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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Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora (2009)

I find it surprising that this movie, although not a “real war movie”, didn’t even get the tag “war” despite the fact that civil war is a major topic. I had meant to watch Agora a long time ago although I read many mixed reviews. Now that I have finally seen it I can see why. It is a flawed movie, it is the victim of silly marketing as well as the victim of what I think is a bad and misleading title. All this said I still think it is excellent and how many times do I have nightmares after having watched a movie? And, yes, Agora, woke me, it woke me because the story it tells – and which is a true story – is deeply upsetting for many reasons.

391 A.D. Alexandria. The Roman Empire is in decline. The philosopher, astronomer and mathematician Hypatia is an influential figure in the city. She teaches and does research. One of her main topics is the movement of the planets. She wonders whether the sun is really moving around the earth. Her lectures are lively and interactive. She doesn’t mind being contradicted but she wants to hear reasons, well formulated thoughts. It seems she was an attractive woman and some of her pupils are in love with her. She doesn’t want to get married, her life is dedicated to philosophy and research.

The city of Alexandria is composed of different people, Jews and Christians and of course, the so-called heathens, like Hypatia herself. The Christian movement which is not more than a sect is becoming more and more influential and finally a civil war breaks out during which the famous library of Alexandria is burned down and the Christians, led by their bishops, take over the city.

Hypatia is tolerated but not allowed to teach anymore. The longer the Christians are in charge and when they finally also start to persecute the Jews, she is in danger as well. It isn’t liked that she insists upon the fact that the earth circles around the sun and not the other way around. And worse than that, it’s not tolerated anymore that a woman occupies an influential position. Her end is famous and extremely gruesome. The trailer and some of the movie posters make us believe that we will watch a romance. While there are men in love with Hypatia we do not see any love stories but in order to make her ending more acceptable for sensitive movie goers this aspect plays into it.

Before she is killed, Hypatia is accused of witchcraft and the bishops insist that women are to be subjugated by men. All the reasons for this are taken from the bible and the fact that Jesus had 12 male apostles but no woman serves as another proof.

After having watched this and done a bit of research on Hypatia I must say that she was a truly amazing woman. She had found out with very primitive methods (nicely shown in the movie), that the earth isn’t the center of the universe. We know how long it took until this was rediscovered and how long the Catholic Church fought this discovery.

I think it would have been justified to call this movie Hypatia and not Agora. Yes, it’s about the end of an era but more than that it is about a woman and the war against women that still rages in many countries.

Religious fanaticism, no matter the origin, is something that upsets me and one group of people oppressing another group does upset me as well. The combination of topics in this movie make it topical and many elements are as explosive today as they were then.

I’m not much of a Rachel Weisz fan but she is convincing in this role. I have only seen one other of Amenabár’s movies The Others which I liked but I haven’t seen his highly acclaimed Mar adentro – The Sea Inside. After having watched Agora, I’m keen on watching other movies by him.

I am fascinated by this story and would love to read a book about this period and Hypatia. Does anyone have a suggestion?

Enemy at the Gates (2001) or The Duel of Two Snipers

It’s interesting how often people mention Enemy at the Gates as one of their favourite war movies, yet I do not see it included very often in more official Best of Lists. I wonder why and can only guess. Maybe because it is too esthetic? Hardly ever have ruins looked this good. Or is it because of the love story? I must admit, I had a problem with it. I don’t mind a love story, although it is mostly a bit tacky in a war movie, but I would have liked this one to be left out. I thought it spoilt an otherwise perfect movie. And I think another cast would have been better as well, apart from an excellent Ed Harris, I didn’t care for the actors. Despite all these reservations, I think it is an excellent movie. The central story is suspenseful and it is one of the most beautifully filmed war movies ever and certainly one of those I will re-watch. And don’t you just love movies about snipers?

Stalingrad 1942. The city is under siege. The German army hopes to win the war and to secure the oil fields near the Caspian Sea. The Russians are well aware if they lose Stalingrad, it is over. The losses are high, morale is low and a little bit of propaganda might do every one a lot of good. That’s why Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins) thinks its high time to fabricate a hero and charges Danilov, an important oficer of the Communist Party, with this mission.

Enemy at the Gates is loosely based on the story of the famous Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law). Vassili has learned to shoot at an early age, and now, in his early twenties he is the best sniper in the Russian army. Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) decides to pick him, and turn him into the hero Khrushchev is looking for. Vassili gets newspaper coverage and publicity and soon his fame is known far beyond the Russian borders and especially the Germans are well aware what a dangerous enemy he is.

Amidst the rubble and the ruins we see two parallel stories unfold. The first story line, follows a love triangle. Through Danilov Vassili meets the Jewish woman Tania (Rachel Weisz). Both men are in love with her but as it seems Tania has only eyes for Vassili. This love triangle is frankly annoying and disrupts the movie. It isn’t even very plausible.

The second story line revolves around the competition between Major König (Ed Harris), a famous German sniper, and Vassili. König is sent to Stalingrad to take out Vassili. All the parts of this second story line are quite gripping. We see the men hunt each other, we see how they get to know each other, how they try to find out how the other will react, how and from where he will shoot, how they try to ambush each other.

Snipers are endlessly patient. They don’t just shoot wildly, they aim carefully, take their time, observe and shoot only when they are fairly sure of hitting their target. Enemy at the Gates perfectly captures this cat-like hunter quality of the sniper and that’s what makes this film so watchable despite its flaws.

The director Jean-Jacques Annaud is famous for his cinematography. He has made one of the visually most compelling movies The Bear or L’ours . Enemy at the Gates is equally stunning from a cinematographic perspective.