Featuring striking black-and-white lensing that imbues potent compositions with foreboding, Magyar multihyphenate Ferenc Török’s finely performed “1945” takes on a transitional time in Hungarian history with subtlety and nuance: It’s a sweltering day in August, and two Orthodox Jews’ arrival in a remote Hungarian village catalyzes an unwelcome reckoning with the recent past for the local inhabitants. Like compatriot director László Nemes’ “Son Of Saul,” the gripping period drama offers a fresh, intelligent cinematic approach to a difficult topic, and should appeal to niche art house audiences in most territories. Menemsha Films has already snapped up North American rights.
The sober-looking strangers, white-bearded Hermann Sámuel (Iván Angelus), and his son (Marcell Nagy) arrive on a day already filled with tensions. Reedy young pharmacy manager Arpad (Bence Tasnádi), the son of domineering village notary István (Péter Rudolf, impressively alternating between the unctuous and the pugilistic) is due to marry pretty peasant girl Kisrózsi (Dóra Sztarenki).
Although Kisrózsi dumped her previous fiancé Jancsi (Tamás Szabó Kimmel) for the chance to join the bourgeoisie, she is still clearly attracted to Jancsi’s cocky masculinity and muscular good looks. Kisrózsi’s true feelings are all too clear to Arpad’s scornful, drug-addicted mother, Anna (Eszter Nagy-Kálózy), who is not happy that her future daughter-in-law is more attracted by the earnings potential of the drugstore than by love for her milquetoast son. Meanwhile, Soviet soldiers not yet tired of claiming the spoils of war lurk on the sidelines, wondering how they can enrich themselves in the village through the daily business of Occupation.
The Sámuels procession resembles a funeral cortege as the dignified family walks silently behind the horse-drawn cart driven by Suba (Miklós B. Szekely, a familiar face from Béla Tarr’s “Satantango”) that carries their mysterious, wooden-crated goods from the train station. Their cavalcade draws all eyes, from those of the station master (István Znamenák), under orders from István to follow them, to the workers harvesting in the fields; from the men drinking in the pubs to the women preparing the wedding feast. Eventually, the reasons that the Sámuels’ appearance creates so much consternation are compellingly revealed.
For those who know their European history, it’s no spoiler to say that many provincial villagers in Hungary and elsewhere profited from the deportation of their Jewish neighbors. Director Török and co-writer Gábor T. Szántó, upon whose acclaimed short story “Homecoming” this screenplay is based, concentrate on the point-of-view of the locals, almost all of whom, including the priest (Béla Gados), share guilty secrets about ill-gotten gains. For some, such as the drunkard Bandi (József Szarvas), remorse becomes overwhelming. While for others, such as Bandi’s wife (Ági Szirtes), the determination to keep her comfortable new home and fine furnishings, including traditional Jewish candelabra and Hebraic art, overrides any compunction. But it’s the increasingly embattled István who has the most to lose.
Nothing in helmer Török’s previous filmography would predict his virtuosity here. In a film with surprisingly little dialogue, a fine ensemble cast, including real-life married couple Rudolph and Nagy-Kálózy, convincingly enables this dissection of village life and matters of conscience to be more shown than told. Key to the impact is the superb lensing of veteran DP Elemér Ragályi. The mirrored opening shot, a close-up of István shaving with a straight razor, establishes a sustained tone of impending doom, while his beautifully composed images, frequently framed through gauzy linen curtains, windows, doors, and fences, heighten visual interest.
Also deserving of praise are the spare, melancholy score that at times recalls forgotten Jewish melodies from Tibor Szemzö (“The Tree of Life”), the spot-on period production design by Dorka Kiss, and the believably lived-in costume work of Sosa Juristovszky.