1945 is a Hungarian film; the title refers to the year in which it is set.
The entire film takes place in a tiny village in the Hungarian countryside. It’s the kind of place where in the middle of the century motorized vehicles were still uncommon; we’re talking mostly horse-drawn vehicles and bicycles.
It’s August. The war in Europe has just ended, and the war in the Pacific is about to.
Two taciturn Jews, an older man and a younger man, perhaps father and son, arrive at the nearest train station and hire a horse and wagon to take them and the two large crates they have brought with them to the village.
Prior to their arrival, the villagers had other things on their mind. The son of the “town clerk” (who seems to be the main authority in the village, the equivalent of a mayor I suppose, and also a successful business owner) is to be married to a peasant girl. There’s some question as to how into this she is. It’s a marriage of advantage for her certainly, but she evidently still has a thing for another young man who we infer was absent from the village and has just returned. He seems to have sided with the Soviets in the war. He speaks Russian, and has socialist ideas that don’t sit well with someone like the town clerk, who isn’t keen to see any distribution of wealth since he currently has more than most people.
The Soviets, by the way, remain on the periphery of the film. Their only presence is three young Soviet soldiers in a jeep, who occasionally harass a villager in some minor way out of boredom but show no inclination to try to run things in the village. There is also propaganda on the radio supportive of the Soviets, or at least of the faction they back in Hungary.
So there’s some sense that the postwar developments on the micro level might disrupt this wedding, and on the macro level might disrupt the whole social, political, and economic order of this village and the nation beyond. A few of the locals might welcome this, like the peasant girl’s former suitor who has just returned, but most of them view it with a vague dread and a high level of uncertainty.
But the arrival of the Jews takes most of their attention away from these issues, as that represents an even greater and more immediate source of dread and uncertainty to them.
Nobody recognizes these specific Jews, so they’re pretty sure they aren’t from this area. But the concern is that they represent local Jews and/or that their arrival will be followed by the return of local Jews.
And that’s a problem, because, well, let’s just say few if any people in this village behaved particularly heroically when the Nazis and their local allies came for the Jews. Which is not surprising, since part of heroism is precisely that it is the exception, not the rule. But we learn over the course of the film that these folks reacted in ways ranging from making some significant effort to protect Jews but being unwilling to fully follow through when the risks became too high, to blatantly exploiting the Jews’ misfortune to better their own positions.
That’s the thing about what happened during the war: we see none of it and can only infer it. None of the film takes place before August 1945. There are no flashbacks. Indeed explicit accounts of what happened back then are minimal and provide only very limited information. We see the aftermath, and have to fill in what came before as best we can.
By the way, one thing you can pick up is that the Jews had not been a completely isolated, insular group, but in a village like this were a part of the broader community to a degree that’s probably greater than I would have guessed. So when they were taken away, yeah to some extent they were the “other” and a disliked, distrusted, or shunned group, but on the other hand to some extent they were just fellow villagers, neighbors. One character, for instance, is reminded that the Jew he betrayed “was your best friend,” so not at all an “other” in that case.
So the villagers’ discomfort at the Jews’ arrival and what it might lead to stems from a combination of guilt and concern about their own self-interest. As to the latter, many of them are living in formerly Jewish homes, farming formerly Jewish land, running formerly Jewish businesses. Are they on the verge of having this all taken back from them?
The combination of guilt and concern about self-interest varies from character to character. For someone like the town clerk, it’s maybe 60-40 or 65-35 concern about self-interest over guilt. For someone like Kustár, a villager who responds to the arrival of the mysterious Jews with panic, excessive drinking, and attempts to remind the other villagers about how awfully and treacherously they behaved toward the Jews, it’s maybe 85-15 guilt over concern about self-interest.
In the end, we do learn why these Jews have come to this village, and what they have brought with them in their crates. But of course that’s not really the point. What matters is how these villagers work themselves into a lather about it all, and how it dredges up a part of their recent past that they would far, far rather have remained forever buried.
1945 is an intelligent, thought-provoking, important, well-made film. So objectively I rate it high. But just in terms of my subjective experience of it, it’s one of those films that I admire more than I enjoyed watching it. And when I say “enjoy” I don’t just mean in a superficial sense, like a film has to be some kind of light entertainment or comedy for me to enjoy it, because I can be engrossed by and enjoy films of many genres, including deep and intellectual films. But maybe I just wasn’t in the best mood for this type of film when I saw 1945, as I found it took considerable effort to stick with it, and that I was as conscious of the slow, dry nature of the film as I was of all the things I appreciated about it.
It’s the kind of movie I like having seen (and thinking about, discussing, and writing about) more than I liked seeing it.