A train arrives in a Hungarian village. It’s 1945 and a hot summer’s day when the appearance of two Jewish men, one old and one young, stirs up guilty memories in the town.
That’s the premise of the film “1945,” which won both the audience award and the critics’ award for best narrative at last year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and which is now opening for a limited run in U.S. theaters, including in the Bay Area where it opens on April 20.
Many critics have mentioned the Western feeling to the film, something the director said was deliberate. “It’s not only a Jewish movie, it’s a Western movie,” Török said in an interview, adding that he loves the 1952 film “High Noon” starring Gary Cooper.
Török said his film was inspired by a short story written by his friend and fellow Hungarian intellectual, Gábor T. Szántó, the editor of Jewish Hungarian magazine Szombat. “When I read that short story, I feel, ‘It’s a Western,’” said the director, who is not Jewish himself.
The story was only 15 pages, leaving space for the visual elements that Török said are most important to him, including the atmospheric depictions of heat, water, smoke and storm that build up throughout the film in between the few conversations. Szántó is credited as screenwriter.
“Silence is really important for the movie,” Török said. “It’s not a dialogue time. We are in a different universe.”
The film, which has elements of a thriller and a Greek drama, is set at a time when the country is transitioning from the end of World War II to the beginning of the Communist era, represented by a few telling shots of young Russian soldiers caroming around in a Jeep. There is also the central role of the town clerk, a small-town bully who not only has survived the war years but has thrived. He’s portrayed by a well-known Hungarian comedian, Péter Rudolf, playing against type.
“Nobody recognized him,” Török said.
Also circling through the drama are secondary characters — a policeman, a young and ambitious woman, a guilty drunk — all caught up in the web of deceit that clinging to silence brings in a small community, where everyone knows each other’s secrets.
And drifting through the film, never forgotten, are the figures of the two Jewish men.
“They are not professional actors,” Török said; one is a modern dancer and choreographer and the other a photographer. And yet both are mesmerizing. Neither is absolutely new to the screen, but Iván Angelus, the dancer who plays the older Jewish man, brings to life the story of the Holocaust through some stony glances and a half-dozen, mostly trivial lines of dialogue.
In spite of the fact that digging into that silence is, as Török puts it, “taboo,” the film has had a positive reception across Europe and in the U.S. Besides the San Francisco awards, it also won prizes in Israel, Austria, Germany and Australia. Even in Hungary, where around 568,000 Jews died in the Holocaust but talking about or taking responsibility for those crimes is unpopular, the film has been well received.
Török thinks that’s because the time is finally right to take a more profound look at the past and how it haunts the present — he calls “1945” a “21st-century film.”
“That’s why you can go deeper and deeper,” he said. “Ask about the Holocaust, and that time, and the aftermath.”