Where does an artist go after Auschwitz? László Nemes, the director of the implacably sinister Hungarian drama “Sunset,” has had to grapple with the question as few others have. He won an Oscar and nearly every international film prize under the sun for his 2015 feature debut, “Son of Saul,” which plunged the viewer into a grimly persuasive simulacrum of a Nazi death camp and, for its many admirers, delivered the last word on how a filmmaker should depict the unthinkable.
It may also have rendered an unshakable verdict on Nemes himself, whose obvious technical ingenuity had found its most imposing subject — but also, in a way, its most obvious. Whether they traffic in grim horror or dubious uplift, movies about the Holocaust have long since hardened into their own predictable subgenre. The radicalism of “Son of Saul” could be appreciated not just because it was so brutal and overwhelming, but also because it was so strange and destabilizing. It restored a vital element of disorientation to a story that had grown all too familiar.
Disorientation is even more the order of the day in “Sunset,” in part because its historical moment exerts far less of a grip on the collective imagination. This is an easier movie to watch than “Son of Saul,” insofar as we cannot hear the machinery of mass murder grinding away relentlessly off-screen. But its peculiar dramatic alchemy — the way Nemes places his mad formal audacity in service of a tangled, perversely withholding narrative — makes it a rather more difficult one to absorb.
Scholars of the waning glory days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire will have something of an advantage. We are in Budapest in the 1910s, a world of white-lace finery and horse-drawn carriages that is rivaled only by its sister city, Vienna, as the apex of European wealth and cultural refinement. The movie’s first image is of a 20-year-old woman named Irisz (Juli Jakab), her eyes hidden by the brim of an enormous hat she’s trying on at Leiter’s, a high-end milliner’s shop. The initial concealment of her gaze is telling; who this young woman is and what she wants are among the movie’s most persistent mysteries.
The first reversal arrives within minutes: Irisz’s surname is Leiter, and she has come not to buy a hat but rather to apply for a job at the shop that her parents owned years ago before it burned down, taking them with it. Leiter’s has since been restored to its old splendor, and its oily new proprietor, Oszkár Brill (the excellent Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov), clearly thought highly enough of the name to keep it. But Brill has no interest in hiring Irisz and sends her away, setting a pattern for the sneering hostility and paranoia she will receive from nearly everyone she encounters.
These strangers include the many pretty, petulant frowners who work at Leiter’s and various men who emerge to hiss cryptic warnings at Irisz (“You have awakened us!” “Blood will flow here this week!”) before vanishing back into the torchlit night. At one point, Irisz is accosted by a snarling coachman (Levente Molnár) at her hotel, but it will take more than a manhandling or two to deter her from her quest. Eventually, she finds out about a brother she never knew she had named Kálmán Leiter, whose violent reputation — he is said to have murdered a count named Rédey five years earlier — may explain the cruelty and suspicion that greet her at every turn.
By now it should be clear that Nemes, who wrote the script with Clara Royer and Matthieu Taponier, has little use for conventional explanations. But if individual scenes and subplots remain dauntingly opaque, the overall arc of “Sunset” is clear enough. As Irisz moves from bustling streets and afternoon garden parties into a shadowy underworld of crime and conspiracy, she is not merely chasing the truth about her patrimony; she is our witness to the last gasp of European high decadence before it vanishes into the bloody maw of World War I.
It’s a compelling thesis, though predicated less on supporting arguments than on dramatic feints and hallucinations, on scenes that either evaporate like smoke or strand the viewer in a thick cloud of metaphor. “Sunset” is maddening and mesmerizing. At every turn, Nemes uses his considerable formal powers — aided immeasurably by Mátyás Erdély’s restless handheld cinematography and László Melis’ eerily dissonant string score — to unmoor us from the usual trappings of story and character, to summon feelings of dread and displacement not yet fully registered by the narrative.
We follow Irisz all over Budapest without quite knowing exactly where she ends up or why: Where is this carriage taking her? Why is she being rowed, as if by Charon himself, across the Danube? We find ourselves sharing her state of heightened but weirdly decontextualized anxiety, trying to solve a puzzle that turns into an existential labyrinth. Stray tendrils of plot are dispensed through background chatter, much of it swallowed up by the steady cracking of whips, the neighing of horses and the steady chug-chug of approaching locomotives.
The visual scheme proves similarly elusive. Shooting on gorgeously dusky 35-millimeter film, Nemes and Erdély weave long, sinuous tracking shots around Irisz, often using the image’s shallow focus to isolate her at the center of the frame while Budapest becomes a teeming, seething background blur. In “Son of Saul,” this strategic blurring served a crucial if much-debated purpose, ensuring that Nemes’ skillful re-creation of Auschwitz did not devolve into an obscene, pornographic display.
“Sunset” is governed by no such moral or aesthetic logic, and its use of the same formal constraints can’t help but feel coy and mannered by comparison, at least initially. In time, the deeper meaning of that aesthetic, its principled insistence on drawing our attention away from the obvious, comes into focus. As one character notes, “The horror of the world hides beneath these infinitely pretty things.” He is referring to Leiter’s opulent wares, but he is also speaking to a more universal condition of human evil, the tendency of corrupt, exploitative societies to conceal themselves behind the trappings of luxury and glamour.
At times, the twisty contours of the plot are illuminated with sudden clarity, particularly those involving Count Rédey’s grieving widow (Julia Jakubowska) and the ugly truth about Leiter’s, which turns out to play a highly specific role in the city’s ruthlessly patriarchal order. In these moments, “Sunset” becomes, among other things, a movie about the abuse and subjugation of women in any era, in times of peace as well as war.
And in Irisz, it has a protagonist who doesn’t fight back against these oppressive forces so much as prove oddly, defiantly impervious to them. Sometimes immaculately dressed and coiffed, sometimes disheveled and veiled in sweat, Jakub gives a taciturn but unrelentingly physical performance, anchored by a gaze that confronts every fresh horror with both intense vulnerability and fierce determination. She teaches you to watch the movie by watching her; a single glance, registering some fresh information off-camera, is all it takes to send her on a sudden change of course.
The last time we see Irisz, in a long tracking shot that brings the movie’s thesis to a “gotcha!” close, she fixes the camera with a flinty stare that could be interpreted as a wink or a rebuke — or a revelation. This woman, you realize, is neither a troublemaker nor a victim; she’s more like an expression of conscience, a physical and spiritual emanation from a higher plane of moral intelligence. You never fear for Irisz in “Sunset.” You fear for the world she’s passed through and found sorely, tragically wanting.
Hungarian and German dialogue with English subtitles
Rating: R, for some violence
Running time: 2 hours, 22 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal theaters, West Los Angeles