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1945 (2017) review

April 6, 2018

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written by: Gábor T. Szántó and Ferenc Török
produced by: Iván Angelusz, Péter Reich and Ferenc Török
directed by: Ferenc Török
rated: not rated
runtime: 91 min.
U.S. release date: October 24, 2017 (Chicago International Film Festival) & April 6, 2018 (Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL & Landmark’s Renaissance Place Cinema, Highland Park, IL)

 

Two mysterious men in black hats arrive by train near a remote village on a hot, dusty day in August.  It sounds like a Western, yet “1945” is a period piece set during the film’s titular year in Hungary from writer/director Ferenc Török, adapted from a short story from novelist Gábor T. Szántó. Filmed in beautiful stark, high contrast black-and-white, the tale told here unravels with a palpable degree of curiosity from every other character inhabiting this story, with equal measures of apprehension and uncertainty. There’s definitely an unexpected anticipation that builds throughout the film that found me leaning in a little closer as the story unfolds.

Despite black suits that match the hats, these visiting men are not bad guys with ill intent, they are actually a father, Herman Samuel (Ivan Angelus) and his adult son, also named Samuel (Marcell Nagy), Orthodox Jews who have come to transport large trunks into the nearby village. The father has arranged for a man in a horse-drawn flatbed wagon to meet them at the station, designed to carry the trunks which supposedly has perfume and cosmetics. As the pair slowly make their way to the village, the father insists that they walk behind the flatbed wagon that carries their cargo. Meanwhile, the stationmaster (István Znamenák) bicycles ahead of them to alert the locals at the town tavern, warning them, “They’re back”. 

 

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Concern amongst the townspeople spread, since some of them have taken over property and material that once belonged to the Orthodox Jews prior to the Holocaust. It becomes clear their concern stems from guilt, as residents become more and more unnerved as the visitors get closer. This unease is emphasized in the score Tibor Szemzö has composed, as the growing orchestration gnaws and buzzes underneath the film’s narrative. What soon becomes clear is how Török is establishing that there is a lot more going on in this village on this day than what we see at face value.

The town clerk, Szentes István (Péter Rudolf, who gained 33 pounds for the role), who would be the town sheriff in this Western, is preoccupied on this day, since it is the wedding day of his son, Szentes Árpád  (Bence Tasnádi), but when he learns of the new arrival, another concern is maintaining morale with the upcoming elections around the corner. At the same time, the town drunk (Jozsef Szarvas) is plagued with guilt as much as anyone else, telling István they need to give back everything that once belonged to the deported Jews. The bride to be, a pretty peasant girl named Kisrózsi (Dóra Sztarenki), is as on the fence as her uneasy groom, especially with her former lover (Tamás Szabó Kimmel) still lingering, having been invited to the wedding by István.

There is an assumption that the approaching Jews may be relatives of the those who once lived in the village, a line of thinking István entertains. It is eluded to that István had a hand in betraying the Jews who used to live among them, something his opiate-addicted wife (Eszter Nagy-Kalozy) holds him in contempt for. All of these complex characters come to a head as the village’s exterior begins to crack from the guilt and dark, yet recent past that weighs heavily on their conscience.

 

 

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Based on the acclaimed short story Homecoming by Gábor T. Szántó, the story told in “1945”  is one that wrestles internally with suspicions, fears and treachery from the past. It is a study of how guilt and grief can grow and permeate into a multitude of areas in one’s life. It’s a rare post-war story that looks at those a people who remain in a place long after witnessing horrors befall their neighbors, something they may have even perpetuated, tolerated even, for their own survival and gain. It’s definitely a challenging and layered picture that Török paints and he is assisted by a solid ensemble cast, who portray characters who are either still trying to mask what haunts them internally or have all but relinquished such restraint, even ready to leave the village altogether.

The striking cinematography from veteran Elemér Ragályi eloquently accentuates the environment, making the most of the rural locations in Hungary that were used. The art direction provided by Dorka Kiss and production design from another veteran, László Rajk, (both of whom worked on “Son of Saul”) provides a distinctive context to the time period, from the billowing black smoke of an old steam train to the details that go into a wedding reception. All of them assist Török, building an authentic environment for the actors to immerse themselves in, allowing them the freedom to disappear into their roles.

“1945” could be considered a Holocaust film, but it is one where the atrocities of war linger underneath a very real crisis of conscience. In the end, there are subtle lessons to be learned of atonement, grace and forgiveness.

The film came to Chicago last fall for the Chicago International Film Festival and is the sixth feature from Ferenc Török, who will be in town this weekend for Q&A’s that will follow each screening – at the Music Box Theatre tonight after the 7pm screening and Saturday following the 2pm and 4:30pm show time and then he will then be present at Landmark’s Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park, IL for the 7pm screening on Saturday April 7th and the 4pm and 7pm show times on Sunday, April 8th.

 

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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