Postwar Hungary and its Jews

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

Peter Rudolf, left, portrays one of two Jews who returns to a Hungarian village after the war.
Peter Rudolf, left, portrays one of two Jews who returns to a Hungarian village after the war.

The train pulls into the depot, and we watch the stationmaster taking special note of who gets off.

The opening scene of a new Hungarian film seems to be straight out of Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 masterpiece, “High Noon.” Almost! In screenwriter Carl Foreman’s memorable screenplay, outlaw Frank Miller comes to Hadleyville with the clear intent of killing the man who sent him to prison. Now out of jail, he is in town for one reason only — to seek revenge on Sheriff Will Kane. Who in town will join with the sheriff to fight Miller and his gang?

In many ways, the movie was writer Carl Foreman’s contemporary commentary on an America that allowed citizens with unpopular views and associations to be blacklisted, shunned, and at times even imprisoned. Who came to their defense? Who was ready to fight for justice, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly? We quickly learn that the lawman is left very much on his own. Nobody seems ready to stand with him.

What writer Gabor Szanto and writer-director Ferenc Torok give us in their powerful new movie, “1945,” are two Jews coming to a Hungarian village to… what exactly are they going to do?

The war has ended, the Nazis are defeated, Soviet soldiers are keeping the peace. We see a black-hatted, black-cloaked older Jewish man with a nicely trimmed white beard getting off the train. He is accompanied by a youth in his late teens with dark scruff on his face, also black-hatted and black-cloaked.

These two are not outlaws, but they do seem to be outcasts, and certainly they are unwanted. Jews had not had a presence in this village since the day, not too long before, when they were herded away, most to their death, on those same train tracks. The stationmaster is stunned when the two arrive. Why are they there? Are they seeking out revenge of some kind? Who have they come to take on? Will the town stand strong in unity? Will the constable be left alone with these strangers? And what might be in the two heavy black crates that are pulled off the train and placed on a wagon? What exactly do these Jews want?

Off goes the railway official to warn the police chief and villagers as the two men begin their trek to town, walking behind what looks like a horse-drawn funeral caisson carrying the black crates.

This is Torok’s sixth film, and he does a splendid job of showing us the perspectives of various villagers who follow the wagon and watch its Jewish escorts arrive in town. He is a master of creating shots through windows, doors, and cracks, allowing us to come up with our own interpretation of what each observer sees.

There is no color; cinematographer Elemer Ragalyi effectively uses black and white to create striking visual textures.

It has not been long since Jews lived comfortably among these villagers, so why such curiosity? So what if two Jews come into town? Exactly what is the point of Szanto’s story? We will learn that there are many stories, apparently tales that most people in the hamlet might have hoped would be buried and lost. This film seems intent on making sure that some of those accounts are shared, and that nobody forgets them.

I was fortunate to meet both Torok and Szanto in New York last week. Szanto, a novelist, poet, and editor of a monthly Jewish journal in Budapest, had written the short story upon which the film is based 13 years ago. He spent the next decade working with Torok on adapting it for cinema. I asked Szanto, a Jew, and Torok, a non-Jew, why they made the film. They told me that they wanted to “move in a totally new direction in a telling of the post-Holocaust period in Hungary.” They chose to “parallel a story of returning survivors with that of guilty villagers.”

I asked them how the film was received in Hungary, and whether they were at all concerned by the perceived move to the right these last years. In 2014, 20 percent of Hungarians voted for Jobbik, a party often compared to the pro-Nazi Iron Cross of the war years. The two kept reassuring me that although the film looks at how Jews were treated both during and immediately after the war, it was widely applauded in Hungary. Audiences and critics accepted it and loved it, they told me. And there were no death threats.

“1945” is a powerful observation on what Jews who survived the war in Europe and returned to their homes found when they got home. Some found temporary hospitality that waned with the years, and some suffered indescribable cruelty and tragedy. They were left with unavoidable questions: What did the non-Jews who watched their neighbors, friends, and business partners sent off to die think? What did they do? What happened to the homes the Jews left behind? What happened to their belongings?

In “1945,” two Jews return. They may not be the same Jews who had left just months before, but in any event, they are back. Would the town sheriff gather the townspeople and seek justice? Would he be left alone to investigate, or simply fend off these Jewish interlopers? And what of his responsibility for upholding the law?

“1945” is beautifully photographed, raises important questions, and gives us a perspective on a Hungary seemingly ready to tackle difficult questions. I highly recommend it.

Film historian Eric Goldman writes and lectures on aspects of Jewish cinema.

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