István Szabó’s Sunshine (1999)

I’m in two minds about István Szabó’s epic movie Sunshine. It tells the story of a family of Hungarian Jews, the Sonnenscheins (which means Sunshine in German), from the end of the 19th century until the end of the 20th. While I think it told me a lot about Hungary and the treatment of Jews in Hungary, I was far less thrilled about the length (3hrs) and the choice to have the three main characters, grandfather, father and son played by the very same actor, namely Ralph Fiennes. I would have found this artificial with any actor but given my dislike of Fiennes, it added annoyance. If you do not mind seeing the same actor in three different roles and are fond of Ralph Fiennes, you will probably like this movie a lot. I do not understand why Szabó chose to do it like this, why couldn’t there be three actors? I remember the Archers chose the same approach in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in which Deborah Kerr plays three different women but that worked much better.

The Sonnescheins are a modest family but then the patriarch invents a recipe for a tonic which makes them incredibly rich. As a direct result of their social ascendance, the two sons, Gustav and Ignaz, both study and become doctors, of medicine and law respectively. While Ignaz is loyal to the Emperor, Gustav feels more and more alienated by monarchy and becomes a communist. WWI changes not only Hungary but Europe as a whole. The biggest change in the lives of the Sonnenscheins’s however is that they choose to change their name from Sonnenschein to the more Hungarian sounding Sors. Long before WWII breaks out, the Jews are seen as a nuisance and it is very hard for them to integrate.

Ignaz’s and Valerie’s son Adam becomes the Hungarian fencing champion and wins at the Olympics in 1936. After having changed their name, the Sors also change their religion and the family converts to Catholicism. Still, this doesn’t help them, when WWII breaks out, the family first lives in the ghetto, some are killed, some escape and Adam and his son Ivan are sent to a concentration camp where Adam is tortured and killed. His son will never forgive himself that he just stood there and did nothing. After the war he joins the communist party. Anti-Zionist sentiments are spreading. The government changes often and depending on who is in charge, other groups are persecuted but what they all seem to have in common is that anti-Semitism reigns again.

When the end of the communist state has finally come, Ivan realizes that the only way to be really free, is to be true to yourself. He decides to change his name back to Sonnenschein and to be proud of his heritage, no matter what government and changes the future will bring.

While I wasn’t blown away by the movie and would have preferred if the main character had been played by three different actors instead of one, the movie isn’t bad at all. It had a lot of thought-provoking elements. There is the incident in the concentration camp in which three guards control 2000 prisoners. Ivan’s uncle later tells him that it is unforgivable that they didn’t do anything. This is a reproach one hears occasionally. People don’t understand why 2000 wouldn’t fight against 3 or 10 even if those were armed. The movie implies an answer which is interesting. It is obvious that if they had fought back the guards, some of the Jews would have been killed. The majority would have been saved but that would have needed the sacrifice of a few others.

Another interesting element is the fact that Hungarians sent Jews to the camps and not Germans. There were a lot of collaborators among the Hungarians. The movie underlines that the Hungarian society, whether it was during the monarchy or later under communism, was to a large part anti-semitic.

What I really liked is that the movie focusses on one family only and like that manages to give a much better feeling of the incredible changes which took place. To enhance authenticity Szabó included some original footage which in some cases was quite chilling. When Adam takes part in the Olympics of 1936, Szabó included original footage of the opening in which we see Hitler.

Because it’s a very long movie, it’s a very complex movie and I know I didn’t do it justice. There are for example some very troubled love stories which I didn’t mention in my summary but which are quite important. I liked the story between Valerie (Jennifer Ehle) and Ignaz but didn’t care for the love triangle including Adam, Hannah (Molly Parker) and Greta (Rachel Weisz).

I would recommend Sunshine if you like epic films and have an interest in the history of Hungary and the Holocaust from another perspective.

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6 thoughts on “István Szabó’s Sunshine (1999)

  1. the war movie buff says:

    Thanks for the review, but not interested. I need a break from Holocaust movies. The casting of Fiennes sounds really weird. I almost want to watch it to see how it works.

  2. nem baj says:

    Well, it’s certainly not bad (Szabó can film), but suffers from several flaws… the first being it’s too short! It could have been better in a TV mini-series format, in 6 hours or more. Unfortunately in 3 hours, it barely scratches the surface. Particularly, we are given no idea of the roots of modern antisemitism in Hungary, and its relation to the making of the post-1848 Hungarian identity.

    And though there is an interesting use of architecture and design – rather than technological props, which are most commonly used in such ‘sagas’ – in order to help us differentiate the three periods (imperial, horthyist/fascist, communist), I share your view that the same actor playing three generations is confusing. Especially as the distinction in settings might not appear clear at all to viewers not familiar with central european architecture and design…

    Nevertheless, and this is in my view one strong point of this film, Fiennes has a certain gift to play somehow un-likable characters – by unlikable, I mean they are not entirely on the right side of History or morals, which is so often the case in similar movies (La Rafle for instance) who absolutely want to make the audience feel righteous.

    • Now that you say it, I must agree, although it might sound like a contradiction, it should have been longer. The way it was, it was too long fro me but too short to do this complex history justice and with a mini-series one doesn’t feel the urge to watch it in one go.
      I do not like Fiennes but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a good actor but it really annoyed me to see him in three roles. And I found the charcaters were quite similar which was confusing. The different moustaches didn’t help my orientation. The women were much better chosen. I liked that the young Valerie was played by Jennifer Ehle and the old one by her mother. That worked very well.

      • nem baj says:

        I agree with you about the confusion – in fact, apart from the makeup at the end of the first period we don’t see him age at all.

        As for the reason why the same actor would play the three characters, my guess is that ‘accepting what you are’ has always been a strong theme in István Szabó’s work (remember Oberst Redl); thus, it makes sense that Ignaz, Adam and Ivan have the same body – since they are confronted with the same challenge, and even defined by it. Nevertheless, I share your view that this doesn’t work well.

      • That may an explanation but this choice certainly made me like the movie far less. I’ve read a few reviews since I’ve watched and many people thought he acted so well, the three chracters were very different. I didn’t think that at all. There are only a very few actors who can look totally different from one role to the next. Daniel Day-Lewis used to be like that. And a few others. All in all, while not a bad movie, I’d call this a missed opportunity.

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