Ferenc Török / Hungary / 2017 / 91 mins
Part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival
Hot on the heels of 2015’s Oscar-winning Son of Saul, a Hungarian filmmaker is back with another heartwrencher of a Holocaust story set in, as the name suggests, 1945. On the day that the town clerk’s son is due to be married to a pretty young peasant girl, two Hasidic Jewish men arrive via train bearing a trunk ostensibly full of perfumes. Quickly, the villagers’ backs are up. With apparently every man and his dog benefiting in some way from the untimely deaths of their former neighbours, some are wracked by guilt for their gain, others are worried that those gains may be taken away from them. Regardless of the reaction, the town becomes a hotbed of prickly and unpredictable emotion.
As the lynchpin of the community, the town clerk (played with a tightly-wound élan that borders on aggression by the excellent Péter Rudolf) has the most to lose and coordinates the village’s responses with almost mafia-like authority. But while he is arguably the outstanding antagonist of the piece, this is less about the journey of an individual and more about the collective guilt of the whole community. The full gamut of human emotion and integrity is on display here, as we see villagers variously given over to greed, consumed by remorse and driven to renounce all they’d previously held dear. Before the real contents of the trunk and the real purpose of the Jewish men’s visit are revealed, there will be betrayal, desertion, arson and death. In some senses, the denouement is a bit of an anti-climax; in so many more, it’s a fitting finale for those reaping what they’ve sown and an apt metaphor for this deeply dark period in human existence.
Incorporating some superbly framed scenes and cast in austere monochrome, the film plods on at the same slow and steady pace with which the Jewish men continue their inexorable march towards the village. Using the clip-clop of horse hooves as a soundtrack, the movie perfectly encapsulates the simplicity and the sensitivity of the time, handling a delicate subject matter with thoughtfulness and pathos. Rather than judging the inhabitants of the village, it invites the viewer to do so in its stead, resulting in a well-crafted and demanding but ultimately important piece of cinema. Whether director Ferenc Török will follow in the footsteps of his Oscar-winning countryman László Nemes remains to be seen, but either way his latest in a lengthy list of cinematic efforts is a worthy addition to the EIFF and to Holocaust commemoration in general.