By Andrea Gronvall

The Gronvall Report: An Interview With 1945’s Ferenc Török


At the beginning of 1945, not a Holocaust film so much as a post-Holocaust film, two Orthodox Jews clad in black suits arrive in a small Hungarian village on a swelteringly hot day in mid-August, 1945, shortly after World War II has ended in Europe. None of the townsfolk has seen a Jew since all the local Jews were deported to concentration camps the year before, and no one recognizes these two men, who carry wooden crates they claim to contain perfumes and cosmetics. It’s 11am; the strangers will reach town by noon. The news travels like wildfire, and soon the villagers are hunkering down in their homes and businesses, furtively peering out the windows, anxiously awaiting a glimpse of the mysterious, unwelcome visitors who could well be set on revenge.

1945 was a sensation when it debuted in the Panorama section of the Berlin International Film Festival in 2017 and won awards on the festival circuit, including Best Feature at the Jerusalem Film Festival, as well as several audience nods. If you haven’t heard of Ferenc Török (this is his seventh film), you likely will very soon. The brilliant young filmmaker, who turns 47 this month and is not Jewish, cowrote the screenplay with his Jewish friend and Budapest neighbor, Gábor T. Szántó, adapting Szántó’s short story. Veteran cinematographer Elemer Ragalyi (Jakob the Liar, An American Rhapsody) shot in gorgeous black-and-white, evoking classic films of the 1950s.

One of the reasons 1945 is so compelling is your handling of suspense. Two Jewish strangers get off a train at a small village; their presence immediately generates shockwaves of fear and suspicion among the population. One of your influences was Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, but 1945 also reminded me of some classic science fiction films from the Fifties, like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), in that the locals are so afraid of these aliens. Also, like thrillers by Hitchcock.

Yes! [Like Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1950), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)–each of which plays on the fear of outsiders.] Why do the villagers in 1945 feel so threatened about the otherness of these two Jews? Because this is a story about the collective paranoia that comes from the characters in the town being afraid of something about the past which they haven’t wanted to face. It operates on different levels for each of them, but they all have secrets, or degrees of guilt about what happened during the war. Because everyone in this fictional town was involved in some way, or benefitted in some way, from the deportation in 1944 of all their Jewish neighbors. How the state made non-Jewish Hungarians complicit in the destruction of the Jews started slowly. At first some discriminatory laws were passed during the late nineteenth century, but Jews who were part of the wealthier bourgeoisie in larger cities were safer than Jews who lived among poorer rural non-Jews. But when the Fascists came to power increasingly more severe anti-Jewish laws were enacted, and after the Nazis invaded in 1944, Jews were rounded up and shipped en masse out of the country in a very short period of time [by the Germans and Hungarian collaborators].

1945 is a fictional story, of course. But every Hungarian family has its personal stories about the war, and what happened immediately after, and a lot of what happened had to do with money. In reality, partly to try to make the new peace last, the new government wanted to make the people more compliant—especially in the countryside, where there had been so much poverty and losses during the war. So, for example, the state put up for auction homes and property that had belonged to Jews, real estate and valuables which sold at deep discounts. Homes were bought up at a fraction of their original value. For many of the new buyers, who were given certificates of ownership, this was the first time their families ever had anything that nice. In our movie, the villagers are afraid they will lose it if the heirs of the deported Jews make claims to get it back.

Which reminds me of that scene early in the film where the town’s clerk (Peter Rudolph) has this exchange with a policeman: “Jews have arrived.” “How many of them?” “Two. For now.” 1945 is definitely somber, but there’s some underlying dark humor as the movie unfolds, involving irony. It turns out that the two Jews have not come for revenge–but even if they had, they wouldn’t have had to do anything, because the village implodes all by itself. Yes, and only a few years forward in history the new regime would then go on to collectivize private property, also to appear to help those people—the poor and middle class–who had lost the most during the war. So, my cowriter Gábor T. Szántó and I felt it was really important to explore that brief period of time between the end of the war and the growth of Communist power, a time few Hungarians talk much about, and very few Hungarian movies before ours have covered.

Peter Rudolf is terrific as Istvan, the town clerk or notary who basically runs the place, where almost everyone does his bidding. He plays a strongman type, a bully, which made me think of the political scene in some European countries today (and in the USA, for that matter) where there seems to be a nostalgia for strong men who’ll take charge of a nation and fix its problems, as if the citizens themselves don’t have a responsibility to be vigilant about the safeguarding of democracy. It can be a slippery slope from democracy to autocracy. Istvan is a type of guy long familiar to Europeans, whether we’re talking about Italy, Poland, Russia, you name it. In a patriarchal culture, where women have traditionally not had much say, he’s like mafia—a father figure with authority, like in The Godfather. Istvan’s a small godfather, a little Caesar, the fixer who’s always looking after his own interests first. We have had democratic elections in Hungary where the new governments kept their promises for about the first ten minutes, and then pretty much returned to the old ways. And the people accepted it because the old ways were what they were familiar with. But today some young Hungarians are taking an active interest in the health of democracy.

I read Szántó’s short story “Homecoming,” from which 1945 is adapted, and was struck by changes between them. Of course you had to open the story up for the screen, adding material to allow a narrative of feature length, but you also brought some younger characters more to the forefront. There’s the young Orthodox man who arrives, and in the town there’s the shopkeeper who knows there’s a better life to be led elsewhere, and then his fiancée, and also her former lover who she’s not quite over. What was behind this decision? We expanded the story to include more characters so that we could create an entire village with different personalities who had different reasons to worry. But also in Hungary today we have the twenty-first century generation. My parents and grandparents can remember the time period of the movie, but the young twenty-first century generation doesn’t know much about it, and we really need to come together to concentrate on the property issue, because it’s so key to events that happened immediately after the war. And so with some of the younger characters the movie gets to show a young person’s point of view, and they help tell the story for us. By showing what they want for the future, I wanted to suggest that 1945 is not a closed story, but an open story. And that maybe the slippery town clerk [the shopkeeper’s father], the guy who always will know how to play whatever situation to his advantage under whatever new government he finds himself in, you could imagine maybe living today as some billionaire in Budapest.


#         #         #

One Response to “The Gronvall Report: An Interview With 1945’s Ferenc Török”

  1. spassky says:

    Oh wow, this is great, thank you for this.

Quote Unquotesee all »

This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin