When legendary Hungarian-Jewish director Istvan Szabo makes a film, it often winds up on savvy critics' all-time best-international-movie lists, as happened with Mephisto (l981) and Colonel Redl (l984).
Sunshine, his latest film, which recently opened in theaters and which stars versatile British actor Ralph Fiennes (Schindler's List, The English Patient)--is a novel on screen. It's a vast, rich multi-generational saga of a formidable Jewish family, the Sonnenscheins, the kind of thing that if it were between hard covers would make the perfect summer read.
Speaking by telephone from Vienna where he was conducting a seminar with his old friend and star of several of his movies, Klaus Maria Brandauer, the director explained, "I needed a face that could carry the whole story and it needed to be a star . . . This man needed to be able to portray three very different men who speak differently, behave differently even move differently. So he also had to be a great actor. And this was Ralph Fiennes' talent."
The story of the Sonnenscheins is the story also of Hungarian Jews, of assimilation and betrayal, and it is a saga Szabo is well familiar with, because it is the story of his family and all the other Jewish families in Budapest he knows.
"I was born into a family of medical doctors," Szabo says, "and my grandfather and my father told me that every disease has a long history. A headache is not only a headache. You have to find the history behind the headache, and the story of Hungary's Jews is different from those with other roots."
In the film Adam Sonnenschein and his new wife choose to change their name and convert to Catholicism, believing that this will make them like everyone else in Hungary.
That mistake, the illusion--that all they have to do is to become indistinguishable from everyone else and their success will be assured--is at the heart of the film. When they change their name and religion, they lose their roots and a large chunk of their identities
"There is a scene where they are leaving the building where they have just changed their name and they are laughing and happy," Szabo recalls. "My heart was sad shooting those shots, my heart was sad editing the scene, and my heart is sad every time I see it because I know this was the first and the greatest mistake they made. I want to yell at them, 'Why are so happy. Are you crazy?' Although of course I know they are happy because it's my film, and I asked them to be."
The family depicted in Sunshine is neither Szabo's nor any other particular Hungarian family.
"There were several recipes, and there were several families," Szabo notes. "Behind every character in the film there are four or five or six different lives. Every character is a mixture of people who told me stories or they are stories I know personally.
But the story of the "Sunshine" or Sonnenschein family is much more. It is nothing less than the history of middle Europe in microcosm over the last 150 years.
The film's co-writer, Jewish-American playwright Israel Horowitz, tells an old Hungarian joke which sums up the political background against which the Sunshine family live their lives. An old man is being interviewed, and he talks about the fact that he was born a Hungarian; then he became Austrian, then German, then Russian. "How lucky you are to have traveled so much," says his interviewer. "I never left my village," the old man replies.
No country has been buffeted more by the winds of change of the 20th century than Hungary--which gives Szabo a fascinating tale to tell.
In one portion of the tale, Adam, seduced by his desire to assimilate into the highest levels of Hungarian society, leaves behind his religion and his name in order to advance both his athletic dreams and his social status.
Adam's son Ivan, who witnesses his father's humiliation and eventual murder at the hand of the Nazis, becomes a faithful Communist until political disillusionment and a forbidden passion rock him back to reality and reconnect him with his true identity and his roots.
The film is already garnering international accolades. Szabo and Horowitz's screenplay won the European Film Academy Award and the Writer's Guild of Canada award, and Ralph Fiennes was named Best Actor by the European Academy.