Left to right, director László Nemes, cameraman Mátyás Erdély, and actress Juli Jakab
Director László Nemes
Cameraman Mátyás Erdély with actress Juli Jakab
Mátyás Erdély lining up a shot on the set
SUNSET (Napszállta) A-
Hungary France (142 mi) 2019 d: László Nemes Official site [United States]
The horror of the world hides behind these infinitely pretty things.
Another film with an epic historical sweep, where the title is an homage to the hope and optimism of Murnau’s SUNRISE (1927), following the subjective vantage point a single character, Juli Jakab as Írisz Leiter, as she arrives in Budapest just before the outbreak of WWI, viewed as the center of Europe at the time, on the verge of new opportunities, a pivotal moment in history, yet finds herself in an Alice in Wonderland plunge into the middle of a political powderkeg about to explode, with hints at the rise of extremism that continue to plague Europe some 100 years afterwards. While there are those that complain they can’t follow the murky narrative and figure out what actually transpires, or find it shallow or empty, yet part of the allure of the film is the narrative ambiguity throughout, as if she’s on a search to discover her own history, a metaphor for that of the nation (and Europe), searching out various clues that fill in the missing pieces, but audiences may be perplexed by the lack of a backstory, yet the slow reveal has its advantages, continually keeping viewers off guard, adding a curiosity factor, with viewers perhaps still wondering even today just what it was that sparked the outbreak of the war. Using a style born out of the Dardennes Brothers, with the camera following the back of the neck of the lead character throughout, exactly as it did in his earlier film, Son of Saul (Saul Fia) (2015), each exploring different aspects of European history, with the latter evolving through the nightmarish realms of the Holocaust, this historical predecessor, like Haneke’s The White Ribbon (Das Weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte) (2009), offers a glimpse of the generation preceding the Nazi era, where societies refuse to stand up to their own particular brand of cruelties, actually linking one generation’s actions to the one before them, as if finding the seeds of fascism and authoritarianism. Curiously, Írisz remains an enigma throughout, an orphan as a baby when her parents died in a fire, coming from an aristocratic family of wealth and prestige that made their money making ultra-stylish women’s hats for the upper crust of nobility, including royalty, returning from exile in Trieste to the company that retains her family name (apparently the last in her family line), now run by someone else, Oszkár Brill, Vlad Ivanov, the abortionist in Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile) (2007), with viewers wondering if she’s there to reclaim her heritage (provoking strong implications that she’s a displaced Jew after WWII returning home to reclaim Nazi confiscated family property), though she seems to have lesser ambitions, yet her presence instills fear and resentment wherever she goes, leaving audiences desperately trying to crack the code of what lies underneath her adventurous quest, reminiscent of Pawlikowski’s recent 2014 Top Ten List #2 Ida, a film that eloquently examines Poland’s complicity in the Holocaust, or before that Olivier Assayas’ Les Destinées Sentimentales (2000), a lengthy, old-fashioned costume drama that depicts a turn of the century aristocracy in decline, all among the best historical films of our era, which can be traceable back to one masterwork, Jean Renoir’s THE GRAND ILLUSION (1937), where those few inheriting family fortunes were radically affected by World War I, as afterwards the teetering aristocracy is forced to watch their wealth and privilege disappear before their eyes, replaced by a new emerging social order that pays little attention to class.
The film is striking in its originality, the production design exquisite, elegantly shot on 35mm and 65mm (the final epilogue) film by Mátyás Erdély, who shot his earlier film as well, much of it handheld, creating an astonishing look throughout, including close-ups in dark claustrophobic interiors contrasted against long outdoor tracking shots with the camera moving parallel with Írisz through crowded streets, best viewed on the largest screen possible, providing a rare masterclass on sumptuous cinematography, perfectly balanced by the László Melis original compositions meant to resemble Beethoven’s late string quartets, mixing beauty with a somber severity of tone. What stands out is the uniqueness of the opening, as Írisz is in an upscale millinery store (Leiter’s Hat Store) trying on various haute couture hats, where she is catered to by the manager Zelma (Evelon Dobos) in the most distinguished and sophisticated manner as an exclusive woman of privilege, reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent fashion exposé, 2018 Top Ten List #10 Phantom Thread, yet the mood quickly shifts when she reveals she’s not there to buy a hat but to inquire about a job. Led up several flights of stairs to the office of Brill right in the middle of an important meeting, nonetheless he comes out to address her inquiry, as her name arouses suspicions, so he wants to meet her personally before flatly denying her request, though she’s eminently qualified. And therein lies the crux of the matter, all expressed through erudite customs and mannerisms, as Írisz matches the upscale look and sophisticated air of the elite class in her exquisite politeness, the finery of her attire, her elegant hat, and the way she carries herself, as it’s all extremely distinguished, yet we have no clue where she fits in. Through a kind of unbridled persistence, Írisz remains undaunted, maintaining her refined air, always dressed in her finest attire, never for a second losing her association with the cultivated class, yet the film offers a mixed set of suggestive clues, including a rude awakening in the middle of the night that suggests she may have a surviving brother. Returning to Brill, breaking etiquette and protocol with claims that he lied to her, asking about her brother in the midst of one of his outdoor jubilee events celebrating 30 years in business, where he provides food and festivities (and a hot-air balloon with the company name!) as a kind of broad scale advertisement for an invited elite, promising visits by royalty for his esteemed products, keeping his company visibly in the news. This leads to a line of inquiries from a vast collective of sources, like glimpses of overheard conversations, all suggesting she has a brother named Kálmán Leiter that Brill claims is a madman who once tried to kill him, committing a heinous murder years earlier, who is still at large, though in hiding. As she tries to track him down, she is repeatedly urged not to, as it would place her in grave danger, suspecting he is a terrorist involved in nefarious activities, yet the more she learns, the more she discovers that Brill may also be involved in equally hideous crimes, with his impeccably trained female staff ultimately serving as unwilling pawns to an exclusively male patriarchy, with suggestions of sex trafficking serving royalty, leaving her in a no man’s land of uncertainty, with turbulence brewing all around her, with suggestions of Béla Tarr’s WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES (2000).
It is with some interest that critics who championed the originality of this director’s telling of the Holocaust story from a periphery in Son of Saul (Saul Fia) do not feel the same about his telling of the circumstances leading up to WWI, finding fault with a lack of narrative coherency, yet that’s precisely what makes this film more interesting, as it has a historical foundation, but it’s not simply a recreation of history as we know it, creating vague circumstances that lead to class uprisings within the Austro-Hungarian empire, with Kálmán, disguised as a man named Sándor (Marcin Czarnik), running an underground anarchist gang consisting largely of horse-driven coachmen, with random coaches appearing out of nowhere, like spirits or apparitions, where terrorist acts lead to open revolts, with partisan groups on the fringe of society just waiting for the right moment to strike at symbols of power, where no one given incident turns the tide, as it is a series of escalating events, causing utter confusion and turmoil as citizens don’t really know which side to believe. Critics may disagree, heaping all the praise on a Holocaust mystery happening inside Auschwitz, where our tendency is to look away from the gruesome horrors depicted just offscreen, but this film is infinitely more compelling, largely due to our heightened interest in what’s happening just outside our view, creating a hypnotic choreography of random acts of violence, making effective use of bloodshed and brutality, all designed to undermine the prevailing authority, yet offering a you-are-there vantage point, falling into the labyrinth of the story with a continually questioning Írisz, sharing her disorientation and vulnerabilities, allowing viewers to actually immerse themselves into brief moments of history, including an opportunity to know how it might have felt living in those agitated times. The cinematography here has grown more complex, often framing several subjects in the same shot, where Írisz is the central focus, yet so much seems to happen around her, garnering great interest into what we can barely see, often blurred or out of focus, where it’s the sounds sometimes that prevail. It’s not so important to understand rationally exactly what happens, as it seems much more relevant to get a feel for the unsettling and rapidly changing atmosphere of the moment, with things seemingly fine and under control at one point, yet all havoc and mayhem breaks out in others, where people living in those times may not have understood what was going on either. Instead of providing a definitive history, Nemes offers an impressionistic series of tonal shifts, where the earth shifts underneath their feet, destroying part of the power structure and social elite, requiring significant changes in how the government reacts to these unruly mobs. One can appreciate films that don’t provide all the answers, that actually provide a healthy overview of often contradictory information that can be interpreted any number of ways, for instance, is Kálmán a sadistic murderer or a rescuing hero? Some have gone as far as comparing this film to David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET (1986) or MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001), not for the stylish surrealism, but for the ambiguous narrative twists that are a revelation to some viewers. This film is not on that level, but clearly is inspired by Lynchean moments, which have a way of heightening interest and intensity for those appreciative few who thrive on this kind of filmmaking. Like his earlier film, this is all about the power of suggestion, with viewers knowing the historical accounts, which they can then compare to what’s revealed here. It’s an interesting contrast in terms of what version of truth do we choose to believe, the one that’s told to us by authorities, or the one we subliminally experience ourselves, using subconscious reference points to guide us along the way. It’s a completely novel way of making a historical film, as it leaves out the history, providing instead an evocative series of incendiary events, allowing viewers to fill in the blanks.