“1945”

Will Higgins’  Indianapolis Star article citing an archival gift  to our National Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. touched me deeply. The gift was given four years ago, and it is forever immortalized, “Lest we forget”.

The artifact is a ten sentence note written in July 11, 1944 in Czechoslovakian. Vilma Grunwald smuggled her note via a sympathetic German guard to her husband, Kurt Grunwald, a Holocaust camp doctor and a survivor.

The giver is her son, Misa, now 85 and called Frank. His mother’s words: “…. in isolation we are waiting for darkness…into eternity.” calmly sends facts and love before she dies in an Auschwitz gas chamber.

The film “1945” sends us more general information in the Holocaust’s immediate aftermath. Unlike Vilma’s dramatic  yet composed note, there is a keen tension in Director Ferenc Torok’s art piece. The 45 year-old Hungarian film maker has rendered his film in black and white and to great effect. Hungarian villagers show every gradation of gray in their reactions to the return of two Holocaust refugees: fearful, suspicious, remorseful, guilty, contrite, cunning, every possible emotional  nuance is covered.

This is one film where a second viewing is warranted to fully appreciate the effects that an inhumane event has on humanity. The sound effects alone are arresting. The lone-train-whistle reminds us of  the western, “High Noon”. The incessant buzzing of flies bodes evil and its aftermath. The clock’s tick, the horse’s clomp, the cock’s crow, the yammering in the pub, and the bottle and mirror shards crashing to the floor, equate to  an earthquake ready to rent all asunder.

Visually, “1945” begins with dark plumes of train exhaust and hands working. There is to be a wedding in the afternoon. The groom’s father cuts himself shaving with a straight-edged razor. He has not been straight in his dealings with the drugstore he has given to his son to run. We learn that he and the town, in general, have benefitted materially from the Jewish Orthodox being rounded up and taken to the concentration camps. A farmer rolls a cigarette, a stationmaster looks down the track and at his watch, a son wakes his mother up on his wedding day; and, the normalcy turns strange.

The mother, Anna, is using a handkerchief soaked in laudanum to get through the day. Much is filmed through curtains of gauze. There are secrets. Her husband is rough   with her. He yanks back the bedclothes and yells: “ I said get dressed,”  Anna does not like the bride, her future daughter-in-law, and we graphically see why. Our bride has another lover, and she loves the prospect of owning the drug store over all.

We are in Hungary with Russian soldiers patrolling opportunistically. One soldier tries to take the cap of the younger Jewish refugee. No one wishes chaos from the Russians. Our father of the groom plies them with bottles of champagne, just in case. But, the wedding won’t go on for other reasons.

Like a favorite German  film of mine, “Labyrinth of Lies”,    ( reviewed Nov. 14, 2015) , Torok’s film deals with returning. Here, in “1945”, instead of Nazis being reincorporated into  civilian society, we have a father and a son coming home to bury the relics of their dead family.

The two figures in black walking toward the village start rumors flying. We hear, “ God bless. May I see your papers.” Even the village priest fears losing what has been accrued. “What do they want, revenge?”  some fear. They will bring trouble” is bandied about. The two figures are wisely stoic. They seem to belong to another realm.

Woman, too, panic at maybe losing what they have acquired. One scene has a housewife hiding rugs and small conveniences of domestic life under a tarp covered car. Greed is rampant, but a few have signed false accusations. And one, who has tried the confessional and has been dismissed, hangs himself when alcohol will not assuage his conscience.

The village turmoil has Anna calling her husband a worm and her son leaving alone for the city, Budapest. The almost-bride sets the store afire. The two figures bury their own artifacts in the local cemetery and walk down the road  they entered. A storm approaches, but it is the smoke from the building conflagration that darkens the sky and reminds us of the crematorium ashes of others. “1945” is a dark, painful, and haunting film, worthy of its accolades.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Labyrinth Of Lies”

“Labyrinth Of Lies” is the perfect German film. Technically brilliant and emotionally riveting. Thirteen years after World War II,we see how the “DeNazification Act of The Allies” worked. As one character snidely states, “Everyone was a resistance fighter after 1945.” “Do you think the Nazis vanished into thin air?” “They came home,took off their uniforms,and like nothing happened,went on with their lives.”

This symbol-packed film begins at a school recess. An iron fence separates an artist strolling from a group of male teachers complaining about some “bad actors” in their classes. One teacher walks to the fence and offers the cigaretted artist a light. He drops his box of colored pencils, and we see his face register fear. It is 1958, and we are in Frankfurt. A former Nazi is teaching school children.

A complaint is made to the Attorney General’s Office, and tossed literally in a trash bin. Our young German prosecutor picks the paper out of the bin and forces an entire country to face its past. He is told that the public sector is full of Nazis. Teachers are needed. Authorities tell him that this situation is beyond their authority, and certainly beyond his. Then he is told that the teacher was suspended. He checks and finds him still in the classroom. We see our young prosecutor slice the top off of a soft-boiled egg and we know he will dig in. He knows Hitler is gone,but he wants to lead an investigation on war criminals who resettled. Charging these men in Germany will be extraordinary, but this will be a labyrinth he will lose himself in, too.

This film may be the best edited film I have ever seen,which is a tad ironic given the premise that most Germans wished to sugar-coat the truth, or just forget. The pacing is energetic given the daunting work load, the secrets, the dutiful soldier morality, and the survivor resistance to re-live the horror of the camps. Millions of records reside in the Document Center. A practical,plain-speaking American military official oversees the access. He cautions our truth seeker: “Don’t do it.” One sees the hushing-up as poison, the other sees the opening-up as poison. Veritas sets this film free,and may be some German guilt with it. “Less we forget” is for all mankind.

What is remembered is done magnificently. To Latin Church song,we see Auschwitz survivors mouthing the horrors they witnessed. Nightmares flare of Mengele: twin experiments and specimen jars are underscored. Our hero almost gives up as he sees everyone complicit in some way. We are even asked to wonder if the Jerusalem Post journalists are real or just intent on destroying lists of names. “Do you wish everyone to know that his father was a Nazis?” “Your generation has no sense of loyalty!” are retorts thrown at him. Johann Radmann, our greenhorn prosecutor,sees a nation of drunken criminals.His boss,the Attorney General, tells him that when he leaves his office he is in enemy territory. He tells Johann “You are exonerated? You were born in 1930.”

Opened and closed doors, hazed window light,laundry flapping on the line,new dresses being made all weave symbolically to further deepen an extraordinary film. The Kaddish recited in the meadow, the L’Chaim toast, the trial beginning in 1963 all speak to the question of if some things are too big to fix. Certainly, this film tells us that silence fixes nothing. An amazing cinematic marvel, written,acted and directed, and edited to perfection.