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‘1945’ and the Delayed Horrors of the Holocaust

Earlier this year, a study conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that thirty-two percent of American millennials are not familiar with the Holocaust, and sixty-six percent of millennials are unaware of Auschwitz, the largest and most famous death camp. These are pitiful statistics and a source for concern, but as little as Americans — especially young Americans — know about the Holocaust, certainly much less is known about the period immediately following. The few who managed to evade the death camps or miraculously survived had to return to the lives and homes they left behind; many more fled elsewhere, not wishing to live amongst those who had meticulously and enthusiastically exterminated their parents, their children, their friends. In 1945, the focus is on those who never left, the Hungarians who watched their fellow citizens be dragged away to near-certain death. It’s a necessary film, and one that evades many of clichés that Holocaust films often resort to.

It’s helpful to understand a bit about Hungarian history before seeing 1945. Unlike other countries that were invaded and occupied by Germany, Hungary had a history of fascist politicians predating the Nazi emergence, and its leaders willingly joined the Axis powers. It was only after the war-time situation became increasingly dire that Germany occupied Hungary in 1944, so as to prevent its leaders from withdrawing from the conflict. It was only then that the mass deportation and extermination of Hungarian Jews began in full. Most were deported to Auschwitz; the vast majority never returned. Yet this genocide was not completely new to Hungary — during the 1920s, Jews were commonly murdered through extrajudicial means.

The context is helpful when considering the characters who inhabit 1945. Szentes István (Péter Rudolf) is frantically preparing all morning for the marriage of his son later that day to a local peasant girl. István is the town clerk and also owns its sole general store. His family life is far from ideal: his son finds him weak and immoral, and his wife is addicted to drugs, spending most of her day bedridden. His day is further complicated by the arrival of two orthodox Jews on the morning train. As they stand out front, one wonders how they must feel about travelling again on the same trains that once whisked them toward death. The two men, one young and one old, are travelling with two boxes, which the manifest lists as containing perfume and textiles.

This is particularly bad news for István, who owns the general store solely because he alerted the Germans to the previous Jewish owners, the Pollaks, who were taken away to a concentration camp, presumably Auschwitz. The perfume suggests that these two men may be emissaries of the Pollaks, who will return to take their store back from the man who has stolen it. István spends the rest of the day trying to balance his son’s wedding with his need to alert his fellow conspirators about the imminent return of the people they betrayed. Perceptive viewers will see the film’s ending long before the climax, but that knowledge strengthens the film. Those who haven’t figured out the ending will probably wish they had. It’s the rare example of a film that benefits from having a somewhat predictable resolution.

If there’s one way in which 1945 clearly falls into the patterns of past Holocaust dramas, it’s the film’s use of black and white photography. But the images, shot by Elmér Ragályi, are delicate without being overly aestheticized. The lack of color isn’t so much to make the film look more dramatic, but to underscore the stark moral choices these characters faced (and failed at) long before we see them. Turning in their neighbors and then claiming their property and possessions as their own isn’t a complicated moral choice — it’s a black and white example of evil, and 1945 keeps that always in the center of our attention.

It’s impossible to view 1945 without thinking of the current waves of anti-Semitism roiling Europe (and starting to resurface in the U.S.), but the film also operates as a reminder to those who seek to simply wait out turbulent upheaval across the globe: you may make it to the next political shift unharmed, but others will not be so lucky. István and his compatriots sell out their Jewish neighbors partly because of long-seated anti-Semitism, but there’s also a notable sense that they assume the deported people will somehow be fine at the end of the war.

The film’s crisp cinematography is augmented by an unusual score (at least for a Holocaust film) that eschews the standard sorrowful music with weeping violins. Instead, composer Tibor Szemzö draws on more contemporary sounds: ghostly electric guitars and bits of ambient sound and musique concrete. It’s free of the sentimentalism that can bog down other scores, and adds color to the film without forcing viewers to feel any particular emotions.

But most of 1945‘s subtlety is due to its acting. Rudolf gives the most impressive performance as István, who chillingly refuses to ever acknowledge that he has sinned against his neighbors. His son, Árpád (Bence Tasnádi), and wife, Anna (Eszter Nagy-Kálózy), are also compelling, particularly as they come to understand their husband’s true nature.

Much of 1945 comes off as cold and somber, but beneath its steely grays is a fiery passion. It’s a work of important moral opprobrium, and one that desperately needs to be seen.

Written By

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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