Ferenc Török’s 1945: A Ballad of Arrivals and Departures

By Diane Sippl

Hermann Sámuel (Iván Angelus) and his son (Marcell Nagy) arrive via train to a small village in Hungary full of secrets.

“…those living in fear find it very difficult to help their fellow men.”

Iván Angelusz, Co-producer and Actor, 1945


“I think about the motive of new beginnings and how society must overcome trauma, start a new journey, confront the past and undertake a new life. 

Ferenc Török, Director and Co-writer, 1945


“… simply by being able to do what he plotted, what he dreamt, what he wanted; simply by being able to dream, by letting his imagination free, and then acting out the role in reality from the film projected in his imagination, he has achieved what one must and can achieve in this life.”

Gábor T. Szántó, “The Homecoming”

The Film: Then and Now

Is history more than events – or the signed documents and amassed papers that attest to them?  Is it more, even, than memories – individual or collective, recalled or denied, reframed or hidden even from oneself?  If history is somehow, beyond all, alive in the present moment, playing itself back like an old song or saga never forgotten, perhaps once muffled but ultimately claiming its truths for all to see, its dirty linen flapping in the wind like ghosts in the mirror, then 1945 haunts us.  It is literally a tableau vivant from the grave. 

Filmmaker Ferenc Török and his co-writer, Gábor T. Szántó bring us a backwater story from the plains of Hungary at a singular transitional moment when the country, in the aftermath of the German surrender on May 7 and the end of wartime Soviet Occupation on April 4, was preparing for a democratic election. On August 12, 1945, amidst a dream of autonomy and freedom, we see Hungarians doomed to self-demise. The essence of a dirge fills the air – along with smoke, heat, and a peculiar silence.  And as the silence spreads, the heat builds up, and the smoke prevails.  It’s a physical language rarely employed so eloquently in cinema: 1945, in few words but relentless tension, shows us what we need to know.

Town clerk István Szentes (Péter Rudolf) worries about his town’s unwelcome visitors, while Mr. and Mrs. Kustár (József Szarvas, Ági Szirtes) linger in the background.

The Story: “Homecoming” and Leaving Home

The story – mysterious, elusive, and then suddenly clear – is, through its catharsis, an inspiration: its tautly controlled unity of time and place derives from Greek tragedy, as does its sense of fate, which here is being tested by the kingpin of the community, the public notary and self-inscribed magistrate, Istvan Semjén, whose machinations would ensure that the village “moves on” despite the Germans, the Russians, and the Jews who were deported last year. The notary’s flaw – at rock bottom, his hubris – must be challenged on two separate fronts, first by his son and then by two strangers who arrive in town.  On the deepest level, we see the conflict unraveling on two parallel tracks, one of arrival (the “return” of two men in black) and one of departure (the “break-out” of a youth from his home).  Both paths require purgation, which must be enacted within the heart of Istvan Semjén, the pillar of the community; his power, heroic or not, will sway his acolytes.

The short story from which 1945 derives, “Homecoming,” sets us down on a sweltering midsummer day at a train station as a mighty steam locomotive, its sooty smokestack spreading over the fields, comes chugging and hissing to a halt.  It dispatches two men, Hermann Sámuel and his son, both dressed in sober black coats and hats, on a mission to the outskirts of the nearby town.  The bill of transport has marked their freight “perfumery goods.”  They have hired crusty old Mihály Suba and his helper to drive a cart of these carefully loaded crates as they themselves walk behind, rather ceremoniously.  Their appearance places the town in a silent, seething uproar.  Donning a wait-and-see guise, the villagers follow this procession like hawks, clandestinely preparing for confrontation, defense, and protestation, armed with the deeds and papers the town notary and public auction have provided them since last year after 1,417 Jews were deported from the region and something had to be done with their land and property.  Now “They’re back.”  These two are just the beginning. 

And so with the heat and smoke and silent suspicions, assumptions, and allegations, a cloud of paranoia sets in, fear of the unknown that is really known but never acknowledged, admitted, understood.  The town is capable of imagining only the same insatiable thirst for wealth, status, and power that it practices, so its people expect revenge, comeuppance, or at least the demand for compensation for all they have looted from the deportees.  The villagers hover over the intruders, angry at their audacity and competition for comfort, security, even prosperity.  It’s only at the end of the story, when the two strangers do accomplish their mission, that we see the profound disparity between the villagers and the strangers in values, desires, and actions. To this elemental storytelling, the film adds an intriguingly veiled black-and-white cinematography, a crisp soundtrack with spare and spellbinding music, highly authentic design, and stunning ensemble performances.

The Stationmaster (István Znamenák) and Suba Mihály (Miklós B. Székely) prepare to take their mysterious Jewish visitors into town.

Father and Son

Gábor T. Szántó’s tragic short story, “Homecoming,” is astonishingly, eerily lyrical by virtue of the fundamentally cinematic way in which Szántó conceives of his two central characters, the antagonist father, Istvan, and his protagonist son, Arpád.  Both rely upon their capacities to project upon human screens – Istvan in a most insidious yet charismatic manner of resentment that stems from self-loathing, and Arpád in a billowing burst of confidence and self-liberation.  Istvan’s projection is the outcome of fear; Arpád’s is the catalyst of courage. Istvan’s confrontation with all that he does not know (and therefore cannot control) terrifies him, and in defense, he casts it upon the imaginary screen he erects of his presumed nemeses, the Jews.  He fills that screen with scenarios of their threats, hatred, vendettas, retaliation, usurping of power that leaves him in utter defeat.  His fantasies are predicated upon the past – actually, upon what he does know of his own treachery, guilt, cowardice, and utter lack of commendable “manliness.” 

Istvan Semjén is just standing against the counter, his shirt wet with cold sweat….  His legs are trembling….  Having prepared for a confrontation, he suppressed his nervousness, his doubts, but now all the tension caused by the arrival of the newcomers, and the waiting, the tension that he finally couldn’t turn against them, turns against himself.  His heart is tight, he’s short of breath, his limbs weakened, and in the meantime he feels hatred because after all everything was caused by them, by showing up, by returning, by existing at all.

Meanwhile Istvan’s “momma’s boy” of a son, whom he chides as afraid to stand on his own two feet, marches those two feet right out the door.  According to Istvan, Arpád

doesn’t understand politics, money, horses.  Women, even less.  As if this were not shameful enough, he even was exempted from the army.  This is the mongrelization of youth.  Books were all that ever interested him.  Novels and poems.  He takes after his mother in this and in his weak lungs, too.  He was a bookworm, but he ran the shop fair and square….  His heart was in the business, even if his mind was not.  

So it is that Arpád leaves his role as manager of the pharmacy and takes with him only what he would have been paid by his absentee (deported and possibly deceased) employer, nothing more, for striving to keep the store intact for him in the last year of appalling events.

Town clerk István Szentes (Péter Rudolf) rides into town with Officer József Iharos (Sándor Terhes).

Projecting on Screens

The feeling heart and the scheming mind are overtly at odds in the story and even lend it a cyclical structure: “decay and rebirth,” death and renewal – that is, the degenerating morality of the villagers and the regenerating ritual of the Jewish visitors, which is neither restorative nor compensatory, but commemorative.  Put another way, the story moves intermittently in two directions: one of implosion (the guilt and phobia that consume the villagers once they have complied with the Nazis, denounced the Jews and disclosed those in hiding, and usurped their land, businesses, and belongings) and one of extension (both Hermann Sámuel’s cortège to honor the dignity and memory of the deceased Jews, to bury “what is left” of them in their previous home, and the flight of Arpád not only from his family and village but to another life, one he makes for himself without the store he tended and the woman he was to wed). 

From another angle, psychologically speaking, the two very separate and oppositional “projections” play themselves out throughout the community.  The hatred harbored by Istvan and his “disciples” is projected upon Hermann Sámuel and his son as if it were the two Jewish men’s contempt for the villagers that brought them back for retribution when it is, rather, the greed, guilt, and denial of the villagers themselves that sustains their own disavowal and resulting fear.  The two Jews are enacting a ritual of honor in memory of those they know and love; the villagers are cowering in their phobias of those they refuse to know or understand.  Arpád is driven by respect, a work relation of mutual recognition and aid between himself and his former employer who promoted him in position and status on the basis of his dedication and achievement.  For the Jews, this devotion to labor and its resulting success threatens their livelihood; for Arpád, this same devotion brings him the courage to leave.  In some ways Arpád and the two Jews are staging a similar kind of projection – not a regressive one such as is practiced in the postwar Hungarian town and countryside, but a progressive one that allows them a way to move forward, growing, making something of themselves despite the perverse trajectories cast upon them on the “screens” the town erects.  This lyricism, a melancholy longing joined by a wish and a hope, a leap of faith, spurs them in their movement regardless of the sinister undercurrents that stir up the tension.

Listen to how Gábor T. Szántó describes the way Arpád leaves not only his fiancée but also his father in “Homecoming”:

… simply by being able to do what he plotted, what he dreamt, what he wanted; simply by being able to dream, by letting his imagination free, and then acting out the role in reality from the film projected in his imagination, he has achieved what one must and can achieve in this life.

Town clerk István Szentes (Péter Rudolf) argues with his son Árpád (Bence Tasnádi) on his wedding day.

Can Two Paths Converge?

In both the short story and the screenplay, the center of gravity, the unity of place, lies within the drugstore, where all that puts the town “on the line” gets tested.  Mihály Suba slowly drives his cart, laden with the freight of “perfumes,” the two men in black walking solemnly behind, toward the shop. The women at their windows, the men in the pub, “watch mutely, petrified like statues.”  Whatever is going to happen in the drugstore “will determine the things to come, the things to be done.” Beside fields of wheat, the torpor of peasants in the mid-day sun, the half-drunk beers on tabletops, it’s the unknown within those four walls that sets the fate:

Inside the drugstore, behind the closed shutters, the notary and his son avoid each other’s eyes, stealing only furtive glances.  It seemed that these few minutes, with just the two of them in the darkened shop, saw a change in their relationship…  Arpád Semjén already knows that, although his father is a powerful man, he’s not infallible, and has his own doubts about himself, his weakness consisting precisely in the fact that he tries to hide his doubts with his power.

In Gábor T. Szántó’s short story this chink in the armor of Istvan Semjén is the possibility for the future – for his, Hungary’s, ours. Secretly, both this father and his son take pride in Arpád’s departure.  The author leaves Istvan Semjén standing in an “open doorway,” aghast at his son’s courage, but filled with feelings.  He doesn’t understand, but he feels.  He recalls having himself been a fool for love, having slammed the door on his parents, run off leaving everything behind, and failing. Now his heart is a tangle of contradictory emotions: the memory and shame of his own fiasco, his worry for Arpád, and the “hidden, unconfessed jealous envy of the possibility that his son might succeed where he himself failed.”  Yet this father cannot see the roots of his own feelings.  So he “closes the door, confused.” 

This incapacity to understand is the refrain that structures the entire story as a ballad of betrayal, not only of sons by fathers but also of scapegoats by their persecutors, for after all, it was Istvan Semjén who not only denounced his best friend, owner of the drugstore, and sent him on a death train, but who also illegally and unscrupulously signed over the deed for ownership of the shop to his own son, Arpád.  Furthermore, Arpád is rejecting his father for that very reason, and for so many echoes and waves of that behavior throughout the community.  There are at least eight “verses” to this ballad of a short story, and each in its own way, through its own speaker’s eyes and ears, recounts the mounting tragedy of confusion, incomprehension, and lack of understanding.  The key point in the story – the basis for the increasingly stifling heat, the descent of the train’s sinister black smoke upon the villagers, and their suspicious silence accompanying the near wordless recitation of the two visitors at the “burial” – is precisely this dilemma, the refusal to understand the mission of Hermann Sámuel and his son: “But who knows, after all that allegedly happened to them, what they feel and what they want to do? Who understands this? 

Anna Szentes (Eszter Nagy-Kálózy) confronts her future daughter-in-law Kisrózsi (Dóra Sztarenki) on her wedding day.

The Tableau Vivant: A Cinematic Ballad

Ferenc Török and Gábor T. Szántó’s screenplay enlarges this canvas with complexity (and several additional characters and events) while never losing the ballad structure that shapes the contours of the short story. The film expands and elaborates the social tableau of this Hungarian community as it brings the story to life with key sequences.  The drugstore confrontation between father and son is witnessed by several villagers from the street and also by Hermann Sámuel, the Jewish father. In a rare close-up of his face as he turns to look, he motivates the camera with his gaze fixed on the father inside the shop, whose son has just announced he’s leaving for Budapest. Istvan Semjén strikes Arpád, who knocks over some glassware as he falls to the floor, the glass smashing and causing the horse outside to jump and neigh, leading the dog to leap and bark. This screeching montage includes a jump cut between the first shot of Mihály Suba calming the horse and the second shot of the same, from the opposite direction.  Likewise, after Arpád stops briefly at home to bid his mother farewell, the back flap on Mihály Suba’s cart gets re-mounted securely, and then both Arpád and Sámuel (with his son) walk off along their ways.  Arpád tips his hat to the Jews and takes his own path.  Yet the association has once again been made between Istvan Semjén’s understanding of Arpád and his understanding of the Jews – or at least between the two departing parties as they suffer the common mechanism that makes that understanding so difficult. 

That rapid, dramatic montage stands out in a film that generally proceeds at the pace of a human stride, the pace of the Jews’ quiet procession from the train station to the burial site.  Other tableaux transpire at that same steady pace, with the camera panning, for example, across a table laid for a wedding that should commence that day between Arpád and Kisrozsi, his fiancée.  We survey the fine silver ware and the candelabra that, along with the carpets and the Singer sewing machine used to alter the bridal gown, were all “inherited” from the absent Jews of the community and are brought out for this day of celebration. The lateral pan continues as Istvan Semjén embraces war veterans as part of the wedding, pours them shots of Pálinka, and hands off bottles of it to the cavalier Russians passing by in their jeep, following suit after Jansci, Kisrozsi’s ex-fiance, treats them to cigars.  Jansci, a statuesque peasant who’s been abroad in Russia and has now returned to claim “his” land from the notary, has also been caught by the camera in a tryst, moments earlier, with Kisrozsi.  When he sees that Arpád chokes on the Pálinka his father gives him as a wedding toast, he comments wryly, “Down the wrong pipe, huh?”  The line resonates in a film with such minimal dialogue, as does Istvan Semjén’s own quip to his son about handling his bride: “Afraid of a little peasant girl?  Be hard on her at first ‘til you’ve got her tamed.” 

But Kisrozsi is not the tractable type, and in fact in the film’s climax, an addition to the short story, this barefoot bride-to-be runs ferociously from her own village to the next village’s drugstore, once designated as her entitlement in marrying Arpád, and single-handedly undertakes an action that obliterates all records of friendship, loyalty, ownership, and even betrayal – of the livelihood and life that was once the Pollacks’, the successful proprietors of the drugstore only last year.  Both Kisrozsi’s action and the suicide of one who can’t forgive himself for his complicity in denouncing Pollack, are the retribution that fate assigns to the ambitious fallen “hero” Istvan Semjén every bit as much as the flight of his son, the addiction of his wife who sniffs drugs from a lace hanky, and the black smoke that fills the air.  The smoke would dissipate if it weren’t for the rain, which should purge this god-forsaken village from its sins, but can’t, whether the funnel of black heaves upward from the train or outward from Pollack’s shop. It may as well be from the ovens of Auschwitz, and the pouring rain from the “heavens” above only brings it down. 

Yet three resurgent heroes, seeking honor and life, lead us out of the film’s frame.  Arpád and the Sámuels, drenched in the downpour, have boarded the train in the final shot, and as its smoke trails backward to the town, its engine pulls the train forward – to Budapest, Paris, America – who knows?  Who can understand what they feel and want to do?

Hermann Sámuel (Iván Angelus) and his son (Marcell Nagy) walk through the Hungarian countryside towards the village.


Director: Ferenc Török; Producers: Iván Angelusz, Péter Reich, Ferenc Török; Screenplay: Gábor T. Szántó, Ferenc Török, based on a short story by Gábor T. Szántó; Cinematographer: Elemér Ragályi, HSC; Editor: Béla Barsi, HSE; Sound: Tamás Zányi, HAES; Music: Tibor Szemzö; Production Designer: László Rajk.

Cast: Péter Rudolf, Bence Tasnádi, Tamás Szabó Kimmel, Dóra Sztarenki, Ági Szirtes, József Szarvas, Eszter Nagy-Kálózy, Iván Angelus, Marcell Nagy, István Znamenák, Sándor Terhes.

B/W, 91 min.  In Hungarian with English subtitles.

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