, nationalists and reactionaries. And though the Germans are gone, Russian soldiers are moving in.

In contrast to the horrors of his subject, Török chooses a rigorously controlled, formally beautiful style. The film is shot in high-contrast black and white, yielding a sense of detail that can be both stunning and pitiless. The contemporary score by Tibor Smemzö, which incorporates train whistles, church bells, the buzzing of insects, bird calls and other ambient noise, is sometimes killingly effective and sometimes just distracting.

Török’s decision to suggest the enormity of the war and the Holocaust by focusing on a simple, almost parable-like story isn’t completely successful. At times, the film feels compressed, with characters remaining opaque and plot points tying up too neatly.

But at its best, the restraint works. The darkness of wartime reaches not only into one day in August. In this muted but powerful film, Török is also commenting, obliquely but effectively, on the rise of far-right nationalism and anti-Semitism in present-day Hungary.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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