Movie Review: “1945” is Visually Lush, Morally Sound

From its opening seconds, “1945” is the sort of film that sets art-house hearts aflutter. It’s in a foreign language (Hungarian, mostly), it’s shot in black-and-white, and it’s a sober-minded Holocaust morality tale from a director who cares as much about form as content. On the surface, it hits all the bases as a movie that will earn respectful nods from cinephiles and yawns from the hoi polloi. But underneath, it’s an intelligent but compromised film that’s less audience-dividing than it initially seems.

“1945” is set in the year, well—you know. The second atomic bomb has just pulverized Nagasaki, ending the Second World War on a punishing explanation point. Istvan (Peter Rudolf), the town clerk in a small Hungarian village, has more personal concerns: His son, Arpad (Bence Tasnadi), is set to get married that afternoon to Kisrozsi (Dora Sztarenki), a flighty peasant girl with eyes (and other body parts) on a rival suitor.

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In a parallel narrative, two Orthodox Jews (Ivan Angelusz and Marcell Nagy) have just arrived in the village by train, carrying suspicious cargo: rectangular boxes containing “cosmetics and perfume.” They enlist a leathery carriage driver to deliver the fragile, possibly contraband material to its final destination, shadowing him on foot to ensure its safe passage. The journey takes them publicly through town squares, sending its skittish denizens into a tizzy for initially vague reasons. Anna (Eszter Nagy-Kalozy), Istvan’s troubled and loveless wife, increases her habitual drug use; another spooked resident drowns himself in a bottle.

At one point, director Ferenc Torok cannily intercuts three stories—the Jewish caravan, the fraught wedding preparations, and the stationmaster’s (Istvan Znamenak) harried bike ride to inform Istvan of the Jews’ presence—suggesting a race with no clear endpoint.

This seems like a lot to follow, but Torok deftly balances the stories as they move funereally toward a point of convergence. Including his work on shorts, omnibus films and TV series, this is Torok’s 24th directorial project in 18 years, and his clockwork craftsmanship belies his obscurity in the west. His precise editing rhythms and geometric approach to screen space are apparent immediately. He stages and frames scenes the way Hitchcock and Leone used to, milking nebulous suspense out of a train arrival and a re-fueling stop—ballets of glancing, burning, shameful looks, the characters’ unspoken angst spilling forth.

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The pace of “1945” is out of step with most contemporary cinema, harkening instead to John Ford, the aforementioned Sergio Leone—it has an odd, faint whiff of a spaghetti western—and “The Wages of Fear,” film history’s classic road movie of terror in motion. There are even echoes of Ingmar Bergman’s chamber dramas in Istvan and Anna’s broken marriage.

The only problem with “1945” is that the script never matches the cerebral eloquence of the technique. Exposition takes the place of naturalism; the words are as wooden as the images are lustrous. Torok seems caught in twin desires to overexplain and underexplain, having his art-house cake and letting us eat it at the same time.

There are no such reservations about the film’s potent message. Without revealing the details Torok spends half the movie concealing, “1945” chronicles a community’s tortured attempts to assuage guilt for their complicity in war crimes, exploring decisions born of fear, cowardice and convenience. Hitler is never mentioned, and rarely is the German war machine: “1945” is about the morally blind, opportunistic cogs that helped keep the machine whirring and humming. It’s a necessary reminder not unlike the one South Florida theatergoers may have experienced this past December in the Boca Raton premiere of Michael McKeever’s Holocaust drama “The Camp.”

It’s best to revel in the stirring filmmaking, and not to get too hung up on the on-the-nose dialogue; “1945” is a worthy, grown-up addition to South Florida movie screens amid a traditional February lull.

“1945” opens today, Feb. 16, at Living Room Theaters and Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton, Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth, the Classic Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale and The Last Picture Show in Tamarac. Director Ferenc Torok will speak and answer questions on Friday and Saturday at the Movies of Delray screenings at 12:30, 3 and 5:20 p.m. For more information about Torok’s special appearances at other South Florida theaters, visit menemshafilms.com/1945.