Gloomy Sunday (Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod)
Director : Rolf Schübel
Screenplay : Ruth Toma & Rolf Schübel (based on the novel by Nick Barkow)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1999 / 2003
Stars : Erika Marozsán (Ilona), Joachim Król (László Szabo), Ben Becker (Hans Wieck), Stefano Dionisi (András), András Bálint (Ilonas Sohn), Géza Boros (Geigenspieler), Rolf Becker (Der alte Wieck), Ilse Zielstorff (Frau Wieck)
Gloomy Sunday, a 1999 German melodrama that is getting a belated theatrical release in the U.S., has all the expected elements of a historical melodrama—war, passionate love triangles, suicide, betrayal. Set in Budapest on the eve of World War II, the film succeeds grandly in tapping into torrid emotions without ever seeming silly or overwrought. Director Rolf Schübel plays his hand straight; he knows just when a passionate glance or a precisely timed swell of orchestrated music will convey what he wants, and he gets excellent performances from all of his leads. It’s not terribly subtle, but it’s undeniably effective.
The primary thrust of the narrative, based on a novel by Nick Barkow, is a love triangle, except this one has four people instead of three. At the center of the triangle is Ilona (Erika Marozsán), a gorgeous, liberated woman who loves both László Szabo (Joachim Król), the even-handed proprietor of the upscale restaurant in which she works as a hostess, and András (Stefano Dionisi), the handsome, but sad-eyed pianist who plays there. So, rather than choosing between them as she might in a more conventional melodrama, Ilona decides to have both of them. The film’s first success is that it convinces us of this thoroughly questionable relationship, with László and András sharing the same woman and never coming to blows over it. Sure, there are tense moments, but they both love Ilona so much that they are willing to have half of her rather than none.
But, the love story is even more tangled than that, as there is another who loves Ilona, a shy German businessman named Hans Wieck (Ben Becker). But, because Ilona is already in love with both László and András (in other words, she really has her hands full), she turns down Hans’ proposal for marriage. He is so distraught that he attempts to kill himself by drowning in a river, but László saves him.
The opening half of the film traces this odd love triangle, but also focuses on the titular song, “Gloomy Sunday,” which András composes for Ilona on her birthday, the same night that Hans tries to kill himself. He is hardly the last though, as the beautifully melancholy tune achieves worldwide infamy when a frightening number of people listen to it as they commit suicide (the song itself is based in fact, a 1935 composition by Reszö Seress that was banned in many countries because so many people killed themselves to it).
Three years pass, and the story takes a turn toward the tragic when Hans reappears, no longer a shy businessman, but a hardened colonel in the Third Reich (the first time we see him, his platinum blond hair and Aryan steeliness are a dead giveaway that he’s going to show up in Nazi uniform at some point). Hans is one of the primary charges in carrying out Hitler’s final solution in Hungary, which puts him in a difficult position vis-à-vis László, who is Jewish. Hans insists that he is still László’s friend, but their interactions become strained and unpredictable; one of the film’s most memorable scenes is when Hans, seated at László’s restaurant with an even more belligerent Nazi comrade, force László to tell a Jewish joke for their amusement. László, who throughout the film has been a portrait of calm and fair-mindedness, quietly assured that nothing will happen to himself despite the madness of the world at war, for the first time looks frightened for his life.
The Holocaust itself invades the final third of the narrative, as László begins to realize that he must get out Hungary and Hans is his only means. The thematic thread that links the two halves of the film is the titular song, whose ultimate meaning remains just beyond the grasp of its composer. András struggles to determine what the song is trying to say, even penning lyrics at one point, which suggests the impossibility of attaching absolute meaning to anything. The song, associated as it is with death and despair, becomes an open symbol that reflects differently on each character, all of whom make crucial life-and-death decisions that have ramifications throughout the years.
The story itself is told in flashback, which helps link the present and the past. The film opens in the present day with Hans arriving at László’s restaurant to celebrate his 80th birthday, and promptly dropping dead of heart failure when the infamous song is played. When we see this, we have no idea who he is, and as the story unfolds, the truth about his nature and, more specifically, his ability to forget the atrocities in which he played such a crucial role, become central to the film’s emotional core.
Director Rolf Schübel (best known in the U.S. for his 1993 documentary Mortal Enemies: Death and Survival in Stalingrad) and cinematographer Edward Kolisinski (who shot Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue) give Gloomy Sunday an effectively simple elegance. Beyond some lengthy tracking shots, there is not much in the way visual exertion; happiness is suggested in the sun-dappled brightness of László’s pristine white bathroom and the horrors of the Holocaust are brought to life with a bare minimum of train-car imagery and frightening talk about chimneys. Writ large on a canvas of historical tragedy, Gloomy Sunday is, at its heart, a story about love and loss and what people are willing to do in the most dire of circumstances, and even if parts of it stumble along the edge of romantic triteness, the whole adds up to much more than the sum of its parts.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick