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'Sunshine': Illuminating the Dark Hours of History

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 23, 2000


    'Sunshine' Istvan Szabo directs this three-hour long saga. (Paramount Classics)
Its misleadingly chipper title aside, "Sunshine" turns out to be a meditation on the agonies of 20th-century history. It's a brilliant, profound movie, but it's almost no fun at all.

Its central theme is the human need to belong. The Sonnenscheins' problem: They don't. They are outsiders. They want to be insiders. They try, they try, they try, through three generations of wretched European history, through war and politics and pogrom and purge, through the rise and fall of totalitarian systems, wanting only the smallest of things--to assimilate. They never do, and they pay in blood for the delusion that it is even possible.

The movie is by the Hungarian director Istvan Szabo, who made another meditation on the vanities of man in "Mephisto" (1981). "Sunshine" is one of those films that can be described without irony as "sweeping"; it effortlessly flits from the civilized old empire of Franz Joseph to the barbaric new one of Adolf Hitler, and finally to the just-as-nasty variant of Joseph Stalin. Riding the crest of each wave is a leading Sonnenschein son--the sunshine of his generation, you might say--all of whom are played by the same actor. This trick of casting may offend some, and it certainly invites gibes: No matter what he looks like as a child, the latest Sonnenschein scion turns out to be Ralph Fiennes. You could have done a lot worse in the gene pool.

Szabo bases his story on his own family history to some degree, which may account for its peculiarity. One must say that however familiar the material is, Szabo takes us into nooks and crannies of it previously unexamined.

The Sonnenscheins are of course Jews. Brilliant, ambitious, gifted with wealth and talent, the family seems cursed by two things: that hunger to assimilate and the near-incestuous marriage of cousins, which seems almost to invoke an Old Testament curse, by which, as lofty as they become, they will always be brought back down. Come to think of it, both pathologies are really the same: They are denying their Jewish roots and laws, their very Jewishness, and seeking to live in a gentile world. Szabo's point: There will be consequences.

The source of the family fortune is an herbal tonic--named, after a literal translation of the family's German name, Sunshine--that becomes something like the Coca-Cola of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Emmanuel Sonnenschein (David De Keyser) flees Germany to Budapest after his father dies in an explosion in the still, carrying with him the secret recipe in a small black book. In the Hungarian capital, he begins small but quickly becomes big, until he lives in a cosmopolitan villa filled with art, the happy lord of all he surveys, and proudest of all of his two sons and his "daughter," Valerie (Jennifer Ehle; played in old age by her mother, Rosemary Harris), who is actually the child of one of his siblings.

The boys like her, too--maybe too much. They compete for her love, with the eldest, Ignatz, prevailing. He defies his father, and ancient Jewish law, and marries her; this act seems to implant the curse. Ignatz, played by Fiennes, becomes a judge, and he is a fair, scrupulous man, but it is he, in that urge to mesh, who changes the family name when he is advised that the next rank in judicial hierarchy will never go to somebody with a "funny name." He pauses; he considers; he yields. He and his brother take a new surname, Sors--Hungarian for "fate"--and don't look back. He grows earnest, regal, successful but represents the empire that nourishes him in his rigidity until he has lost the love of his wife.

This first generation passes away, bitterly, without much pleasure. Ignatz's son is Adam (Fiennes once again), and his talent, which finds a place in the '30s Hungary of the dictator Horthy, is for fencing. He also commits a crime against ancient Jewish law by entering into a love affair with his sister-in-law. He seems to have it all: He's handsome, dashing, sublimely gifted. He leaves the old religion behind to become a Catholic and thereby qualify for the officers' fencing club, under whose auspices he wins a gold medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a Jew standing under the swastika and listening to the roar of the crowd. (Adam's story is probably the most gripping of the three.)

His sin is vanity also; he cannot believe that he, Olympic medal winner, boulevardier, hero, star, would be treated as just another Jew by the Nazis. For his blindness, he pays a fearful price.

The son is Ivan Sors (yes, Fiennes), who has a clearer view of Hitler's helpers. Surviving a brutal adolescence in a frozen labor camp, he becomes a Nazi-hunting secret policeman in the new Communist Hungary. But once all the Nazis are caught, the state's impulse to hunt still remains and soon he's a mechanic of the purge, as the party seeks to shed deviationists, wreckers and opportunists. That all are innocent is of no matter. Only when he's instrumental in the destruction of his mentor (played with dignity by William Hurt) does he see the error of his ways, and a last chance for redemption.

Szabo never met a literary device he didn't fall in love with. Besides the parallels of plots in each generation (each son has a doomed illicit affair, each rises but is destroyed) there's also some (too much) gimcrack symbolism, including that lost recipe book (surely the true Jewish way), too many broken teacups (the fragility of the family), a subtheme of photography that commemorates sacred moments, to be enshrined on shelves in subsequent dwellings, and on and on.

That said, "Sunshine" is the rare movie about something. It's got a point of view and a view of history. It's smart, ambitious and, by its savage bleakness, it seems, like the Sonnenscheins themselves, doomed to failure.

SUNSHINE (180 minutes) is rated R for violence and sex.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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