The inhabitants of a small Hungarian town are bustling around in preparation of a wedding on an August summer day as 1945 opens.
But soon, neighbors start hearing whispers, “They’re back.”
“How many?” asks one. “Only two,” another answers. “For now.”
For it was then that two Orthodox Jewish men appeared, sporting hats and coats and stepping off of a train with no personal belongings. Instead, they have with them two large trunks they say are of perfumes and cosmetics.
The Jews don’t say much; instead, they load the trunks onto a horse-drawn wagon and join a father and son who offer to take them into town. The Jews, also a father and son — whose arm is later revealed to be inked with numbers — walk behind the wagon.
Immediately, you feel a sense of tension, suspicion and apprehension — and that feeling doesn’t really go away throughout the film, which has English subtitles and opens at the Ritz Five and the Bryn Mawr Film Institute on April 6.
Adding to that, 1945 is filmed in black and white, an “easy” decision for its director, Ferenc Török.
It made it more concentrated, he said recently by phone in Budapest. It also added authenticity to the time period, as family photographs and newscasts were all in black and white.
The story, which takes place over one day, is an examination of an element of the Holocaust that has not been explored in film, or even in history books: What happened to Jews’ homes and stores after they were sent away.
In this village, there are remnants of homes’ former inhabitants still on display, though their original tenants no longer live there. A clock with Hebrew letters still decorates someone’s wall, for instance.
With the arrival of the two Jews, the villagers begin to fear what will happen if more Jews come back — and worse yet, if they want their homes and shops back. They have papers proving the properties belong to them now, the townspeople remind themselves.
Others are not worried; some hid Jews’ belongings for them for safekeeping until they came back for them.
One particular character this affects is Istvan, the town clerk and owner of a drugstore that once belonged to the Pollaks, his best friend’s family. Istvan begins to feel suspicious the two Jews who arrived to the town are somehow connected to the Pollaks.
While Istvan has no problem continuing to run the store, which goes up in flames by the film’s end, his actions manifest differently for his wife, who becomes addicted to drugs, and his son, who learns what his father did and flees from the guilt — on his wedding day.
“You’re a murderer,” his wife tells Istvan, who Török noted is played by an actor famous for his comedy and that this role surprised people.
Török wanted to shed light on this particular notion, even though the village and characters are fictional.
“We tried to build up a model of a society in this small village,” he said. “It is a fiction village but there is a mafia, the clerk, the police, and the different kind of people, different points of view and different relation with the old crime and guilt, so that’s why we want to just picture about that society in that time.”
The film is based on a short story written by Török’s friend — and the film’s screenwriter — Gábor T. Szántó, called Homecoming.
That the story takes place between the end of the Holocaust and World War II and the beginning of communism was interesting for Török.
“We tried to talk about a secret part of the history and what is new for the audience,” he said. “It was this topic that property, for example, and this kind of stuff — it was under the carpet in the Communist time.
“It’s a missing chain in our history,” he added, not just in history books but in film as well.
He also was inspired by American Westerns like High Noon and the focus on nature rather than dialogue. Sounds like the buzzing of flies and the thud of the wagon wheels rolling over bumpy roads become heightened instead of dialogue.
Music, too, plays an instrumental role — quite literally. The sounds of the violin fill in scenes that spark intense symbolism, like smoke rising from the burning of the drugstore.
Török noted they used archival music like Kol Nidre compositions from the 1920s by a Hungarian Roma violinist and radio archives of newscasts in the ’40s.
A somber recording of a prayer plays in the background of a crucial scene in which the Jewish pair — who are interestingly not played by professional actors but rather a musician and a photographer — take their trunks to a cemetery, and the pair who take them there dig the holes in the ground. The contents of the trunk are finally revealed: It’s not the perfumes and cosmetics Istvan was afraid of but family item the older man gingerly wraps in a tallis before lowering it into the ground.
“Who are you burying?” Istvan asks when he comes by the cemetery after his informant followed the Jews to their destination. “What’s left of our dead,” the Jewish man answers.
For Török, who is not Jewish, the film presents a more universal point of view than other movies set in this time period. He hopes viewers think more about the lull between the end of the war and the start of communism and what happened in between.
“It’s a really important part of the second World War and after the Holocaust and it’s a really unique perspective and point of view,” he said, “and it’s not a boring movie; it’s an interesting movie and it’s exciting.”