In the film 1945, two men dressed in black arrive by train. They barely speak, they hardly introduce themselves. Like so many American Westerns before them, their mystery becomes a threat to the sense of normalcy among the locals. But this isn’t America, and neither of these men are played by Clint Eastwood. The year is the titular 1945 and the location is a small town in Hungary, mere months after the Nazi surrender in World War Two. The sense of peace is so fresh that the Japanese have still not given up. Little do these men, or the citizens of this small town know, that whatever sense of peace they have felt in the last few months is about to be shattered.
At first, the absence of a defined motive from these men in black is interesting…then it becomes irritating, as you wait for the film’s momentum to take off. Then it becomes essential, as we get to watch the townspeople squirm over what they think is suggested by their arrival. The two men appear to be Orthodox Jews, and the townspeople, led by town clerk Istvan (Peter Rudolf) have had a dark recent history when it comes to their Jewish citizens, as have most small towns in Eastern Europe at this time. In the unknown, this history bubbles up to the surface as frenzy and chaos spread like an airborne contagion. In addition, it’s bad timing, as Istvan is marrying off his daughter to the son of the local drug store owner.
I had a professor who once told my class “when you sit in silence, whatever discomfort you feel is entirely your own.” The men arrived are less characters than they are spectres of guilt, ghosts of horrors past. They walk slowly from the train station to the town, yet purposefully, as if from beyond the grave. The stories the townspeople are making up about their intentions are mere projections, yet still reflective of the actions they took during the war; the ways in which they were complicit and benefited from the fascist takeover. Like the commoners in a Bresson or Bergman film, they suffer under the weight of their time and let their own discretions eat away at them. The cold, hard judgment of the director Ferenc Torok, taking up the position of an old testament God, is felt in every scene.
Shot in a gorgeous black and white, the film is a great looking piece of cinema. It is over and done with in 90 minutes, unfolding practically in real time. It feels in conversation with films like Phoenix or Ida, other recent movies that grappled with the lies and deceptions people committed to survive during the war- and the high price they pay when the truth comes to light. As we live in a worrying time in our own country, one can’t help but wonder how we will look back on it whenever it will come to an end. In that fashion,1945 serves as an unsentimental warning to anyone who reaps the rewards of fascism from the comfortable sidelines while oppressed people suffer.
1945 opens at the Ritz Five theaters today.