Black and white ‘1945’ shows Jews in post-war Hungary faced a rainbow of gray
Interview'There's always been a love-hate relationship with the Jews'

Black and white ‘1945’ shows Jews in post-war Hungary faced a rainbow of gray

Hungarian filmmakers Ferenc Török and Gábor Szántó say real-time feature is a ‘palinka parable,’ with anonymous archetypical characters in nod to American Westerns

'1945' director Ferenc Török, left, and co-writer Gábor Szántó. (Jordan Hoffman/Times of Israel)
'1945' director Ferenc Török, left, and co-writer Gábor Szántó. (Jordan Hoffman/Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — The train rolls into the station, and the villagers know things are about to change.

“They’re back,” the town clerk/drugstore owner/erstwhile feudal lord says.

Who’s back? Jews.

It is 1945 and Hungary has been liberated by the Soviet Union. From a radio we hear that Japan has yet to surrender, so that’s how specific the window in “1945” gets.

Directed by Ferenc Török and co-written by Gábor Szántó based on his short story, this black-and-white and highly atmospheric drama is practically set in “real time” — meaning it takes about as long to watch as the characters take to live it out.

Two solemn Jews, one old, one young, walk from the station, headed through the village to an unknown destination. They aren’t recognized. They aren’t from the Pollock family, which, we’ll learn, were the first local Jews to be deported. We’ll also learn that Pollock was the one time business partner of our ostensible hero, the Clerk.

It becomes quickly evident that this is a community that has done well for itself by being Judenrein, but what do these two mysterious men know? What do they want? And will they be gone before the Clerk’s son’s wedding tonight?

“1945” is a unique film, in that its odd storytelling rhythms feel more like a play. However it is quite visual (and aural) in its approach. It’s one of those movies I feel compelled to recommend but if someone were to come back and say “Oh, that was a little too strange, I didn’t like it,” I wouldn’t argue.

But beyond its form, there’s the story, which can never be told too many times, of how Europe didn’t just turn its back on its Jews, it plundered their property once they had gone.

I had to the good fortune to speak with writer Gábor Szántó (who is Jewish) and director Ferenc Török (who is not) in New York City in advance of the movie’s November 1 release. There was a bit of a language barrier, but I think most of the time we understood one another. Below is a shortened transcript of that conversation.

Do you consider “1945” a specifically Hungarian story?

Ferenc Török: When we were in pre-production I thought it was a very Hungarian film. We focused on the locations, the language, the clothes. Now after so many festivals — Berlin, Jerusalem, Western Europe and now the United States — it’s a universal topic. We showed in Belgium and the Netherlands, and they said “it’s our story, too.”

Gábor Szántó: The same stories happened in Amsterdam. People came back and someone else lived in their apartment, it’s a very European story.

FT: Of course we concentrate on 1945 and the post-Holocaust situation, but after the Balkan War 20 years ago, there were similar situations.

The story also works on a more symbolic, less catastrophic level. Whenever people do something they are ashamed of, they hope it will just go away. But of course it always comes back in some form. Watching for the first time, part of me thought that this was going to be a supernatural film. Like these were spirits with some power to lay waste to the village. Maybe that was my head being stuck in Hollywood…

GS: This is one interpretation. It is only a partially realistic movie, and also symbolic. Of course they did represent the ghosts of those who perished, especially since the village didn’t recognize them and none of the village’s Jews came back.

A scene from the Hungarian film ‘1945,’ by Ferenc Török and co-writer Gábor Szántó. (YouTube screenshot)

Correct me if I am wrong, but in Hungary the deportations happened somewhat late into the war. And when they did happen, the survival rates were exceptionally low, yes?

GS: Yes, it was one of the last countries. In Budapest, though, there was a survival community, approximately 70,000 Jews survived in the Budapest ghetto, and about 20,000 to 30,000 in hiding, and then some did return from the camps.

FT: But there were half a million Jews killed. The countryside religious Jews died.

GS: Almost the entire Orthodox community, the Hasidic community from Hungary and Transylvania [formerly Hungary] were killed.

The movie’s pacing also reminded me a bit of an old Western. Like Clint Eastwood’s “High Plains Drifter.”

GS: Ferenc’s first reaction when I showed him the story was “this is like a Western.” His director’s view showed him the structure of the story that I, inside the story, didn’t realize. We used the Western pattern when we created the screenplay. We watched “High Noon.” We tried to mix the classic European art movie with “High Noon.”

It’s “High Noon” in reverse, though, because the clerk isn’t Gary Cooper, he doesn’t really want to have the big face off.

FT: Yes, different, but the strangers arrive, there is revenge and then the train is gone. And the village is totally changed.

Dumb question: why does the son wait until the very last day to get fitted for a suit?

GS: Perhaps a subconscious motif that he knew the marriage would be a problem.

Okay, I’ll buy that. The music in the film is very modern, but simple.

FT: It is a contemporary score, but we incorporate archival music in the background, the radio, Jewish motifs, but mixed with our contemporary point of view. Also the sound design, the horses and rain and smoke, the voices of the village.

The image of the two men walking certainly reminded me of Béla Tarr’s “Sátántangó,” which is probably the greatest Hungarian film even made–

FT: [smiling] Oh, is it?

I guess?

FT: All right.

But the key image of that film is the two mysterious men walking, determined — this couldn’t be a coincidence.

FT: Of course it is not coincidence, but … [trails off].

A recurring character in this film is pálinka, the very potent fruit brandy you can only drink in Hungary. For readers who may not know about this drink and its importance to the national identity, can you shed a little light?

GS: It’s our whiskey. Every country has this kind of product. Pálinka is associated with us because, well, there is a lot of alcoholism in East European countries, in Russia, in Poland and in Hungary, too. Villagers with no prospects, in poverty, frequently use alcohol.

FT: And also the guilt, the secrets, the taboos. The clerk’s wife in the movie is a morphine addict, a more aristocratic way to destroy yourself.

GS: But in spite of this, the town drunk character is the only one to come clean with his actions.

Any self-critical work will cause a reaction — how has the film been received in Hungary?

GS: Surprisingly positive. 90% positive. There was huge media coverage. We had some fear, but only 10% was critical, from both the very left and the very right. The very left said the movie wasn’t critical enough toward Hungarian society and the right said it was too critical of Hungarian society [laughs.] But the artistic reaction was very good.

FT: This is an uncommon thing. It is an important movie and well done, and unique and not boring. So, the critics were helpful.

GS: This opened a new topic for Hungarian discussion. The year 1945, it wasn’t a well known era, right after the Holocaust but before the Communists. This is something I have written about a lot, and in my novel “Kafka’s Cats” — what happened to the Jews right after the Holocaust, were they persecuted under the Communists, were they oppressed because they were religious, were they oppressed because of Zionist identity? The revival of Jewish identity and the obstacles against it in Europe fascinate me.

The character in our film who just came back from the Russian prison, you see him in the fields becoming a communist. You know he will be the next leader of the village.

A scene from the film ‘1945.’ (Courtesy of Menemsha Films/via JTA)

The movie is a little ambivalent about Communism. The old leaders we know are corrupt and they need to go, but knowing what we do now, in hindsight, we know things weren’t so rosy under Communism.

FT: Yes. It is ambivalent. We need to travel back to that time, this moment. It was the end of the war, freedom, Communism was a new religion. A lot of people got hope from it — not necessarily happiness. In the 1990s we recognized step by step how difficult the situation was. It was a common lie — like a guilty person or a survivor’s lie.

GS: To an average Hungarian, though, the Russians were just a new occupier. Just like the Germans. The people didn’t like them, they feared them. Even the Jews, despite that the Russians liberated the camps. But a young religious boy standing before a Russian would be afraid, like in the movie, they knock off their cap.

FT: They got drunk, made jokes, were anti-religious.

GS: It was not a natural compatriot-ship between the Jews and the Russians at the time.

The main character of your film, the Clerk. Is he a hero?

FT: Well, the character, of course, I don’t like. But when we created him with my actor and cinematographer and the crew it is different. The psychology is complicated. It is also important to know that the actor Peter Rudolf, is famous as a comedian. This is the first villain role in his life and has been a great success for him.

GS: The character is corrupt, a typical character from a small community. This is not a modern society, he is the boss.

FT: It is almost feudal. He owns the village, and is a survivor. Maybe in two years he will become a big communist and survive again. An immoral survivor character in Eastern Europe is typical. A practical politician, not ideology, not for betterment.

Hungary right now has a strong far-right party, perhaps more than in other European countries –

GS: No, the far-right is not stronger than other countries. Around 15%. Perhaps less. But the East European far-right is a bit more old fashioned. They have distanced themselves now from their former anti-Semitism in the last year or two. They have, however, had a bad impact on the rise of Hungarian anti-Semitism since 2006 and we will not forget it.

There are ties in Western Europe with the far right. The far right sometimes supports Israel in Western Europe. But not the Hungarian far right.

Protesters in Budapest hold signs showing Jobbik party member Marton Gyöngyosi depicted as Hitler, backed by the icon of the World War II-era Hungarian Arrow Cross party. (photo credit: image capture from Youtube video uploaded by Euronews)
Protesters in Budapest hold signs showing Jobbik party member Marton Gyöngyosi depicted as Hitler, backed by the icon of the World War II-era Hungarian Arrow Cross party. (Screen capture from Youtube/Euronews)

FT: This is because they are anti-Muslim. But not so in Hungary because we have no Muslims.

GS: The Hungarian far right is old fashioned anti-Semites. They like the Islamics at this moment.

Because they are anti-Israel?

GS: Correct. In Western Europe, the far right is a post-modern far right.

Well, in the United States, many hardcore Evangelical Christians fund Israel, partially because doing so will be a catalyst for the Rapture and leave the Jews behind.

FT: Yes, and step by step things are changing in Hungary, but we have definitely developed in a different way.

Hungary has always been a little unique. The language is unrelated to its neighbors …

FT: Isolated, unique.

GS: We’re central, so we’re different from Russia and different from the Western states and the political situation is different.

FT: A little bit, in a way, it is similar to the Jews. You know, for centuries the Jews really liked being in Hungary. It’s complex.

GS: Subconsciously there has always been a love/hate relationship between Hungarians and Jews. Partially because of the Protestant tradition in which the Jewish sources played a role.

FT: Sometimes the Hungarian Jews act more Hungarian than the Hungarian Christians.

So what’s next for you two?

FT: The movie was successful in Hungary, now we are promoting the release in the United States, then France, them Benelux, Australia, but we’ve got two projects we are developing. The first is a swimmer’s story.

GS: The very first modern Olympics had a Hungarian Jewish swimmer [Alfréd Hajós]. He was called the Hungarian Dolphin. Our title is “Dolphin.”

FT: It is a sports film. Think “Chariots of Fire.” Historical film but with hand cameras.

GS: The other script I am working on is an adaptation of my novel, called “Roller Coaster,” about a survivor from Auschwitz who went to the US and comes back to Hungary in 2004 to try and rebuild something from his youth. There is also a young writer, his student, and an Israeli girl, and there is a drama within this triangle. It is like a surrogate family, working to try and rebuild something of the lost Jewish culture.

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