Culture Report

Fi l m S p o r t s D a n ce Ar t Fo o d M u s i c

Ferenc Török’s provocative movie captures a transformative
moment in European history By Tibor Krausz

ON A hot summer day in August 1945, a “Two for now,” comes the answer.
steam locomotive pulls into a small country “There’s no getting rid of these people,” the
station. Off the train step a couple of pen- gendarme laments.
sively taciturn men dressed in black coats: Until recently, we learn, there were Jews
a bearded patriarch in a black fedora and living in the village, but they’re all gone and
a clean-shaven younger man in a flat cap. presumed dead. They have been deported
They’re bringing two wooden crates, whose with help from some of the villagers who
contents are unknown and which they han- have seized the Jews’ vacant property: a
dle with fastidious care. home, a drugstore, a motorcycle, among
The men begin to make their way on them.
dusty roads toward a nearby no-name vil- “We have to give it all back,” insists one
lage, walking wordlessly behind a horse- villager, who lives in the house of a family
drawn wagon they’ve hired to transport of Jewish deportees, the Polláks. He’s visi-
their crates. bly wracked with guilt for having assisted in
Cut to scenes in the village where locals their deportation. “Everything will come to
are getting ready for a wedding. They’re as Director Ferenc Török light!” he predicts mournfully.
yet unaware of the strangers whose arrival The town clerk, who helped send the
will shortly cause sparks to fly. Polláks to their deaths and now owns their
This is a classic Western setup with the square at noon in summer heat. You have drugstore, will have none of it. He will keep
time-honored trope of silent strangers, their men in hats. You have secrets, a clash of that store whatever the two Jewish strangers
purpose unknown, coming to town. Shot in personalities, and a showdown at the end.” may want. “Let bygones be bygones,” he
black and white, the film has an extra period Word of the two Jewish men heading says, then curses Jews under his breath. But
feel à la “Stagecoach” and “High Noon.” toward the village travels fast, causing an what if the two out-of-towners have come to
Yet the Hungarian movie “1945” is no instant stir, panic even. “The Jews have take revenge?
shoot-’em-up. Nor are the two strangers come,” the film’s main protagonist, a mer-
itinerant gunslingers. They’re Orthodox curial town clerk, announces portentously. THE FILM’S plot takes place over a few
Jews, a father and his son, who arrive for a A portly, mustachioed man with a bald pate hours in a single day as if unfolding in real
simple reason. topped by a black hat, he dashes off to see time. It deals with a transformative moment
“In imagery and basic elements there’s the village’s gendarme – or sheriff, if you in Hungary’s history within a small commu-
definitely a Western style there,” Ferenc will. “They’re back!” the clerk informs him nity caught up in the epochal realignment of
Török, the film’s Hungarian in a furtive whisper. Central Europe’s political landscape. Hun-
director who is a recognized “How many are there?” the gendarme, gary is perched precariously between two
auteur in his homeland, suddenly agitated, wants to know. He’s opposing ideological realities. The home-
tells The Jerusalem Re- garbed in a black tunic in the style of the grown reign of irredentism and fascism,
port. “You have a railway country’s fascist Arrow Cross movement in which many Hungarians were willing
station. You have a town and sports a suitably baleful mien. accomplices in Nazi Germany’s crimes,

A still from the movie ‘1945’ showing the two Jewish protagonists at a railway station in rural Hungary

has just come to a violent end. Communist head, he’s a petty official of the kind Hun- Some feel remorse; others don’t.
rule is becoming entrenched with the Soviet garians call “little kings” – politicos and “In the film we see people who wanted to
Union now firmly in control of the country functionaries who, by dint of their status usurp the property of Jews,” explains Gábor
– a fact made manifest in the film by Rus- and position, enrich themselves and lord it T. Szántó, a Jewish Hungarian author who
sian Red Army soldiers driving insolently over others. wrote the film’s screenplay. A novelist and
around the village in a military jeep. His features frequently frozen in a su- essayist, Szántó is editor of the Jewish mag-
Inhabiting this political no man’s land, percilious scowl, Szentes is small-minded, azine Szombat (“Shabbat”) in Budapest.
locals are caught in a limbo of uncertainty. self-aggrandizing, cocksure and callous. He “We see people who took Jewish property
Into this milieu step the two Jewish strang- has no redeeming qualities. He even beats but want to give it back. We see people who
ers. Not long ago Jews were in hiding and his wife, who self-medicates by sniffing won’t give it back,” he goes on. “We also
at the mercy of their neighbors; now they morphine. She rails at him for having sent see people who are ashamed they didn’t
move about in public unmolested again. his best friend, a Jewish neighbor, to his help their Jewish neighbors.”
None of this is stated explicitly in the film, death so Szentes could confiscate his Jew- The two Jews themselves, Sámuel Her-
but we get inklings of it from snippets of ish friend’s apothecary. He’s a cardboard mann and his son (who is left anonymous),
crisp dialogue. “It’s a new world now,” the villain. remain enigmatic figures throughout the
clerk observes. “It doesn’t matter who’s movie. We never learn who they are and
a lord and who’s a peasant.” A pregnant YET THE picture that emerges of the villag- where they came from. They leave as they
pause. “So long as he’s a Magyar.” ers in general is more nuanced. “We tried arrived: shrouded in mystery. In between,
“1945” is a tale of moral reckoning, yet to condense a complex society into a single they rarely say a word and spend most of
it isn’t your usual morality play – certain- village,” Török explains. Some villagers, we the film walking silently, like penitential
ly not one without ambiguity. To be sure, learn, turned on their Jewish neighbors out pilgrims, behind the horse-drawn wagon, on
there is the stock villain: the clerk, István of avarice. Others abandoned their Jewish which they refuse to sit, until the denoue-
Szentes, played by Hungarian actor Péter friends out of fear. Still others acted against ment at a Jewish cemetery. Their mere pres-
Rudolf. The small community’s de facto local Jews under duress from the town clerk. ence, however, serves to send villagers into


Even in Jewish literary
circles in Hungary
you can sense a of several literary journals in Hungary when
the writer first sought to get it published
reluctance to deal in 2004. Some of those editors were Jews

themselves. “They treated me as a strange
with certain issues. bird who kept on writing about subjects they
didn’t want,” he tells The Report. “Even in
People want to forget Jewish literary circles in Hungary you can
sense a reluctance to deal with certain is-
sues. People want to forget. They don’t want
frantic bouts of recrimination, denial and to dwell on the past.”
confession. Not so Szántó. He doesn’t want to for-
“The two Jewish men in the film are on a get and he wants to dwell on the past. “As
spiritual journey,” Török says. “They’re on a writer I’ve always been interested in the Jewish self-reflection in the younger gener-
a mission.” aftermath of traumatic and historic events ations,” he posits. “The absence of Jewish
Here and there, creative camerawork from a Jewish perspective,” he says. “What self-reflection will lead to the dead end of
with lingering long shots, courtesy of vet- happens to Jews after the Holocaust? What assimilation.”
eran Hungarian cinematographer Elemér happens to Jews during decades of commu- “Homecoming” was itself born of his
Ragályi, lends the two Jewish characters an nism? What happens to Jews after the end of drive to make up for that absence. “I was
exquisite, almost ethereal quality. En route communism [in 1989]?” intrigued by the recollections of survivors
to their as yet unknown destination in town about how they were greeted and treated af-
with an unstated purpose, they often appear YET EVERYWHERE he’s looked in Hun- ter they returned from the camps,” he says.
as small wraith-like figures in silhouette. It’s gary, he’s discovered taboos. “Generally, Szántó could start asking about that right
as if, having returned from the dead, they’re people don’t want to think about Jewishness at home. Both his grandfathers died on the
haunting the villagers with their presence as a separate identity,” he notes. Thus, as- eastern front while serving in Jewish labor
in defiance of those who, just months ago, similation remains a largely unexplored top- battalions. His father and mother, who both
would have murdered them. ic in local Jewish literary circles. So does came from Szeged in southeastern Hunga-
In one recurring shot, the father and son local Holocaust survivors’ collective loss ry, survived the Holocaust as children after
tread slowly and silently through a thin line of Jewish identity during postwar decades being deported with their mothers to a con-
of pancake-flat horizon stretching across when communist ideology, official policy centration camp in Strasshof near Vienna,
the top of the screen. They’re tiny figures and state propaganda combined to erase all Austria. When his father and his grand-
dwarfed by a large field of stubble in the differences between people with diverse mother returned to Szeged, they found a
foreground. Whether so intended or not, ethnic and religious backgrounds. “These Hungarian family living in their home.
this poignant image is a powerful visual are the issues I’ve wanted to address in my Similar scenarios of loss and disposses-
mnemonic of the tragedy that befell Eu- writing,” Szántó says. sion played out across much of Europe from
rope’s Jews in WWII: the handful of survi- Partly in jest, Szántó calls himself “the Belgium to Poland: Jews who survived
vors returned to find nothing last Jewish writer in Hungary,” meaning a death camps returned home to find their
but desolation. Jewish author who writes consistently about homes occupied by people who had either
The film is based on Jewish themes. “There are no young Jewish assisted in sending Jews to their deaths or
Szántó’s elegiac short sto- Hungarian writers, people in their thirties helped themselves opportunistically to their
ry “Homecoming,” which and forties, who focus on these subjects,” possessions. “‘1945’ isn’t a Hungarian sto-
was rejected by the editors Szántó, who is 51, laments. “There’s no real ry,” Szántó notes. “It’s a European story.”

A still from the film showing the story’s villain,
a town clerk, played by Hungarian actor
Péter Rudolf

and has since been going from strength to fate. Recently, the Central European na-
strength, winning a series of awards at many tion’s increasingly autocratic Prime Minis-
of the indie, art and Jewish film festivals ter Viktor Orbán lauded Horthy, a staunch
where it has been shown from Amsterdam ally of Hitler, as “an exceptional statesman.”
to New York to Athens. Meanwhile, members and supporters of
Boosted by its foreign success, the film Jobbik, a popular far-right party, openly traf-
is receiving plenty of attention in Hungary fic in antisemitic and anti-Israel innuendo.
as well. Some 40,000 people have already His film, Török says, is a “provocative
gone to see the film in the country, which treatment of a sensitive subject” in Hungary
has a population of under 10 million. The where the role of locals in the mass mur-
critical response to it has been overwhelm- der of Jews has long been either ignored or
ingly positive. “We’ve managed to open up vigorously whitewashed by portraying all
It’s also a largely unknown story. “I have something about an overlooked and inten- Hungarians as hapless victims of the Nazis’
to admit I never gave much thought to this tionally neglected period in the country’s crimes – this despite the fact that the country
episode in history,” Török, who is a Cath- past,” Szántó says. “I can’t claim we’ve remained a steadfast ally of Hitler’s Germa-
olic, concedes. “But when I read Gábor’s achieved a breakthrough but we’re fostering ny until the end. “Hungarians can’t keep on
novella, I instantly saw its potential as the debate about the year of 1945.” pretending that we were innocent virgins
basis for a film.” who were raped by the Germans against our
The director and the writer, who are long- MUCH OF THAT debate is taking place own will,” Török says. “We have to come to
time friends, started working on a movie along the usual ideological lines. “Some terms with our own culpability.”
based on “Homecoming” in 2005. It would people on the right say we were too critical Szántó concurs. “Hungarians can’t just
take them a decade, with several fits and of Hungarians in the film,” Szántó notes. point the finger at the Nazis,” the writer
starts, to complete the film. Their entire “Some on the left say we weren’t critical says. “They need to face up to their coun-
budget would amount to a mere 320 mil- enough.” try’s own role in the murder and deportation
lion forints ($1.2 million). They wrapped up In Hungary an almost schizophrenic at- of Hungarian Jews.” Yet we shouldn’t gen-
filming in 2015. titude prevails about the mass murder of eralize, either, by damning all Magyars for
Then: nothing. Hungarian Jews, some 600,000 of whom the crimes of some. “We mustn’t homoge-
“When we first released the film in Hun- perished in the war. Many of them were nize people,” he stresses. “Communities,
gary [last year], there was silence. There murdered during a few short months in 1944 even small ones, are complex and multilay-
wasn’t much interest,” Török recalls. after being deported en masse to Auschwitz ered societies.”
“‘1945’ deals with a subject that is still ta- with the aid of Hungarian fascists and their That is what, in essence, “1945” is about.
boo in Hungary,” he continues. “Local dis- all too willing local collaborators. Politi- “There were evildoers and opportunists
tributors weren’t exactly beating a path to cians in the ruling Fidesz party pay periodic [among Hungarians in the war],” Szántó
our door.” lip service to Hungary’s need to own up to explains. “But there were also people who
In February, the film was shown at the the crimes of many Magyars against their were sympathetic or were themselves trau-
67th Berlin International Film Festival in Jewish compatriots in the war. matized by being passive witnesses to the
Germany, where it received glowing plau- The same politicians, however, continue deportation and murder of Jews,” he says.
dits from foreign critics. “Superb! A beau- to lionize many of those, such as the coun- “We mustn’t take a single person, whether
tiful, gripping drama,” raved Variety, the try’s wartime dictator Admiral Miklós Hor- he helped Jews or murdered Jews, and de-
influential American entertainment trade thy, who helped deport Hungarian Jews or, clare that person to be representative of a
weekly. “1945” took off internationally at the very least, abandoned them to their whole society.”  