Credit Lenke Szilagyi/Menemsha Films
The men in hats arrive by train and slowly walk the dusty road toward the village, following the horse-drawn flatbed that carries their cargo. The stationmaster bicycles ahead of them to issue a warning at the watering hole; the residents begin to whisper. It’s the wedding day of the son of the town clerk, who doesn’t want any trouble with elections coming up. The wedding itself seems like a shaky affair, with an uneasy groom and a bride whose previous fiancé is still hovering.
Ferenc Torok’s lean, suggestive Hungarian feature, “1945,” shot in gorgeous, high-contrast black-and-white, is a Holocaust film built, consciously or not, on a reversal of the tropes of the western, down to ticking clocks that might as well be nearing high noon. The visiting men in black hats — a father (Ivan Angelus) and his adult son (Marcell Nagy) — aren’t villains out for revenge, but Orthodox Jews, who have come to the village at the end of the war. They are transporting trunks said to be filled with perfume or cosmetics. The purpose of their journey is obscure.
The two barely speak over the course of the film; the guilty villagers talk among themselves. “We have to give it all back,” the town drunk (Jozsef Szarvas) tells the clerk, Istvan (Peter Rudolf), believing that the strangers have a connection to the town’s deported Jews. Dismissing the concern, Istvan nevertheless understands that fear; he played a pivotal role in betraying the local Jews, a sin for which his opiate-addicted wife (Eszter Nagy-Kalozy) holds him in contempt. As the film slowly reveals how the village’s veneer of civility is built over a foundation of treachery, the darkened foregrounds suggest conspirators hiding in plain sight.
Absorbing and finely wrought, “1945” is not perfect. It oversimplifies Istvan’s motivation for issuing an accusation against a friend. The modernist-style score by Tibor Szemzo is more distracting than atmospheric, especially when it riffs on Max Bruch’s widely used composition for Kol Nidre, a Yom Kippur prayer that seems inappropriate for this particular context. And by design, the movie is something of a tease, more interested in setup than in payoff. The guilt that eats at these characters resists easy closure or absolution.