The opening shot of the 1999 German/Hungarian co-production Gloomy Sunday is one that frames the very un-gloomy skyline of Budapest, Hungary, before it takes a slow ride down the cobblestone streets and sumptuous antiquity of the old European city. Director Rolf Schubel follows a caravan of black Mercedes through the city’s winding streets until it arrives at the doorway of a restaurant, where a smartly dressed man greets the newly arrived customers by name. One of the customers waxes nostalgically about the restaurant, “Szabo,” with his wife as they walk slowly inside. He is an old man and the awed stillness he displays while soaking in his surroundings indicates that there must be a story within Szabo’s walls, an old story.
His eyes find a photograph of a woman sitting upon a piano. She must be part of the story, as well as the song that he requests that the piano player and the violinist play. The restaurant, the photograph and the song on the piano enrapture the old man before he clutches his chest and collapses to the floor. There is definitely a story in this charming and elegant eatery, and as the film takes us back 60 years before that fateful fall, we understand that the tale is about a lot more than the golden recollections of an old man reliving fond memories of “Szabo’s” Magyar roulade.
The flashback takes us to Budapest, Hungary, before the Nazi occupation. Laszlo Szabo (Joachim Krol), a Jew, runs the restaurant with his beautiful and ever-smiling lover Ilona (played with sweet and touching innocence by Erika Marozsan). They need a piano player. They get one, and it changes everything. The brooding and darkly handsome composer Andras (Stefano Dionisi) gets the job not only at the piano, but also as Ilona’s second lover. These men share a complicated friendship, but also Ilona. Her beauty and youth no man can resist, and both men begrudgingly set aside any jealousies that would send her away. Enter Hans (played to Aryan perfection by Ben Becker) as the young German traveler who falls for Ilona with as much energy as he does for the roulade.
When Andras creates a tune for Ilona on her birthday called “Gloomy Sunday” that becomes famous all around the world for its melancholic beauty and uncanny ability to induce suicide, the stage is set for a ponderous yet powerful film about the impending gloom that will take all of them. The film’s power lies in Schubel’s ability to give us rich and fallible characters against a backdrop of the impending Nazi horrors so that when history pokes its ugly head around the corner, tragedies befall those we seem to know intimately. Even Hans, who graduates from a clumsy would-be beau to SS colonel, is infused with a humanity that makes his decision to join the Nazi machine uncomfortably understandable to the audience. Understandable, not excusable, and the film does a wonderful job of peeling the layers of greed and personal gain that wrap as tightly around Hans as his swastika armband.
Gloomy Sunday is a welcome addition to the canon of film that tells the intimate personal stories of that horrible time in history, and not just the bombast of the “big battle” that we can always see by switching on the History Channel.
In German with subtitles. Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, west of Telegraph). Call 248-263-2111 for more information.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail email@example.com.