Arthur Koestler, by origin a Jewish Hungarian, tells us in his autobiography of the many countries he lived in during his youth, often under terrible regimes, either in enviable comfort and in touch with Europe’s best minds, or in prison or a concentration camp. His tale ends in 1940, when, after entering Great Britain illegally, he is released from an English jail. “At this point,” he concludes, “ends this typical case-history of a central-European member of the educated middle classes, born in the first years of our century.”
Like Koestler, the members of the Jewish-Hungarian Sonnenschein family, whose history is recounted in István Szabó’s film Sunshine, share in the extremes of a Central European life. Unlike Koestler’s, most of their adventures, from the sublime to the catastrophic, take place at or near home. In fact, one of the few fixed elements of their complex story is the grand bourgeois apartment in Budapest of four generations of Sonnenscheins (although, as Hungary falls into ruin again and again, the apartment, too, becomes shabbier and shabbier).
“Sunshine” is the English translation of the word Sonnenschein. István Szabó, who made the award-winning Mephisto, among other remarkable films, wrote the script with Israel Horovitz. Apart from many Hungarians, the cast includes several famous American and British actors, among them Ralph Fiennes, who plays the grandfather, son, and grandson of the family, as well as Rosemary Harris and her daughter, Jennifer Ehle, who play the young and then the aging Valerie, the beautiful Sonnenschein who marries her cousin and, more than anyone else, holds the family together.
Szabó’s is an invented story, yet it is based on true incidents. It takes us from Emperor-King Francis Joseph’s liberal and booming Budapest, through Admiral Miklós Horthy’s impoverished counterrevolutionary Hungary in the 1920s and 1930s, to the Holocaust, then to the post-World War II Stalinist regime, the anti-Soviet revolution of 1956, and, finally, to a neoliberal and cautiously prosperous post-Stalinist Hungary. During these seventy-odd years, as they become more established, the Sonnenscheins abandon their Jewish cultural and religious traditions, change their name to Sors (which in Hungarian means “fate”), and finally convert to Catholicism. Following World War II, Ivan Sors, played by Fiennes in his third incarnation, becomes an ardent Stalinist, only to abandon all political illusions toward the end of the film. In the last scene, he takes back the original family name. There is no more need to pretend that he is a Christian Hungarian; at last, he says, he can breathe freely. Thus the main theme of the film, which takes the form of a family history narrated by Ivan, is the failure of Jewish assimilation.
Sunshine has beautiful, dreamlike sequences from Budapest life, with dashing officers and attractive women, all in magnificent period costumes. One of the Sonnenscheins becomes a famous fencer and some spectacular fencing matches are staged in the halls of Budapest’s grand Museum of Applied Arts. As with Szabó’s other films, Sunshine seemed …