A Century-Old Hungarian “Sunset,” an Allegory for Our Times

A Century-Old Hungarian “Sunset,” an Allegory for Our Times May 12, 2019
Juli Jakab, as Írisz Leiter, in “Sunset”

After two features, it’s evident that Hungarian-born writer/director László Nemes has developed his own unsettled, unsettling style.  Both his harrowing 2015 Holocaust drama Son of Saul and his latest film Sunset are intensely subjective, from a single character’s point of view.  This character is a part of every shot, often by way of a handheld following camera, at other times through close-ups and medium shots that only involve the character and those in their immediate proximity.  Dissolves and fades seldom comfort us; rather, scenes are demarcated by harsh, frequently disorienting cuts.

The shallow depth of field in each film telegraphs each character’s narrow intentions and high stress level.  In Son of Saul, this was an Auschwitz inmate risking his life to secure a traditional Jewish burial for a gassing victim.  In Sunset, our protagonist is Írisz Leiter, a young woman returning to her hometown Budapest in the early 1910s, after many years away.

Like Son of Saul, Sunset offers no immediate exposition about its characters, further deepening our unease.  Soon enough, though, we learn that Írisz is an orphan, her parents dying in a house fire when she was two years old.  After an apprenticeship in the family’s millinery trade in Trieste, Írisz has come home to take a humble position as hat maker, the family business now owned and managed by the fastidiously attired, enigmatic Oszkár Brill.

Vlad Ivanov, as Oszkár Brill, in “Sunset”

But Brill is not the only enigma in town.  A shadowy nocturnal visitor to Írisz’s flat brutally shakes her awake and informs her that she has a brother, in hiding after allegedly murdering a local count five years prior.  The remainder of Sunset concerns itself with Írisz’s investigations into the truth of her family and their business.  Progressively we intuit that though the Leiters were concerned with making beautiful things, there may be vile deeds and allegiances under the pretty surface.

Nemes has done a masterful job in re-creating Belle Époque Budapest, with bustling city scenes full of individuals across all social strata, from royalty to street musicians.  The director is clearly fascinated with the overlapping transportation technologies of this transitional era, as Írisz travels by boat, trolley, and horse-drawn carriage, and we see locomotives and newfangled automobiles traversing scenes.

Transitions are the name of the game here, as Budapest is a city on the wane, while Vienna is on the rise, in these final days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Revolutionary and anarchic forces threaten to shatter the brittle status quo, as they ultimately would in Sarajevo one year later.

That’s the big picture Nemes is depicting; on a smaller scale, Hungarian actress Juli Jakab ably conveys the fear that jostles with determination in the character of Írisz.  Her small frame, sunken and dark-ringed eyes, the sweaty sheen of her skin show her stress and exhaustion.  Nevertheless, she persists in a time that far more than ours fought to restrict women’s agency.  Threats of sexual violence are barely suppressed, while “respectable” women’s social roles are sharply circumscribed.

The main complaint I’ve heard about Sunset is that it’s narratively confusing.  And it’s true that if you don’t know this was a time of unrest in Europe, with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand just around the corner, you’ll be floundering.  Beyond this, disorientation and uncertainty are the point of Sunset, as we’re meant to feel what Írisz is experiencing.  I will admit, however, that the significance of the final scene still has me scratching my head.

In multiple interviews, Nemes has said that Sunset is intended as an allegory for our own times, perceiving that contemporary civilization is teetering and verging on collapse.  I can see his point:  if you’re European and don’t feel disoriented and uncertain, aware that civilization is on the brink, you’re not paying attention.  Hungary’s neighbor Ukraine is in the midst of a Russia-fomented civil war.  Nemes’ homeland has veered to the extreme right, with anti-Semitism and xenophobia in ascendance, even more than in Trump’s America.

Sunset’s first line – spoken by a milliner who mistakes Írisz for a customer – is “let’s lift this veil.”  Nemes powerfully shows what lurks under the veil of respectability, if one knows how and where to look.

4 out of 5 stars

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