September 22, 2019

Epic Proportions

“Sunshine” is a massive, sprawling film that spans 120 years in the lives and loves of four generations of a Hungarian Jewish family.

It is part history course, part lust among the bourgeoisie, and an all- around object lesson on the ultimate futility by Central European Jewry to shed its roots and assimilate into the surrounding society. The film starts around 1840, when orphaned 12-year-old Emanuel Sonnenschein (German for “Sunshine”) sets out for Budapest carrying as his only endowment the secret recipe for a herbal tonic bearing the family name.

Emanuel and his tonic lay the foundation for the family fortune. His son Ignatz, living during the heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, becomes a lawyer and powerful judge, changing the family name to Sors to advance his career.

In the next generation, Adam Sors becomes a champion fencer and converts to Catholicism in order to be admitted to the elite Hungarian military fencing club. He wins a gold medal for his country at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and is hailed as a national hero.

A few years after his triumph, Adam is arrested by Hungarian fascists and killed in a particularly sadistic way in front of his son Ivan.

Ivan survives concentration camps, and as Hungary becomes a Soviet satellite, he wreaks revenge on real and fancied fascists by joining the Communist secret police. However, when he is ordered to root out a trumped-up “Zionist conspiracy” against the Communist regime, Ivan has second thoughts.

In 1956, he becomes a leader of the failed anti-Soviet uprising and is sentenced to five years in prison. Upon his release, he immediately goes to the city registry and asks that his name be changed back to Sonnenschein, signifying his return to his Jewish roots. The Sonnenschein men are matched by even stronger women, and there are a great number of intrafamily sexual liaisons and betrayals.

“Sunshine” was created and written (with playwright Israel Horovitz) by Hungarian Jewish director István Szabó, well-known for melding historical and personal themes (“Mephisto,” “Colonel Redl”), who drew in part on his family history in making the film.

The length of the film (three hours) and size of the cast are of near epic proportions, but the focus is relentlessly on Ralph Fiennes, who, in a three-generational role, portrays Ignatz, the judge; Adam, the fencer; and Ivan, the Communist interrogator.

Fiennes, who first came to international attention as the sadistic SS commandant Amon Goeth in “Schindler’s List,” here pictures three assimilated Jews convincingly. Nevertheless, having the same visage, with only minor alterations in facial hair styles, appear in three roles confuses rather than unifies an already densely plotted and populated film. Among the cast members are William Hurt, Miriam Margolyes, Rachel Weisz, Jennifer Ehle, Deborah Kara Unger, James Frain, Molly Parker, John Neville and David de Keyser. Outstanding is Rosemary Harris as the matriarch who survives all vicissitudes and binds together the three generations. “Sunshine” opens June 9 at the Cecchi Gori Fine Arts in Beverly Hills, Laemmle Monica in Santa Monica, and Landmark Rialto in South Pasadena.

The ‘Sunshine’ of Szabós Life

István Szabó, right, directs Jennifer Ehle on the set of “Sunshine,” his epic film about 120 years in the life of a Hungarian Jewish family. Photo courtesy Paramount Classics

Like the characters in his three-generational saga “Sunshine,” director István Szabó is descended from a highly assimilated Hungarian Jewish family.

“For five generations, my ancestors have been doctors and lawyers in Budapest,” says Szabó, speaking by phone from the Hungarian capital.

Yet, despite the surface parallels between the Sonnenschein (German for “Sunshine”) and the Szabó families, the three-hour movie is not autobiographical, the director and screenwriter insists. Each character in the film represents a composite of five or six people whose lives or stories Szabó has encountered during his 62 years.

It might have been fascinating to delve deeper into the life of Szabó, recipient of 60 international awards and an Oscar for such penetrating movies as “Mephisto,” “Colonel Redl” and “Hanussen.” But Szabó would have none of it. After reluctantly acknowledging that he was hidden by nuns during the Holocaust, he declares firmly, “I am not happy talking about myself.”

Discussing the film, though, is another matter. Although Ralph Fiennes, in the triple role of grandfather, father and grandson is the obvious star of the film, the key character, according to Szabó, is the family matriarch, Valerie.

Played by Jennifer Ehle as a young woman and by Rosemary Harris as an older one, Valerie survives the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nazi occupation, and Communist rule, all the while remaining true to herself. “She is the most courageous person of all, the only one who remains faithful and never denies her origins,” Szabó notes. “It is her example that allows her grandson to find himself and return to his roots.”

To understand the attitudes and changing fortunes of the Sonnenschein family, it is important to know about the role of Jews in Hungarian history. “In 1848-49, when Hungarians revolted against the Austrian Hapsburg monarchy, 20,000 young Jews joined the revolution, and many of them were imprisoned after the Hapsburg victory,” says Szabó. “So the Hungarian Jews were very nationalistic and felt that the ‘invisible wall’ that, for instance, separated German Jews from their gentile neighbors did not exist in Hungary.”

To illustrate the point, Szabó points to the town of Kecskemet, about 45 miles from Budapest. “There the main square is surrounded by seven different houses of worship, which were all built toward the end of the 19th century,” Szabó recounts. “There is a baroque Catholic church, a Christian Orthodox church, a Protestant church, an Evangelic middle school, a synagogue and another Catholic church. And in the middle of the square is a coffee shop for everybody.”

Szabó says that he always envisioned that the Sonnenschein men, over three generations, would be played by the same actor, and he rejects the suggestion that this triple-casting might confuse viewers. “By using the same face for grandfather, son and grandson, I wanted to show that the challenges of history, the Jewish struggle to be accepted by society, repeated itself in every generation,” Szabó notes. “However, I needed an actor who could create different characters, and I think that Fiennes has succeeded admirably.”