The past comes to haunt in Hungary in August 1945 when the inhabitants of a claustrophobic, strangely haunted village are made to feel the disturbing after-effect of recent crimes.
August 12, 1945 and an elderly Orthodox Jewish man and a younger man who might be his son (played by Iván Angelusz and Marcell Nagy respectively) arrive at the railway station of a small village. They see to the transport into the village of their two large trunks which are duly loaded on to a horse-drawn carriage. The men have the option of travelling on board, but they opt to walk into the village. They are told that the walk takes an hour.
So the visitors have all the time in the world. What explains their desire to walk rather than be carried? The walking may be bound up with respect for the dead, or it may even be an element of a burial ritual. The hour-long walk is done in real time, the soft clip clop of the horse drawing that mysterious trunk on the carriage sounds like an insistent threat, a bad omen. These might be sins coming home to roost, what goes around comes around.
Meanwhile, the villagers have noticed, word has spread that two mysterious Jewish men have arrived. A simmering panic begins to set in. Have the men been sent by the Pollak family, it is speculated, at least one of whose members were handed over to the Nazis?
Nowadays the Russians are in occupation, and, what’s more, the Jewish men have arrived on the day of a local wedding. The nuptials are those of the only son of the oily, scheming town clerk Szentes István (Péter Rudolf). The hapless young man is to be wed to a local girl but that too is complicated.
The villagers have the smug air of survivors who have got through the war by stealth and guileful strategy. They have a well-fed front of relative prosperity, situated as they are in the middle of vast fields. There is the suggestion of a great bread basket in the middle of the Hungarian plain, with plenty of alcohol, brandy, beer and good food for those who can afford it.
One of the looser implications of this intriguing, stylish film is that the Russians as occupying force will ensure more equality, or at the very least a toppling of feudal structures in the years to come. Or to put it another way, the peasants we see at harvest throughout that tense first hour will no longer serve the landowner.
Ultimately, the villagers’ complacent facade cracks as the past comes to haunt and a kind of anarchy creeps in. The two strangers barely speak throughout the entire film and their mute presence exerts its own solemn retribution. They neither say nor do anything that indicates hostility against the local inhabitants which makes them all the more disturbing.
Marvellously directed and acted, 1945 shows how those who practice deception for their own ends are likely to pay the price and in ways they may not foresee. Shot in black and white by Ferenc Török, the film was adapted from co-screenwriter Gabor T. Szanto's short story The Homecoming. In Hungarian with English subtitles. At the IFI from Friday.