A Jewish family returning at the end of World War II to their home village that handed them over to the Nazis is not the type of story one would expect to be given the western treatment.
And yet, that’s the approach of 1945, a movie sufficiently steeped in the western genre as to draw parallels between how Europe handled the aftermath of the Holocaust and America, the west’s shining beacon on the hill that produced so many Hollywood tales of Cowboys and Indians. By reversing these traditional good vs. evil roles, it ultimately deconstructs this hero-villain dichotomy through the lens of reparations, both material and spiritual.
From the start, the mis-en-scene clearly homages westerns of lore, with contrast-heavy black-and-white cinematography, sweeping camera movements over domestic settings set against expansive backdrops, unrealistically precise sound design that meaningfully emphasizes certain noises, conventional small-town production design, and a brass score noticeable in the way it increases the drama of otherwise mundane scenes with repeated melodies. These somewhat subtle cues place the story in a familiar register, providing the proper framework to contextualize the story about to unfold.
It starts shortly after the fall of the Third Reich. A subsequently-liberated Jewish father and son come home to a Hungarian town full of people who violently ostracized them; in return, these turncoats received their goods and property. When the first of the now-silent chosen ones reappear, the townspeople jump to the conclusion that these Jews are looking to take back what was once rightfully theirs.
This premise borrows the general structure of westerns, with the decimated Jews cast as the “savage Indians” threatening to disrupt the peaceful lives of the “local Cowboys.” Like westerns, the focus is not on the mysterious outsiders; instead, it predominantly depicts the resulting actions of the rest of the community facing a potential reckoning, populated by such stereotypical western archetypes as the town clerk, the town drunk, the town priest, the beautiful town ingenue who may be more worldly than meets the eye, etc.
Though the tension emanates from the buildup to the inevitable showdown between the Jews and the town — which is another western trope — the setup unfolds deliberately slowly. This may bore audiences at first, but their experience mirrors the townsfolk gradually realizing the imminence of their comeuppance. By immediately connecting the audience with the guilty, forming an intimate relationship between the two at the onset, the town’s behavior throughout is refracted through the prism of the perspective that westerns usually thrust onto viewers. Through juxtaposition, the westerners — here represented by the Hungarians — become the villains, having stolen the land from the “aliens” who have much more of a stake to the land, be they Jews or Native Americans.
In westerns, the fears of the town scared that their new frontier life will be significantly altered elicit empathy; here, they feel illicit, and our sympathy lies not with their plight but with those who deserve reparations to make up for the indefensible encroachment. For these Hungarians, their fear is seen as justice, payback for the fear — and far worse — they caused their neighbors. Yet in westerns, this fear is somehow justifiably noble, as if Americans didn’t engage in Nazi-level mass genocide against Native Americans.
1945 implicitly criticizes the corrosive effect that these classic narratives perpetuate. So many westerns revolve around the notion of protecting burgeoning societies from harmful, outside influences. Yet this heroic mindset falsely reclassifies and sugarcoats past atrocities, in addition to potentially leading to more. An us vs. them mentality, even when found in such seemingly harmless fare as old-school westerns, breeds further, and sometimes far worse, discord.
Because where does it stop? Even after the town ejected the Jews, they still discriminated against each other, as seen in the scenes preceding the re-arrival of the Jews. Whether it be based on gender or nationality or class or politics or religion, prejudice begets more prejudice.
To highlight these arbitrary means of separation, most of the shots are framed with barriers of some kind in the foreground. Windows or gates or the like somewhat obscure the camera’s intended object, reinforcing the idea that division distorts reality. It also harkens back to the western iconography of innocent folks looking outside their shops and closing up their towns in response to an unforeseen danger lurking through their streets. A majority of the events in the movie are inspired by the Jews simply walking by places they once called home; perhaps those aforementioned folks weren’t so innocent after all…
By showing the insidious error of previous cinematic ways, 1945 reveals the subtextual, pervasive horror of a foundational sentiment found not only in American filmmaking, but also at the heart of the “United” States itself: “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”