There is an urban legend that the song ‘Gloomy Sunday’ written by Hungarian composer Rezső Seress in 1933 is so depressing that hearing it can drive a person to suicide. The 1999 film by Rolf Schübel gives a fictionalized account of the origins of the song and has become somewhat of a legend itself. In 2005 the film replaced the cult midnight showing king, Cinema Paradiso, as the longest running film in Boston’s history. The film has all the elements to make for a great urban legend; mysterious death set against circumstances that just could be possible. There is no doubt that there is a fascination for such macabre stories.
The story opens in Budapest in the 1930’s. Restaurant owner, Laszlo Szabo (Joachim Król) has an establishment well renowned for its delicious beef roll and the beautiful hostess, Ilona Varnai (Erika Marozsán). He is a plain man with a talent to make a success of any endeavor he takes on. Laszlo has two important things in his life, his business and his love for the faire Ilona. His two concerns become antagonistic when he hires a darkly moody piano player, Andras (Stefano Dionisi) who almost immediately becomes involved with Ilona. Instead of reacting with anger and jealousy Laszlo is more pragmatic about the inclusion of Andras into their romantic life. He states that he would rather have part of Ilona than none of her. They trio enter into a loose ménage a trios. As their lives become more intertwined Laszlo begins to manage Andras’ composing career. On Ilona’s birthday Lazlo gives her jewelry while the song smith pens a melancholy piece called ‘Gloomy Sunday’ in her honor. Nothing turns on the ladies more than a sad song to make the ladies swoon. The song takes off and becomes an international hit. The down side is rumors start that listening to it has driven people to take their own lives. It became very fashionable to kill your self while playing the song on your record player. All this occurs while the Nazis begin their rise to power. The times are depressing and suicide increases but the legend grows none the less. The change in the political environment also creates the opportunity for the inclusion of another character. Hans Wieck (Ben Becker) is a German entrepreneur on his first trip to Budapest. He is smitten by the beautiful Ilona and falls madly in love with her. Hans asks Ilona to marry him and after a gentle letdown he tries to commit suicide by jumping in the river. Laszlo rescues Hans just in time. Hans’ business takes him away but a few years later he returns as a Nazi Colonel in charge of the city. He has to round up the Jews of the area but is more than willing to let some go in return for all their material wealth. Out of his feelings for Ilona he spares Laszlo from being incarcerated. The four people are caught in relationship that is built on love, desire and depression.
The film has been promoted as being ‘inspired by true events’. To some extent I suppose this is true. There is a song named ‘Gloomy Sunday’, it has been linked by legend to suicide and there were Nazis in World War II. Other than that I wouldn’t put too much credence in the factual aspects of the film. Fortunately, this really doesn’t matter. The film stands well on its own as an excellent example of German cinema. Writer-director Rolf Schübel has created a work that despite its depressing theme is engaging. Schübel’s style is loose; the film apparently lacks any real structure. While this is often deadly for a film here it works. The technique comes across more like a well crafted piece of jazz. It flows in a free form fashion that pulls in the audience. Much like real life there is a feeling of just letting circumstances take over, let life happen. The film is a moody as the song itself. This is raw human emotion shown in an honest, forthright manner. The characters are believable and relate in a realistic way to each other. The cinematography is spectacular. Edward Klosinski uses each frame of the film almost like a painting.
The cast will be mostly unknown to American audiences but if you check their resumes you will see that each one is a highly seasoned and talented professional. Joachim Król is an average sort of man that makes it easy for the audience to identify with. On the surface there is nothing special about him but Król breathes life into his character. He plays Laszlo as a man who knows how to make things happen. He can bring an idea to life with flair. There is an emotional depth to the man that makes it easy to see why Ilona loves him. In a story like this it is vital for the audience to find some means of understanding the lead and Król is able to pull it off with apparent ease. Erika Marozsán has a very difficult task of making Ilona sympathetic to the audience. It would be simple to play Ilona as a young woman you enjoys her affect on men. She could have been what we used to call a woman of ‘loose morals’. Instead Marozsán gives many layers to her character. She portrays Ilona as a woman who just happens to love two men very deeply. While there is a physical side to these relationships what keeps Ilona in this triangle is her emotional connection to both Laszlo and Andras. For the role of Andras you couldn’t do better than Stefano Dionisi. His character runs is the risk of being too intense and depressing but this talented actor transforms him into an angst ridden musician who is very capable of love and commitment. Ben Becker presents his character as with a dual nature. He is a member of the dreaded SS but he is driven by his love for Ilona and his feelings of indebtedness to Laszlo. To him taking bribes to save human lives is just business. After all the war will someday end and he has to make sure his future is secure.
You don’t normally think of Warner Brothers with foreign language films but here they show that they are a studio dedicated to diversity in DVDs. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video fits the mood of the film perfectly. You have to remember that this is not an American film. The use of the color palette is pushed more than most independent films made here in the States. The colors are overly bright at times, pushing past normal levels. There is intensity to the colors that reflect the emotions played by the actors. There is a bit of gain to the video that gives a feeling of an old newsreel, just right for the film’s tone. The close-ups are typical dark also reinforcing the mood. The Dolby 5.1 audio is excellent. The rear speakers give a natural ambience that fills the room. The sub woofer is mostly unused but not missed. Don’t be afraid of the subtitles. You will get used to them and the film is well worth having to read throughout it. This is a strangely compelling work that deserves your time.