GLOOMY SUNDAY – Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod(director/writer: Rolf Schübel; screenwriter: Ruth Toma/from the novel by Nick Barkow; cinematographer: Edward Klosinski; editor: Ursula Höf; music: Detlef Petersen/Rezsö Seress; cast: Joachim Król (László Szabó), Stefano Dionisi (András Aradi), Ben Becker (Hans Wieck), Erika Marozsán (Ilona Varnai), Sebastian Koch (Colonel Eichbaum), András Balint (Ilona’s son), Rolf Becker (Wieck as an old man), Ilse Zielstorff (Fran Wieck), Tibor Kenderesi (Professor Tajtelbaum); Runtime: 114; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Richard Schöps; Menemsha Films; 1999-Germany, in German with English subtitles)
“Its strong suit is that it’s a richly woven war drama that also tells a fascinating romantic story.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Rolf Schübel’s Gloomy Sunday, based on the novel by Nick Barkow, is a marvel in filmmaking despite its melodramatic flaws. Its strong suit is that it’s a richly woven war drama that also tells a fascinating romantic story. Gloomy Sunday takes its title from a famous melancholy Hungarian musical composition that plays out against the Holocaust backdrop, as the music is the catalyst that connects a sensuous woman with three men who are captivated by her beauty and charms. There is a certain indistinguishable class and elegance this film entertains in the Hollywood tradition, as it tells its moving story the old-fashioned way. This should please the older crowd who think it’s a shame they can’t make movies anymore like in the old days. “Gloomy” manages to be an historical parable that is sad, erotic, poignant and deeply affecting. The powerless and the mighty, the innocent and the debauched, those who love and those who hate, are intelligently pictured as being stuck together during a most dangerous of times. Its weakness lies in its contrived Holocaust plot and the overdrawn attention played to the song, as it becomes shamelessly schematic and not as convincing as it could have been if it stuck more to the compelling emotionally charged love triangle story.
The film opens in the 1990s in Budapest, where a successful German industrialist named Hans Wieck has returned with his wife to celebrate his 80th birthday by a visit to his old stomping ground of Szabo’s restaurant. He was last there in 1945 as the SS Colonel in charge of Budapest for the Third Reich executing their final solution. After requesting a violinist to play the restaurant’s weepy musical theme Gloomy Sunday, a moody piece noted for bringing about many suicides, Hans collapses and dies from an apparent heart attack. The film then goes into a flashback and picks up in the Budapest of the 1930s, as it tells its sad tale about four characters linked together forever by the titled song.
The gentle and caring László Szabó (Joachim Król) is a secular Hungarian Jew, whose consuming passion is his classy restaurant which he keeps open every day as he aims to serve the best possible Magyar food in the city. Though to his displeasure, many consider the more popular but less authentic Grundel’s the best in Hungary. For the last four years he has been having a steamy affair with his sultry brunette waitress Ilona Varnai (Erika Marozsán) who looks upon her work as more than a job, as she’s content with her ongoing romance with the kindly but portly and plain looking restaurant owner.
To add the missing atmospheric ingredient to the restaurant, László hires a starving young pianist named András Aradi (Stefano Dionisi) to bring real culture instead of going touristy like Grundel’s and hiring Gypsy violinists. The handsome, sad-eyed composer immediately adds another touch of class as he becomes readily accepted by the patrons.
On Ilona’s birthday celebrated at the restaurant, László gives her a beautiful jewelry brocade while András for his gift composes Gloomy Sunday in her honor. One of the patrons is a socially clumsy and arrogant young German salesman named Hans Wieck (Ben Becker). He is ambitious to prosper as an importer-exporter as the Third Reich also expands, as he brags about Germany’s overall superiority. After the wonderful beef rolls and music and wine, he has fallen in love with Ilona and when walking back to his hotel asks for her hand in marriage. Ilona turns him down in a gentle manner, but the overwrought Hans jumps into the Danube where he has to be rescued by László. Hans returns to Berlin, but promises to return the favor some day.
The pianist is also attracted to Ilona and she to him, as László settles for a ménage á trois relationship as a reasonable way of not losing her altogether. Generously László works out a lucrative deal with a record company for the not business-minded András to profit from his composition, so that he could become a wealthy man because of the expected royalties. Their friendship grows in intensity and genuineness, but historical events come home to haunt them years later at the outbreak of WW11.
Hans returns to Budapest with a new swagger as the SS Brigade Commander, but professing an undying loyalty to László. He offers László ‘special treatment’ and a work permit to keep running his favorite eatery under Nazi rule. Hans blindly stays in Hungary though he could have easily fled, as he does not realize until it is too late how determined the Nazis were to cleanse Hungary of its half million Jews. Always the ruthless businessman, Hans sees a way to provide a nest egg of riches for himself in postwar Germany by helping Hungarian Jews get a permit to escape to a neutral country for a reasonable price and this he foresees will also provide a cover for himself after the war if the Nazis lose, as he will be considered a savior of those who would have surely lost their lives.
When Hans joins in the chase after Ilona, even though he’s now married with a family, things start getting ugly.Three might be a crowd, but four is an unruly mob. These four characters find that the mysterious spell cast by the now added lyrics to Gloomy Sunday will hit them all in different ways, as betrayal and tragedy and guilt relate directly to the sorrowful tune. For László and András the song’s hidden message means that if it is necessary to depart the world, it should be while one has some semblance of dignity.
It’s interesting to note that there was actually a Gloomy Sunday composed in Hungary in 1935 by Rezsó Seress (music) and Lászlo Jávor (lyrics). It had a spooky history of driving many Hungarians to suicide and was allegedly banned there for a period. But that didn’t stop Americans from recording it and Billie Holiday made a most popular recording that rekindled an international following despite its heavy baggage.
REVIEWED ON 10/24/2003 GRADE: A-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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