My personal favorite bit of 1945 is nether its best nor its most important moment – those come later – but instead, one earlier on, where town big man Istvan (Péter Rudolf) tries to threaten the young, handsome left-wing agitator Jancsi (Tamás Szabó Kimmel) into avoiding any “chaos” in advance of future events. Jancsi laughs him off, telling him a new world is coming. We chuckle when we see it because we know Jancsi is right, and we know Isvtan’s desire to avoid chaos was ill-founded, but for precisely the reasons Istvan would hate most. But it also exposes seams in ways we don’t recognize until the film concludes. These narrative and metaphorical seams that will be torn apart in ways both literal and allegorical as 1945 progresses.
1945 is about a day – specifically, August 12th, 1945, according to the radio, in a small village in Soviet-occupied Hungary where the train stops twice a day. It’s a big day for Istvan: it’s his son’s (Bence Tasnádi) wedding day, and as the town clerk and drugstore owner, he essentially runs the place. Of course, this occasion is about cementing his position and dominance above all else, a sentiment reflected in the advice he gives his son in how to deal with his peasant fiancé (“tame her”). But his big plans, and what remains of the town’s social fabric, are thrown into chaos when the morning train brings two Jews and two mysterious boxes. Saying too much more would spoil the fun, but if you’re wondering whether the proverbial shit is stirred, goes down, or hits the fan, well, my friend, the answer is “all three, buckle in.”
1945 is also about a year, of course, and about what that year means, a particularly daunting challenge for a year that is precisely about bridging eras. It about Hungary, yes, but also about Europe, about its legacy and what it means. It does this primarily by being totally brazen, keenly self-aware, yet utterly unselfconscious in all the right ways. Sumptuous black-and-white cinematography? Check. Sergio Leone-esque sound design? Check. Baldly allegorical soap operatic drama? Check. Having the Jews literally haunt the village, their mysterious, purposeful walk from the station to town preceded by hoofbeats and each time creating a louder, clearer string rendition of “Kol Nidre?” Check. Concluding with literal fire and thunder? Super check.
The temptation to compare 1945 with Ida, another recent and excellent black-and-white Eastern European film about the legacy of WWII and the Holocaust, is pretty strong. But that would be doing both films a disservice, not because one pales in comparison to the other, but because those superficial similarities mask very different approaches and styles. Ida is nothing if not contemplative, reflective, patient; 1945 is suspenseful, loud, in motion yet claustrophobic, practically a Western.
The better comparison for 1945, I think, is Wes Anderson’ woefully misunderstood and underappreciated The Grand Budapest Hotel. While lacking all the manic, cartoonish, twee elements that define Anderson’s films, 1945 is similarly about making a moment a synecdoche for a whole. It is about making a movie about memory and legacy in an oblique way, a grand drama whose purpose is not its drama at all. In the same way that The Grand Budapest Hotel packs its meaning into its very framing device, 1945 loads its meaning onto critical moments of careful artifice, particularly a bitter and ironic encounter in a cemetery. 1945 is, indeed, a bitter and ironic film, a film that serves as a reminder to a people in the form of their own forgotten pledge to never forget. Fire and storms, indeed.