Bigger is not always better, especially when it comes to well-trodden tragic territory like the Holocaust. While audiences are still cowed by Disney’s all-powerful money-printing Infinity Gauntlet, an understated Hungarian narrative is quietly raising some far more provocative ideas than any superhero massacre ever could. With 1945, director Ferenc Török touches on the infrequently considered aftermath of World War II from an unvarnished human perspective, examining the guilt, fear and complacent complicity of a small village full of people who profited from the persecution of its Jewish residents — some more willingly than others.
It seems that everyone in the town benefited when its Jews were dragged off to concentration camps, the remaining residents claiming homes and businesses from their absent neighbors. But with the war over, the village’s tenuous balance is thrown into upheaval by the arrival of two unidentified Orthodox Jews carrying a pair of mysterious crates. Are they returning to reclaim what was rightfully theirs? One of the villagers, overcome with guilt, drinks himself into a stupor. Others rush to destroy the evidence of their misdeeds. One much-maligned town clerk, Szentes István (Péter Rudolf), has a lot to lose — he’s set to marry off his son to a pretty peasant girl who broke her engagement to the man she loves so she can partake in the newfound wealth István enjoys courtesy of an illicitly claimed drugstore formerly owned by his Jewish best friend. As the two strangers take the long walk to town from the train station, the villagers have plenty of time to speculate about their motives.
Scripted by Török and Gábor T. Szántó, adapting from the latter’s short story “Homecoming,” 1945 is a remarkably affecting story made all the more unsettling for its conciseness. Clocking in at a brisk 91 minutes — and taking place in close to real time — Török and Szántó exploit every frame to render a suspenseful narrative landscape rife with conflict and interpersonal power struggles. Playing something like High Noon meets “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” 1945 replaces the Cold War paranoia of Fred Zinneman’s anti-Western and Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone classic with a thoughtful meditation on the inescapable grasp of the human conscience.
1945 is something of a morality play, explicating the cost of greed and ambition in relation to the human tragedy such drives can impel. While the film feels occasionally slight in its scope, it’s rich in period detail that belies its minuscule budget. The climax may seem perfunctory by the time it arrives, and the narrative labors in the direction of its conclusion rather than developing organically toward its ultimate point, but that point is still well worth making. In a modern world defined by a state of seemingly perpetual warfare, maintaining a strong moral compass in the face of religious intolerance and opportunistic profiteering is not only rational but perhaps more necessary than ever. The fact that such a message is being conveyed by a no-budget Hungarian independent film rather than by more widely accessible fare is an indictment on the state of the popular cinema — but hopefully there are enough moviegoers willing to pass up the occasional blockbuster in favor of something less frivolous, that the moral of 1945 won’t fall on deaf ears and empty seats. Not Rated. Hungarian and Russian dialogue with English subtitles. Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse.