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The Ominous Decadence of László Nemes’s ‘Sunset’

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Juli Jakab as Irisz Leiter in László Nemes’s Sunset, 2019

Sunset, the forty-two-year-old French-Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes’s follow-up to his astonishing 2015 debut Son of Saul, is a gothic melodrama and a modernist period piece that, set on the eve of World War I and shadowed by impending doom, might be called “Mysteries of Budapest” or even, after Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella, “Dream Story,” for its phantasmagoric backdrop. 

As a movie, Sunset, like Son of Saul, is something of a perpetual motion machine. Nemes’s first film was an immersion in Auschwitz amid the mass-murder frenzy of October 1944 when the gassing of Hungarian Jews had been nearly completed. It depicts, in what might almost be a single endless take, a Sonderkommando’s absurd, obsessive quest to secure a Jewish burial for a boy whom he imagines to be his son. Obviously far less dire but nonetheless alarming, Sunset tracks the quest of its protagonist, the young milliner Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), an orphan arrived in Budapest, to find employment at Leiter, the fashionable, luxury emporium founded by her parents. Her mere presence inspires unease among the staff: What prompted her return? Is she asking for reparations?

The hat store is now, in 1913, owned by the duplicitous but not altogether unsympathetic Oszkár Brill (the Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov, best known for playing the abortionist in Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). He is perhaps an usurper, possibly a family friend, or most likely both. The shadows are long. Enigma is deep and constant. 

Doggedly navigating an urban labyrinth, Irisz suggests a cross between Nancy Drew and Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Jakab, who had the major female role in Son of Saul, is unsmiling and resolute. Her eyes strain to pierce the veil of appearances as she moves from seedy inns to genteel garden parties to torch-lit rituals, encountering a succession of unfriendly authority figures, conspiratorial lunatics, enigmatic brigands, and dissolute aristocrats, both local and German-speaking.

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Juli Jakab as Irisz Leiter in Sunset, 2019

Irisz may be dour but Budapest is extravagantly gay, full of festive crowds as Leiter prepares to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary gala. If the store’s extravagant bonnets and touring hats, festooned with ribbons and feathers, are meant to be a woman’s crowning glory, Leiter itself seems the height of Mitteleuropean bourgeois civilization. (Among other things the store contains a shrine to Austria’s beloved Empress Elisabeth, or “Sisi,” who once shopped there for a hat.) Initially rebuffed, Irisz crashes several fêtes; at one a bearded stranger ominously warns her that “blood will flow here this week.”

In one sense, Sunset is Son of Saul’s prequel, a descent into a maelstrom that bodes the impending collapse of the Habsburg empire. In another sense, the movie seems almost a sequel. In her name and situation, Irisz might be a displaced Jew returning to her home city to reclaim confiscated family property. That her parents died in a fire (which is to say were consumed by a holocaust) is also suggestive. So, too, the fact that her mysterious, hitherto unknown, brother (the Polish actor Marcin Czarnik, also a veteran of Son of Saul) is a fanatical opponent of the Habsburg status quo in general and Leiter in particular. 

Nemes packs the streets with extras but perversely limits his crowd scenes. The cinematographer Mátyás Erdély keeps his mobile camera close to Irisz (as he did with Saul), creating a sense of pressure beyond the frame; focusing on her renders the teeming environment elusive. Period detail is evident but never dwelt upon. The film’s visceral immediacy is matched by the background muttering of Sensaround-style sound design and an unbalancing score by composer László Melis that might include a csárdás (folk dance) or waltz in one scene, and something subtly discordant in another. 

Sunset is hardly understated. Nemes has his share of baroque visual ideas—starting a scene behind a pane of frosted glass, exiting a dark interior into dazzling sunlight—but his great gift is for choreographed action. The son of a notable Hungarian director, András Jeles, and a onetime assistant to the reigning maestro of Hungarian cinema, Béla Tarr, Nemes here establishes a connection with Hungary’s greatest filmmaker, Miklós Jancsó—not only with his restless camera maneuvers but in adopting Jancsó’s knack for creating a drama in which trust is an illusion and every interaction is a wary, circling confrontation. 

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Vlad Ivanov as Oszkár Brill in Sunset, 2019

Festive as this belle époque may be, barbarism is never far beneath the surface. Dread is constant. The mood is not unlike that of Kubrick’s Schnitzler adaptation, Eyes Wide Shut, or, more locally, the morbid, opium-infused fantasies of the early twentieth-century writer Géza Csáth. With intimations of human sacrifice and anarchist cults, Sunset is suspenseful and absorbing, if also repetitive and, at 140 minutes, a bit overlong. Premonitory disasters—as when Leiter’s celebratory fireworks go off prematurely—anticipate the savage violence to come. “This disordered and decayed Hungary is not yet sufficiently on her last legs to prevent her from looking at the future which is likely to ensue,” the poet-journalist Endre Ady wrote in May 1914, some three months before the outbreak of a war he would call a “world-catastrophe.” 

Sunset reaches its climax with a scene of exultant nihilist destruction. More witness than participant, Irisz disappears into the unfocused smoke to reappear in a brief coda, set in the antechamber of another hell on earth, where, found by the camera, she stares fiercely into the lens—a conclusion that some who saw the movie at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the international critics prize, thought unearned even as it crystallizes the movie’s sense of impending doom.

Interviewed in Venice, Nemes told Variety that Sunset depicts a pivotal moment in European history, including the rise of extremism, that resonates in many ways with the present day. Elsewhere, he’s written of his apocalyptic belief that “we live in a world that is not that far from the one before the Great War of 1914. A world utterly blind to the forces of destruction it feeds at its core. We are not far from the processes that took place in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.”

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Evelin Dobos as Zelma and Vlad Ivanov as Oszkár Brill in Sunset, 2019

Awkward, then, that the filmmaker, who grew up and lives in Paris, would appear to be a leading beneficiary of Viktor Orbán’s increasingly authoritarian, openly xenophobic, culturally reactionary regime—whose minions’ attacks led last year to cancelled performances of the musical Billy Elliot as homosexual propaganda, criticism of a Frida Kahlo exhibition as “promoting communism,” and the banning of gender studies at Hungarian universities, to name only a few recent skirmishes. Both Son of Saul and Sunset were government-subsidized, and the latter seems to have been lavishly underwritten. While, as Nemes has pointed out, Sunset is hardly patriotic and cannot be construed as supportive of Hungarian nationalism, the movie can be read as a cautionary tale—the polygot Habsburg Empire perhaps standing in for the European Union—and seen as an advertisement for indigenous culture as opposed to a decadent cosmopolitanism.

That the arch-nationalist Orbán went out of his way to praise Son of Saul on Facebook, once the movie—which had predictably been denounced by Hungarian anti-Semites—won an Oscar, makes it additionally difficult for Nemes to criticize the Hungarian prime minister. In fact, Nemes’s true patron was Andy Vajna, the Canadian-Hungarian movie producer responsible for Rambo. Vajna, who took charge of Hungary’s film industry in 2011 and died this past January, backed Son of Saul, which was unable to secure European financing, as well as Sunset.

Perhaps Nemes—an artist far more comfortable discussing his filmmaking than his politics—is speaking through the character who says of Leiter’s elaborate creations: “the horror of the world hides beneath these infinitely pretty things.”


Sunset opens in New York and Los Angeles on March 22.