A train spewing noxious black smoke crawls into a rural station. Two Jews dressed in black debark, with a couple large crates.They engage a horse-drawn cart to transport their cargo. Declining to ride in the cart, they prefer to walk behind it, slowly. Of their purpose or destination, we learn little more until the very end of the film -- we scarcely see or hear them again, and we never learn their identity. But it is Hungary, August 1945, and their arrival shatters an entire village.
If you appreciate the storytelling of István Szabó ("Sunshine") or the exquisite eye of Miklós Jancsó ("The Red and the White"), or the long trajectory of Hungarian directorial aesthetics, or just solid filmmaking, "1945" is food for the senses. Ferenc Török employs a richly toned black-and-white camera to generate beautiful André Kertész-like images in every frame. But Manó Kaminer (better known in America as Michael Curtiz, director of "Casablanca" and other iconic films) is perhaps a nearer forebear, because this is a genre film, like "3:10 to Yuma" or "High Noon" only in reverse: strangers arrive and a town melts down within hours.
This town displays few scars of war. Its very ordinariness suggests that there are many other towns just like it. Occupying Russian soldiers jaunt about in a jeep, taunting one of the Jews, pestering young women, and warily tolerated by the locals; but apart from this harbinger of change and an ebullient recently-returned partisan soldier, time and custom seem stuck in the Austro-Hungarian imperial era. An elaborate wedding,
mounted by the town's leading citizen for his son and fiancée,will begin at 3pm. Then a messenger arrives in haste, and word spreads: "They're back". Nobody needs to identify who "they" are, and nobody expected "them" to ever return. This town denounced, betrayed (in one case by a "best friend"), and deported its Jews during the German occupation, enabling villagers to seize their homes and businesses. As the onion of local history is unpeeled during the course of this day, virtually the entire town, motivated by greed, is revealed as complicit in crimes which they themselves recognize constitute murder. Their complacency that their actions are irreversible and that they are "safe" is reflected in their failure to conceal their tracks, to disappear the wall clock with Hebrew numbers and Star of David, or the vacation photo albums of prosperous, apparently secular Jewish former residents. The two Orthodox Jews who arrive by train are complete strangers to the townsfolk, but they nonetheless present an implicit threat that ostensible "gains" (under a defeated regime) may be reversed, and that "they" have returned to reclaim Jewish possessions or, biblically and far worse, to punish. In anticipation, some townspeople are riven with guilt, others escape through alcohol or ether addiction, still others insist upon the legality, however concocted or discredited, of their newly acquired property "rights". Revelation engenders revelation, several reckonings ensue, and the townspeople finally scapegoat the biggest winner among them, to evade collective responsibility -- he richly deserves punishment, but so do many others, from priests to police to perjurers. There is no moral resolution, merely ongoing hypocrisy and a final, shuddering deceit in a cemetery. If Török offers any conclusion, it is that Nazi defeat changed nothing.
The core plot is inexorably predictable, melodramatic, and somewhat flawed. The two travelers, supposedly accompanied by crates of "fragrances", perhaps jewelry and perfume, don't really bear the weight of the town's hysteria and panic upon arrival -- they are simply "mysterious" (until, rather anticlimactically, they aren't). The Russian soldiers may unsettle some townspeople because Russia's attitude toward restitution and Nazi-era atrocities or collaborator culpability is unclear, but that is speculation -- otherwise they simply represent outsiders, and these villagers explicitly wish outsiders to "drop dead". A subsidiary love triangle adds little beyond a conflagration born of frustration (masquerading rather nonsensically as revenge) -- lives warped by war. However, the film's flaws are confined mainly to the script, and not fatal. Török's actors perform with nuance. The cinematography, which insistently peeks and pries past barriers to reveal, is particularly artful and engaging. This is not a trivial film.