Budapest, late 1980s or early 1990s: A distinguished-looking German tycoon (Rolf Becker) has returned to Budapest to celebrate his 80th birthday at the restaurant that was his favorite when he was a colonel in the Third Reich's army of occupation. He orders for his party his beloved Magyar roulade, requests a certain cherished song, suddenly becomes transfixed by a photograph of a beautiful young woman in an Art Deco frame and, taking a sip of champagne, drops dead.
Thus begins "Gloomy Sunday," which takes its title from that song, setting in an instant a tone of romantic melodrama for a flashback to the late '30s. Then as now, Restaurant Szabo is a timelessly elegant establishment. Its proprietor, Laszlo Szabo (Joachim Krol), is a pleasant-looking, somewhat paunchy man who may be 40. He is dedicated to his business, which is bustling, and is happily involved in a romance with his waitress, Ilona (Erika Marozsan, who possesses the magnetism her role demands). She is the gorgeous creature of that photograph.
When Szabo hires a handsome, moody young pianist (Stefano Dionisi), the attraction between Dionisi's Andras and Ilona is immediate and mutual, but soon the urbane and wise Laszlo, while offering Ilona her freedom, has deftly orchestrated a workable menage a trois. Happiness pretty much reigns again at Restaurant Szabo, and then a young German tourist Hans Wieck (Ben Becker, son of Rolf), so smitten by Ilona that he promptly proposes, becomes neither her lover nor her fiance but the trio's friend. But war draws ever closer.
Three years later, Hans is back as a German colonel; in the meantime Andras has become the celebrated but increasingly controversial composer of "Gloomy Sunday," a haunting song so reflective of the times that a startling number of people have committed suicide while listening to it. (The song was actually composed in 1935 by Rezso Seress, with lyrics by Laszlo Javor, and did in fact accompany a number of suicides as Europe grew darker; Billie Holliday recorded a popular American version).
At this point, director Rolf Schubel and his co-writer, Ruth Toma, in adapting Nick Barkow's novel, allow "Gloomy Sunday" to kick in with an acute sense of immediacy, suspense and danger. In a sense the film turns back on itself. Schubel has risked seeming old-fashioned, with all the heady tempestuousness of three men in love with the same woman, to set up a sharp and darkly ironic contrast with all that follows. Throughout the film, Krol is its linchpin, revealing Laszlo to be a man of character and resolve as well as warmth and sophistication. However, Laszlo can no longer afford to be indifferent to his own Jewishness.
The blond and commanding Ben Becker creates an exceptionally complex Nazi officer, charging the film with ambiguity. He believes wholeheartedly in the Third Reich, although perhaps in himself even more, and can be ruthless in supporting it, but he also has a need to see himself as humane and civilized. So rigorous is "Gloomy Sunday" in peeling away its layers that only in its last moments do we understand why Hans would feel so comfortable returning to Budapest to celebrate his 80th birthday.
The well-turned English in the subtitles suggests the German dialogue must be exceptionally literate, and the four principals give complex and shaded portrayals. "Gloomy Sunday" is a beautiful period piece, set against one of the world's glorious cities, adding poignancy. Twists and turns heighten a gradually accruing effect, building to a risky moment of truth, a coup de theatre that is as daring as it is satisfying.
MPAA rating: Unrated.
Times Guidelines: Nudity, some sex, adult themes.
Joachim Krol...Laszlo Szabo
Ben Becker...Hans Wieck
Rolf Becker...Older Hans
A Menemsha Films presentation. Director Rolf Schubel. Producer Richard Schops. Executive producers Martin Rohrbeck, Aron Sipos. Screenplay Ruth Toma and Rolf Schubel; from the novel by Nick Barkow. Cinematographer Edward Klosinski. Editor Ursula Hof. Music Detlef Friedrich Petersen, Rezso Seress. Costumes Andrea Flesch. Production designers Csaba Stork, Volker Schaefer. In German, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.
At selected theaters.