When my son was six and a student at Mountaineer Montessori School, he learned the Shaker hymn, “’Simple Gifts.” “I hate that song,” he said to me one afternoon, as we drove away from his school. His vehemence took me by surprise.
I thought about a line in the song that goes:
“And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.”
I wondered what “in the place just right” might mean to James, and whether, at six, he had already become so much a creature of dialectical logic that he distrusted that a “just right” place could even exist, a consideration that could have, in practice, been bolstered by our family having moved four times during those six years. Or, did he harbor the self-view that he had atavistically inherited the Jewish habit of moving or being forcibly moved from any place that was threatening to feel just right? In either case, his life’s travails had, by the age of six, clearly caused him to bristle at lyrics that may have struck him as the precursor of today’s “false equivalency.”
For the Jew, historically, there has never been a place that has felt “just right.” So, Jews have kept on moving, like some nomadic, if incongruant family circus, with members who, over the arc of time and space, drop off here and there around the globe, to not fit in yet another inhospitable place that is a far cry from “just right.” In Sholem Aleichem’s “Tales of Chelm,” a bagful of foolish souls falls to earth. In their shtetl of Chelm, ruled by foolishness, absolutely nothing feels or goes just right. Did Aleichem intend it as a parable?
In “1945,” two Jews, a white-bearded elder man and presumably his adult son, alight from a rail car, at a train station in a small Hungarian hamlet. The Town Clerk, whom we meet earlier that morning, as he studies his face in the mirror while shaving, owns a drugstore, and is the patriarch of a small, disconsolate family of three. He takes pleasure in bullying or at least hectoring his neighbors and family members. When he learns of the arrival of two Jews on the morning train, he gets busy sounding the alarm, much like Chicken Little, that two Jews have arrived, accompanied by a cartful of secret freight, presumed by him to contain perfume and cosmetics—“for the ladies.” Everyone laughs, sort of. “Are they the Polacks?” one neighbor, and then another inquires, taking a tone that sounds more grave. “No, but perhaps they were sent by them,” answers Iztván Szventes (Péter Rudolf), the pen-pusher cum entrepreneur, who runs frantically from one neighbor to the next to share the panic that slowly engulfs him.
The action proceeds at a snail’s pace, recalling a joke my son, some 25 years later, overheard a Russian tell an Estonian: Two Estonian boys and their father are riding in a horse and carriage, watching the landscape as they go along. After an hour, one boy says to the other: “There’s a horse.” After another hour, the other boy says, “No, it’s a cow.” Another hour passes, and the father says, “You two sons of Estonia will have to stop fighting, or I’m going to have to stop the carriage.” Such was the approximate pace of plot development in this film. Were it not for the museum quality black and white footage, and our universal fascination with the fortunes of Jews, second only to our obsession with the mob, a viewer’s interest might ebb.
The drugstore entrepreneur’s son is to marry on that steamy August afternoon. While he is minding the store, his fiancée Kisrószi (Dóra Sztarenki), is rekindling a small libidinous fire with an ex. The ex is Jansci (Tamás Szabó Kimmel), a working class guy with a plan for everyone. He likes nothing better than to curry favor with the sneering Soviet soldiers who are occupying the town while appropriation of the spoils of war is being negotiated by its victors. As the son prepares to break with his father and perhaps his future bride, the town prepares for what looks to be an ill-begotten wedding. The two Jews are on a less festive mission. A grimly satisfying denouement rewards the patience required to see the story through to its end.
There are few films that take up the fortunes of European Jewish survivors in the aftermath of World War II. This one is a welcome addition to the theme of recuperation and restitution.
Without giving away the ending, suffice it to say that the two Jews, given their uncertain circumstances, succeed in finding the “place just right,” and in doing so under an August afternoon’s unforgiving sun, go one step further. They tilt the relationship of forces away from the false equivalency that the grasping remnants of fascist occupation cling to, and point the way toward a more hopeful and just future.