Director: Ferenc Török
Cast: Péter Rudolf, Bence Tasnádi, Dóra Sztarenki, Tamás Szabó Kimmel, József Szarvas, Ester Nagy-Kálózy, Ági Szirtes, Iván Angelusz, Marcell Nagy, István Znamenák, Béla Gados
Running Time: 1:31
Release Date: 11/1/17 (limited); 4/6/18 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 5, 2018
The war in Europe is finished, and the war to the east is near its end. It is August 12, 1945. The news on the radio announces that a second atomic bomb had been dropped a few days prior—this time on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. This means little to the population of a small village in Hungary, currently under occupation by Russian soldiers. They order some people around or call out to the women of the village, but for the most part, the occupying force doesn't get in the way.
Life goes on in this place—as much as it can. There's to be a wedding on this particular day, between the son of the town clerk and the daughter of a peasant family. The village is small enough that this wedding likely would be the social event of the year.
Everything else seems to have stopped dead to prepare for the wedding. There are farmhands still working in the fields, but the farm where the peasant family lives and works has become a central hub for preparation. Decorations are being made. The bride's dress is undergoing some final alterations. The groom-to-be works in the village's general store, where no one is doing any shopping today. The local tavern is the busiest place, as some men drink ahead of time or eat some lunch before the heavier drinking of the evening begins.
All of it looks so tranquil and idyllic, especially through the lens of Elemér Ragályi's black-and-white cinematography. There's something darker beneath this surface, of course, because it is Europe—specifically a country that had aligned itself with the Axis powers before finding itself at odds with Germany—at the end of a war. 1945 begins with the arrival of two strangers—men dressed in black, one with a younger face, which looks so hardened that his age is indeterminable, and the other, an older man, with a beard and a distinct way of dressing. Immediately, the stationmaster in town recognizes the men—not their identities but their ethnic heritage and religious custom. They are Jewish.
The story revolves around the added commotion of the two men's presence in town. This should, in theory, be a happy day after years of terror, occupation, and war, but the townsfolk have a secret. These two men, many in the village believe, have arrived for revenge or, at least, to shed some light on what happened during the war years. They know nothing about the two Jewish men who have come into the village, bringing with them only two crates filled with what are reported to be dry goods and perfumes. They assume, with the sort of prejudicial suspicion that helped the rise of tyrannical and murderous leaders throughout Europe before the war, that the men are a threat.
The screenplay, written by Gábor T. Szántó (based on his short story "Homecoming") and director Ferenc Török, follows a handful of characters within the village. There's István (Péter Rudolf), the town clerk, who lives a relatively luxurious life with his wife Anna (Eszter Nagy-Kálózy) in a large house, drinking brandy whenever he isn't attending to his few official duties. His son Árpád (Bence Tasnádi) runs the store, where he later finds a photo album of a Jewish family kept in the back room. His fiancée is Kisrózsi (Dóra Sztarenki), a pretty young woman whose romance with the shopkeeper doesn't seem so much strained as it appears nonexistent. She is having an affair with Jancsi (Tamás Szabó Kimmel), a farmhand.
Most of the story is about the way that these people talk around the past, as the two Orthodox Jews (played by Iván Angelus and Marcell Nagy) make their way from the station into town—a slow trip, as the stationmaster (István Znamenák) has ordered the driver of the cart to take his time in order to warn the population of the strangers' arrival. Suspicions increase throughout the village, as everyone believes they have something to lose if the truth comes to light.
Accusations fly, and responsibility and culpability for the actions of the past are tossed from the village's higher echelons of power to people who are just as guilty but are capable of understanding that guilt. Of key importance in this regard is the story of Bandi (József Szarvas), whose name and signature are on an official document that could put his own comfortable life in jeopardy. He knows what he did was wrong, but he only receives admonishment from István and a scolding from the parish priest (Béla Gados), who hides away in the church, as if he'll have some divine protection from what he either encouraged or allowed to happen on his watch.
The secret, of course, should be obvious, considering the era, the way the townsfolk react to the mere presence of two Jews in the village, and the constant attempts to bypass guilt. Our involvement in the story here isn't about the mystery behind the population's behavior. It's in watching the behavior itself—seeing how these attitudes of anti-Semitism persist, despite the results and toll of the war. There is nothing here akin to the actions that these people took in the past, but the foundational belief remains the same.
In the end, the film is about the destructive nature of such beliefs, and there's a clear sense of irony to the way that Szántó and Török allow that to happen. The fear of the townsfolk is that the appearance of the strangers will signal some sort of destruction to their way of life. Ultimately, they're correct, but the destruction is of their own devising.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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