Never mind the latest “Star Wars”: If you’re looking for something a bit more thought-provoking, head to the West Newton Cinema to see “1945.” The award-winning film is based on the acclaimed short story “Homecoming” by Gábor T. Szántó.
On a summer day in 1945, an Orthodox man and his grown son return to a village in Hungary while the villagers prepare for the wedding of the town clerk’s son. The town clerk fears the men could be heirs of the village’s deported Jews and expects them to demand their illegally acquired property back. Meanwhile the townspeople, grappling with guilt, expect the worst and behave accordingly. The director, Ferenc Török, spotlights a society facing the recent horrors they’ve experienced, perpetrated or just tolerated for personal gain.
The film has enjoyed successful debuts in New York and Los Angeles before opening in Boston. The distributor is Menemsha Films, which specializes in Jewish films. (Founder Neil Friedman spent his summers on Martha’s Vineyard, hence the company’s name. He also has Boston ties: Even though he grew up in California, his mom graduated from Brookline High School in 1947.)
“I think what keeps me going is that this is my master’s degree in Jewish studies that I didn’t go to school for. It’s about my own education,” says Friedman, who used to be a lawyer before transitioning to movies.
We talked to him about the film and its message.
What does Menemsha Films do?
We’re the premiere distributor of Jewish-themed films in North America. You’ll see a long list of great films. With this film, we’re trying to get to $1 million at the box office, and this would be the third film in a row from us that did that, which is pretty incredible and lucky. We also had “Dough” and “The Women’s Balcony.” We feel pretty blessed. We have gotten terrific movies. I’ve been saying this film is the best film we’ve ever released since 1998.
Why is “1945” so resonant?
It’s interesting. We’ve done a lot of work with theft of property during that period, and we had a wonderful movie called “The Rape of Europa” about art theft by Nazis. This film is the next step in that exploration. It’s not about art theft, but property theft of businesses and homes that Jewish folks in that small town in the film left behind when they were sent to the camps. It’s an issue now that is rising to the fore in the evolution of restitution worldwide.
Obviously, we’ve seen a lot of attention from high-profile property, like Monet and Matisse, and all these wonderful pieces of art stolen by the Nazis and found in museums around the world many years later, and people suing to get them back. Now we’re onto another exploration of stolen property, which is something more day-to-day but still of the same import. What if you were sent by the Nazis out of your home, sent to your deaths, and you left behind a business, a house, even in a small village in Hungary? The movie discusses this in the most subtle and artistic way.
Describe the film.
Two Jewish Orthodox men get off a train in a small town in Hungary, postwar, in August 1945. Those folks don’t say a word the entire movie. Word gets out that two Jews have come back to this town. Every person in the town reacts to their guilt or their fear about their corroboration of sending these folks away. Everyone reacts in different ways. It’s as if you put 15 people in a psychological experiment and told them one thing is happening, and you get 15 different reactions.
These [two men] do nothing. These people just go to a cemetery and leave. But it instigates anxiety, almost like a riot in the town of varying reactions. These people took items, or took businesses, or live in their houses.
What do you hope people glean from the film?
I hope people realize that this movie is a Picasso. It is so special and so unique. I hope people see it as a film like a “Citizen Kane” that they remember for years and years.
What’s your favorite scene?
The cemetery scene. The two Jewish folks use two drivers to excavate a grave with beautiful Jewish music, dramatic music, playing in the background. You get goosebumps.
How is the message of “1945” applicable today?
We live in a crazy world right now. [The movie] absolutely fits every country and every situation. I used to be able to say things were OK here, but I can’t say that anymore. It’s about seeing your neighbor as equal and as worthwhile. It’s about seeing every human being the same. No human being is better than another. And now we have polarization, where some see others as less. There’s no place to look to where there is some sort of equality of people.