Istvan Szabo is probably the finest Hungarian film director ever. I have seen and greatly enjoyed ‘Hanussen’ and  ‘Mephisto’ which both feature his preferred actor, the fantastic Klaus Maria Brandauer . The latest is nothing less than a masterpiece in my opinion, a strong parable about the relation between dictatorship and art, between power and the artist, and a meditation about the human character and the tearing dilemma of the artist who has to chose between being silent and being silenced.  What few people knew at the time the film was released was that in ‘Mephisto’ Szabo had spoken about his own life and choices.

I somehow failed to see until now ‘Sunshine’ which is a not less ambitious endeavor describing in a big epic film the story of one Jewish Hungarian family which is symbolic for much of the history of the Hungarian Jews in the 20th century.





They do not do such films any longer, some may say. ‘Sunshine’ is a saga spread over three generations of the Sonnenshein / Sors family – a family of Jewish origin whose story is followed since the last two decades of the Austro-Hungarian empire through the First World War, the Communist revolution of 1919, the inter-wars period, the horrors of the Second World War and of the Holocaust, the Communist terror that followed. The tradition of such stories is actually not rooted in Hollywood but rather in the solid novel sagas of writers like Thomas Mann or John Galsworthy. The main theme is the fate of the Jewish  family trying to find its identity first in the relatively liberal Austro-Hungarian empire, the tentative to melt its identity by ‘assimilation’ and conversion, followed by the cruel return to reality during the Holocaust, and the temporary illusion of salvation by adopting the principles of the internationalist Communism.


(video source VermeersGirl)

The 16 years that passed since the film was released make the demonstration of the futility of the identity hiding games played by Jews in Europe in general and Hungary in particular look somehow didactic on screen (but not in reality, as recent events show). Istvan Szabo had the bright idea of distributing Ralph Fiennes in the triple role of the three men in the three generations of the Sonnenschein / Sors family. Fiennes is a fine actor and this was one of his best roles, but the real strong and persistent character is the one of Valerie – wife, mother, and grandmother and more than all the survivor and the strong character that represents the moral and tradition compass of the whole family during the succeeding storms of the century. Two actresses – Jennifer Ehle and Rosemary Harris play this role at different ages. They are both wonderful.  The strength of the film comes however from the accumulation of facts and the building of the emotion that leads to the final rediscovery of the true identity of the character. As somebody once said: ‘Nobody can run away from the star under which they were born’.