In the wake of World War II, a train arrives in a small Hungarian town, emitting thick, Stygian plumes of smoke that befoul the pristine air, symbolizing the way the villagers see outsiders as pollutants. There’s little gray area in the frame, just stark, ebony blacks and empty swaths of white. This is a world in flux, saturated in despair, purged of optimism. The locals are fearful of change and skeptical of outsiders. The town harbors a secret; there’s talk of giving something back to the Pollaks. Eerie ambient sounds moan, the gentle ding of what may be a distant death knoll. Two Orthodox Jews (Iván Angelus and Marcell Nagy) arrive with two mysterious crates. They’re delivering perfumes and cosmetics, ostensibly, but locals think something more ominous is happening. “They all look the same,” one man nervously intones. “Hats, beards.” The camera slowly zooms, the train blocking off one side of the frame while the bleached-white sky fills the negative space, and the effect is one of being trapped, squeezed.
With 1945, director Ferenc Török turns Gabot T. Szanto’s short story into a sparse, moody film about the trenchant paranoia of post-WWII, and the anti-Semitism that pervaded Europe. Rather than focus on the psychology or feelings of individuals, none of whom are thoroughly fleshed out, Török and Szanto explore the group dynamics and coalescence of contrasting reactions in a small, mournful community, in which melodrama and gossip proliferate as easily as fire from a bomb. The town clerk (Peter Rudolf), unperturbed by the strangers’ arrival, continues to prepare for the wedding of his son (Bence Tasnadi). The bride-to-be (Dora Sztarenki), who loves her fiancé’s drug store, as well as a licentious, sexually accomplished local (Tamás Szabó Kimme) to whom she’d been engaged, until she dumped him for the chance to marry the drug-store owner and assimilate into the bourgeoisie.
Nothing Török has previously directed insinuated the formal deftness on display here. The difference between the patient specificity of this film and the looseness of Moscow Square—a hazy, gangly film about high schoolers during the fall of the Iron Curtain—is jarring, and shows just how tremendously his visual artistry has grown in a short period of time. In cinematographer Elemér Ragályi, who grew up in a Hungarian village during WWII, Török has found a simpatico consort. 1945 is resoundingly gorgeous and bleak, a film whose identity rests solely on its look. The compositions sometimes bring to mind Bergman in their rigidity, though the camera often grows restless, much like the locals, and prowls, following the newly arrived strangers. The town is glimpsed through fence posts and windows and doorways, slivers of daily life laced with an indefinable menace: a man kisses a woman’s leg, working his way up her thighs as a voice on the radio cackles; a wagon trundles through the town, kicking up dust, drawing eyes; the woman washes off in the inside of her thighs in a basin; a sewing machine whirs, wedding dresses are tried on, cryptic warnings are offered. The distrust is infectious, and everyone seems embittered. “I’ve got a bad feeling,” the mother (Eszter Nagy-Kálózy) of the groom says, gazing through white curtains.
The fractured rhythm of 1945 and the desolate aesthetic are engrossing, but like those plumes of smoke, the film doesn’t linger. Török’s technique is impeccable, and individual shots and scenes are imbued with tremendous beauty, yet somehow he fails to carve out a unique identity. While tragedy inherently relies on the familiar, 1945 feels almost routine in its depiction of suffering, a traipse along oft-traveled roads without much to distinguish the journey from its forebears. For all the vivid photography and evocative music, there’s something pedestrian about the film’s literal encapsulation of Zionism and paranoia, an indistinct feeling enfolding the dexterous but emulous craftsmanship. It settles comfortably into the cornucopia of films about post-WWII anxiety, and comfort is the last thing this film strives for.