January 20, 2019

‘1945’ Examines Postwar Angst in Hungary

An ancient train, belching black smoke, pulls into a station near an unnamed Hungarian village and out step two Orthodox Jews. Not losing a moment, the stationmaster sounds the alarm: “The Yids are coming!”

The year — and the title of the movie — is “1945,” a time when the inhabitants of the village and the rest of their countrymen have arrived at a junction in history and are unsure which path to follow.

While Hungary’s Holocaust-themed movie “Son of Saul” won the Academy Award for foreign-language film two years ago, exhibiting the full horror of the Shoah and its concentration camps, the postwar “1945” probes the potential for greed and selfishness in every human being.

“We are the third postwar generation,” director Ferenc Torok said in a phone interview from Budapest. “And a lot of people are asking what their parents and grandparents did during the world war.”

The film takes place in the middle of summer as the villagers till their fields, smoke and drink endlessly, and prepare for the wedding of the son of a domineering town clerk to a pretty peasant girl. Nazi Germany had surrendered two months earlier, in May, and while some Soviet troops have arrived, the Communist puppet government has not yet assumed power.

The two arriving Jews — the older clad in a black coat and hat and his adult son wearing a workman’s cap and clothing — unload two large trunks and hire a horse-drawn cart and its driver to carry their load for the hourlong trip to the village, while father and son follow behind on foot.

As the odd procession wends its way through the countryside, the stationmaster’s warning stokes the villagers’ fears that the survivors among their former Jewish neighbors now will demand the return of the houses, businesses and furniture they left behind when they were deported to concentration camps. That means the town clerk would no longer own the drug store and his wife could no longer glory in the beautiful rugs, dishes and silver menorah of the previous owner.

“1945” probes the potential for greed and selfishness in every human being.

In the ensuing panic, some try to hide their ill-gotten gains, while others put their hopes in papers, signed by the pro-Nazi wartime government, “officially” transferring the abandoned homes and goods to the gentile neighbors.

When horse, cart and the “Yids” arrive at the village, women peek through shutters, the pharmacist tries to hide his tubes and bottles. Rumors spread that the trunks contain perfumes and beauty aids to sell to the village women.

Finally, the cart and two men arrive at the gates of the abandoned Jewish cemetery. The younger Jew, with a concentration camp number tattooed on his forearm, takes a key out of his pocket and opens the rusty gate, as a posse of hostile villagers gathers nearby. Inside the cemetery, father and son open the trunks and bury the unexpected contents. In the final scene, the two strangers reboard the train, their mission accomplished.

The result is a masterfully directed, acted and photographed movie, which again disproves predictions that the time of the Holocaust-themed movie has expired, even as the last eyewitnesses are dying.

Torok, who is not Jewish, said that part of the continued interest in a place like Hungary, whose Jewish population was decimated during the war, has to do with the fact that for many years while the nation was a Communist satellite, the subject of the Holocaust — and particularly the participation of many Hungarians in it — was taboo. The same applied to the collaboration of many Hungarians with Hitler’s regime, as German and Hungarian troops fought together in the invasions of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.

The film started as a short story by Hungarian Jewish writer Gabor T. Szanto, titled “Homecoming,” which won the Yad Vashem Avner Shalev Prize for best artistic representation of a Holocaust-related topic. Torok, relying on Szanto’s intimate knowledge of Jewish life and rituals, asked him also to write the screenplay.

In a separate phone interview, Szanto, editor of the Hungarian-Jewish magazine “Szombat” (Sabbath), made a number of observations on Hungarian Jewry, past but mostly present.

“The Holocaust is still the cornerstone of our thinking, not only for Hungary’s 80,000 Jews (compared with 450,000 before World War II) but to every other Nazi-occupied nation,” he said. “This film is really Europe’s story.”

In general, Hungarian Jews, like their American counterparts, tend to be liberals and left-leaning and they are concerned by their country’s political shift to the right, Szanto said. Among the worrisome signs is the growing strength of the nationalistic Jobbik party.

Another sign is the recent public poster campaign by the Hungarian government, depicting George Soros, a Hungarian-American and Jewish billionaire and philanthropist, as the mastermind of a massive of influx of illegal immigrants from the Middle East into Hungary.

“As a writer, I am a bit of an outsider and try to look at Hungary and its Jewish community realistically,” Szanto said. “We have many problems, but I don’t think they can be solved by ideologies. We can believe in ideals, but our solutions must be realistic. You can’t change human nature.”

“1945” begins screening on Nov. 25 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center in Encino, as well as Westpark 8 in Irvine. On Dec. 8, the film will open at the Laemmle’s Claremont 5 in Claremont.