A few months after V-E Day, outside a small Hungarian village, two strangers disembark from a train that pours sinister black smoke into the sweltering summer sky. Dressed in somber black suits, the men hire a cart to transport two steamer trunks into the village. Their arrival and the rumored contents of their cart trigger a panic in the village. In conspiratorial whispers, the news spreads: "The Jews have returned."
Director Ferenc Török's 1945, based on the short story "Homecoming" by Gábor T. Szántó, is a grim parable about guilt and the wages of sin. Filmed in dramatic, high-contrast black-and-white, it borrows tropes from classic Hollywood Westerns to tell a story that moves through darker territories.
A quick bit of history helps: during and after World War II, many rural villagers in occupied Europe profited from the deportation of their Jewish neighbors. Ownership of all those homes and storefronts had to eventually change hands. Self-appointed local officials had a vested interest in this system. But sometimes, the Jews returned.
The film unfolds over one afternoon, and the story has the dark, elegant efficiency of a fable—the old and scary type. The villagers clearly share a terrible secret, and each reacts differently to the arrival of the strangers. The mayor scrambles to destroy incriminating paperwork. His wife numbs her guilt with morphine. Only the town drunk seems prepared to face the truth.
Török's furtive camera peers through curtains and around fence posts. Small objects take on terrible significance: a property deed, a child's shoe. Spare, haunting music adds tension and complexity to carefully arranged visual compositions. When the purpose of the strangers' visit is finally revealed, it's devastating. This is cinematic storytelling at its finest, and 1945 is one of the best films of the year.