Greed, evil exposed in Hungarian village in ‘1945’

Hermann Sámuel (Iván Angelus) and his son (Marcell Nagy) walk through the Hungarian countryside towards the village.

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

“1945” is a haunting drama from Hungarian director Ferenc Török that takes place in a small village shortly after the end of World War II. It is a tale of guilt and greed, revealing what was done to the Jewish population by their neighbors during the war. 

In 1945, shortly after the Russians have driven out the Nazis, two men dressed in black arrive in a quaint Hungarian village on the day the village is expecting to celebrate the wedding of the son of a wealthy, influential citizen. Town Clerk István Szentes (Péter Rudolf) is more like the mayor as well as its most prosperous and prominent citizen. István is preparing for his son’s wedding that afternoon, but preparations stop when he gets word about the arrival of the two strangers.

Who these men are, one old and one young, is not clear, but they seem to be Orthodox Jews. The older man (Iván Angelus) gives his name as Hermann Sámuel and indicates that the younger one (Marcell Nagy) is his son. The name does not match any of the town’s Jewish former residents, and no one recognizes the newcomers. Nonetheless, the news shocks the politician, who fears they may be heirs to some of the village’s deported Jewish families  and have come to take their property back. 

The quaint, quiet village seems somehow untouched by the war. But the strangers’ arrival changes that impression, as residents are gripped with sudden fear and guilt. Everyone is asking: Will more Jews arrive? 

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With starkly beautiful, high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, “1945” is a riveting drama filled with powerful, complex performances that eloquently reveal a dirty secret found in towns across Europe. The film is based on the lauded short story “Homecoming” by Gábor T. Szántó. But the story reflects what happened in many places during the war, not just Hungary, spotlighting the role that the greed and envy of non-Jewish neighbors played in what happened to Jewish families throughout Nazi-occupied Europe.

Török treats this story like a mystery, slowly uncovering the rot  beneath the village’s orderly veneer. The plot reveals treachery and collusion among the villagers, who exploited the plight of Jewish neighbors for their own material gain during the war. 

The village is divided on how to react now, with the town drunk (József Szarvas) saying, “We have to give it all back.” This is a prospect that strikes terror in some hearts. As the film progresses, it is revealed that these townspeople did more than simply stand by as their Jewish neighbors were sent to concentration camps. 

Tension is high in this suspenseful drama. Török handles the story brilliantly, teasing us as he unleashes horrifying tidbits of information. The black-and-white imagery captures just the right tone for this period tale and deepens the feeling of foreboding.

While István  obsesses about the past, an uncertain future looms unnoticed. The town is occupied by the Russian army, and István is only mildly interested in the upcoming election, which will sweep the communists into power and transform the villagers’ comfortable traditional life.

Although István seems to have profited the most, everyone in town seems to bear some guilt. Some are defiant in their claims to stolen property, but other are wracked with remorse over the evil done. 

The acting is excellent, with actors peeling back the layers of complex relationships built on evil deeds, which begin to crumble as facts and truth are forced to the surface. Rudolf is particularly good as the oily, bullying town clerk, as is Szarvas as his hard-drinking lackey crushed by his regrets. Ági Szirtes is also solid as the lackey’s wife, seized with fear she will lose the house she lives in, still surrounded by the possessions of its Jewish former owner. 

But perhaps the most moving performance is that of Angelus as the older Jewish man, in which he conveys volumes of meaning and feeling without a single word. 

The director plays a cat-and-mouse game with the audience, keeping us off balance until the end. “1945” is a brilliant film, and a powerful, moving reminder of both the power of greed and the evil that can take place under the cover of wartime.