The Holocaust was never executed more swiftly or with greater ferocity than in Hungary. In 1944, in just 57 days, 437,402 Jews were sent to Auschwitz on 147 trains, some 50 boxcars long. The Gestapo’s Adolf Eichmann modestly said that he could never have done it without the Hungarians. He was “thrilled” by their “brutality” and cooperation. The Hungarians were thrilled to obtain the homes, bank accounts and businesses of the departed.
Ferenc Torok, Hungarian director of the new feature film “1945,” told us by telephone from Budapest that some 50,000 Jews returned to their villages at war’s end but almost no one stayed. After all, the Nazis were gone but the Hungarians remained.
“1945,” based on the short story, “Hazateres” (“Homecoming”) by Gabor Szanto, editor of “Szombat” (Shabbat), a Hungarian Jewish monthly (Szanto and Torok co-wrote the screenplay), is the latest in the new wave of Eastern European Holocaust films, along with Poland’s “Ida” (2015) and Hungary’s “Son of Saul” (2016), both winners of Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film. “1945,” which opens here next week, is every bit as powerful but a more lonely experience than either, for nothing was more lonely than the Jewish realization, after liberation, that the war against the Jews never ended.
Torok, a non-Jew, told us, “We always used to have a national celebration on April 4,” the day in 1945 when the Nazis retreated and the Russians took over. “In school, we waved red flags. When I first read [“Homecoming”], I was totally shocked. It made me think about that year in a different way.”
Torok said that democratic Hungary’s National Film Fund contributed 90 percent of “1945’s” 1.5 million-euro budget (similar to “Saul”), along with “a small but important contribution from the Claims Conference,” the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
“It’s a new generation,” said Torok. “I’m 46. Laszlo Nemes (director of “Saul”) is close to 40. We need to have answers.” Under the Communists, Hungarian resistance to the Nazis was romanticized, politicized. In a free Hungary, “We began to think about what actually happened. We wanted tough and straight stories.” Few stories are tougher than “Saul’s” tale of Sonderkommandos (Jewish prisoners assigned to work the gas chambers and the disposal of bodies) and “1945’s” story of Hungarian collaboration. There were no Nazis in this film, said Torok, because the Holocaust was “absolutely not” a German phenomenon.
An article in Szanto’s magazine “Szombat” noted that the message of most Hungarian films used to be that “Jews and Hungarians are one in persecution, resistance, and in liberation.” Books and articles exposed “the 1944 failure of Hungarian-Jewish cohabitation,” but films took longer to catch up.
Emailing from Budapest (where most Hungarian Jews now live), Szanto, 51, writes that he grew up “in a survivor family so that definitely had an impact on my inspiration.” Torok said he was inspired, aside from Szanto’s story, by “the atmosphere of Westerns, and my favorite, ‘High Noon.’” Except in this neo-Western, the good guys (Orthodox Jews) wear black hats. “Westerns,” said Torok, “usually have a cathartic element, ‘cleaning-up the town.’ Then the strangers leave but the village remains.”
“High Noon” takes place in real time; the film is 85 minutes long, and the film’s story unfolds over exactly 85 minutes, no flashbacks, no time lapse, just a ticking clock. “1945” is not quite as exact, but the effect is the same. The 91-minute film unfolds entirely in one midday, August 12, 1945. A smoking locomotive pulls into a rural station, the same track that the Jews left on the year before. Two chasidic Jews (in black hats) get off. Father and son, without personal luggage. What they do have is two wooden crates. A horse-and-buggy is hired to haul the crates, the Jews walking behind. The buggy’s driver points out Jewish sites, “this is where they prayed … over there is where they studied.” The Jews barely look and don’t say a word. Nostalgia or sentiment are not their concern. They are not here to talk. In Torok’s film, the Jews have perhaps 60 seconds of dialogue. In this haunted landscape what a Jew represents is more pertinent than what he says.
What’s in the crates? Villagers start guessing: Perfumes? Dry goods? Face powder, cologne, “stuff for ladies”? No one knew, but rumors and fear don’t need facts.
“They’re back,” says one villager. How many? “Only two,” says another. “For now.”
Like “High Noon’s” broken town and lonely justice, this film (with luxurious cinematography reminiscent of Terrence Malick, and a soundtrack by Tibor Szembo, who worked with Malick on “Tree of Life”) takes place in a lovely but broken Hungarian town riddled with betrayals. Sexual betrayals, as well. In 1944, a husband turning in a Jew could get rid of a wife’s rumored lover. Turning in a Jew could also get a ne’er-do-well a nicer home. We see one home still decorated with a Hebrew clock; a folk-art Ten Commandments; a large wall embroidery of “Mizrach” (“East”), the direction of Jerusalem for prayer; the direction of 147 trains.
The older Jew is named Herman Samuel, says the stationmaster, but the town’s cunning magistrate, Istvan, wonder,s who is he really? “No one by that name ever lived here.” Are the strangers agents for Pollak, whose drugstore Istvan now owns? A Pollak family photo album gathers dust in the drugstore’s back room. Istvan’s shaved head looks like a fist. He stands defiantly, arms akimbo, bobbing and weaving. “If there’s a problem,” says Istvan, “I’ll take care of it.” To his way of thinking, the worst thing you can do is “lose your nerve.” One villager is worried about the Kleins coming back. “They’re your problem,” snaps Istvan. “I’ve got my own.” Istvan goes back to his office and takes a promissory note from Klein and burns it. So much for Klein.
Istvan (played by Peter Rudolf, and the entire Hungarian cast is brilliant) tells Bandi, his accomplice, “Bandi, there are Jews in the village. Go tell the others. First tell your wife.” She has to hide Pollak’s silverware. Bandi fears they won’t “get away with it.” Bandi’s wife argues, “They issued us the house legally, didn’t they? They gave us papers for it.” She tells her children, if anyone asks about anything, “the Germans took it.”
Don’t worry, the priest snaps at Bandi when he goes to church for confession. “You’ve suffered enough … Sleep it off, and don’t dare come to God’s house drunk again!”
And all the while we see the Jews walking, walking silently behind the buggy with the crates. “Lock the door. If anyone knocks,” Istvan warns his wife, “don’t open it … they have perfumes and cosmetics in bulk.” Istvan’s nerves are cracking. “What the hell do they want? Revenge? To show off the goods all over the village?” Istvan’s wife knows his secrets, “You watched from there, you stood at the window, didn’t even wait for them to take him away with the rest. Your best friend [Pollak], you made Kustar sign the accusation … . You think I don’t know? Everybody knows.”
A wedding is to take place, but one woman fears, “We can’t start a wedding like this. We can’t. They’ll bring trouble to us.” She recalls that before the Jews were taken away, “Krausz’ wife came to see me … begged me, offered money if I would hide her son.” Another woman confides that everything a Jew gave her to hide is still in a locked trunk. Let them come home, she says, “They’re welcome, as far as I’m concerned.”
“This is a religious movie,” said Torok. “Many of the dead were religious. Religious belief needs to remain after this trauma, after family and nation are devastated. In the Communist state, God did not exist. But for Orthodox people (like the two in the film), God exists,” they are “the proud, not broken Jews. The unbroken are not distracted by the gossip of the village. They have a mission and stay on it. In this movie, the Jews walk the straight road compared to the [ramblings and] misunderstandings of the guilty.”
The “straight road” leads to the Jewish cemetery. Istvan shows up and demands to know, “Who are you burying?” “What’s left of our dead,” said the father. He opens the crates and takes out tefillin, a child’s shoes, a toy, holy books, remnants, wrapping it all in a tallis that is buried.
Istvan is silent, offering a handshake to the Jew. “As the village magistrate,” says Istvan, “let me express my deepest sympathy … I personally guarantee that we will forever preserve the memory of the victims.”
The strangers return to the train. They won’t pass that way again.
“1945” opens Nov. 1 at the Film Forum (filmforum.org) and Lincoln Plaza Cinema (lincolnplazacinema.com).