The theme of assimilation as survival strategy has certainly been covered in movies before, from young Jew Salomon Perel joining the Nazi youth in Europa Europa to Tai’s makeover from Jersey stoner to Beverly Hills glamourpuss in Clueless. But rarely, if ever, has a film expended three hours over as many generations to chart one family’s history of betraying its roots in order to conform and survive. Sunshine, by Hungarian director Istvan Szabo (best known in the U.S. for Mephisto, despite his Glenn Close star vehicle, Meeting Venus), does exactly that.
As expansive as it is personal, Sunshine is the product of Szabo’s own familial history learned by listening to his grandfather’s stories for hours on hours and the tumultuous political tide of Hungary during the 20th century. He originally wrote Sunshine in Hungarian and his early version was considerably longer, before a decision was made to translate the script to English and condense the script, for more “universal” appeal. A Hungarian/Canadian/German/Austrian co-production, the resulting feature film debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in 1999 and opened theatrically in Canada, where it won the Genie (Canada’s Oscar) and was nominated for the European Film Award for Best Picture prior to distribution in the U.S. Paramount Classics finally picked the film up, marketing it to art houses as a Ralph Fiennes showcase rather than promoting its powerful storyline, assuming (perhaps correctly) that audiences don’t care about foreign political history unless the actors are attractive.
Szabo and playwright Israel Horovitiz have divided the movie into three sections, with Fiennes playing all three central characters, a son in each of three generations of the Sonnenschien family. In the first chapter, Fiennes plays Ignatz, an aspiring judge who, at an associate’s suggestion (which amounts to professional blackmail), changes his name from the too-Jewish Sonnenschien (meaning “Sunshine”) to the preferably “Hungarian” Sors. Following suit, his brother Gustave (James Frain, a talented actor still awaiting his breakout role) and cousin Valerie (Jennifer Ehle) merrily change their names as well: in a single moment, the Sonnenschien legacy, strictly speaking, is wiped out. In addition to changing his name, Ignatz defies familial tradition by falling in love with Valerie, a cousin raised as his sister and the character who provides the emotional continuity throughout the generations. (In later chapters, the role is played by Ehle’s real-life mother, Rosemary Harris, who shares the same radiant eyes and smart cheekbones.) Although the first is the least compelling of the three stories, it fulfills its function as exposition and establishes the theme of betrayal of the father.
In the second chapter, Fiennes plays Adam, a master fencer who blindly seeks glory and joins the all-gentile Officer’s Club in order to compete for a spot on the team for the Berlin Olympics, presided over by Hitler himself. Like Jesse Owens in Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, Adam (who, after all, remains Jewish despite his parents’ name change) proves victorious at an event hosted by people who fundamentally hate him, simultaneously disproving the notion of Aryan supremacy and becoming complicit with the Nazis’ self-congratulatory display by participating at all. When the Jewish Hungarians are first shipped off to concentration camps, the Sorses are relieved to get off on several technicalities, including that Adam was an Olympic champion (can this really have been a criterion?). The scene in which the family is crowded around the radio to hear if they will be spared or not has a breathless tension that makes it one of the most haunting in the film.
Being Nazis, however, the S.S. eventually reneges on its deal and the family is deported to Auschwitz. In an appropriately dehumanizing and agonizing scene that unfolds in near-real time, Adam is humiliated, tortured, killed, and hung from a tree, a lesson for his fellow Jews. Perhaps it’s Fiennes’ penance for his evil deeds in his star-making turn as Nazi Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, and Adam’s punishment for forgetting who he really is. The horrifying sequence of events is witnessed by Adam’s son Ivan (Janos Nemes), who does nothing but watch.
When an older Ivan (now played by Fiennes) returns home after surviving the camp, the final chapter begins, as this next generation Sors puts his faith in Communism. Of the characters in the film, Ivan is Fiennes’ most developed, beginning as a man haunted by his father’s death and angered by his own inaction. As he rises through the ranks of the Communist Party, however, he seemingly has learned nothing from his past. He betrays a fellow party member by falling for his wife (Deborah Kara Unger of Crash), providing the most clandestine and passionately fucked-up love story in the film. He then turns on his mentor, Knorr (William Hurt), whom authorities suspect of wrongdoing. The character and the film come full circle when, realizing the oppression of the Party is not much of an improvement over a dictatorship, Ivan dissociates himself from organized politics and changes his name back to Sonnenschien.
As grand as Sunshine aspires to be, it feels rushed. Major historical moments pass so quickly that the characters are barely allowed to react, thereby reducing the potential impact of making major events meaningful in a personal way. The three central Sorses are not fully realized. Instead and this surely is in part due to the casting of Fiennes in all the roles they seem more like splinters of one character than three distinct personalities. Fiennes, an actor better suited to historical films than contemporary ones (need one utter the words, Strange Days?), was Szabo’s first and only choice for the part. And, despite the thinness of the script’s characterizations, Fiennes has the dexterity and charisma to pull it off as well as experience playing Hungarian (in The English Patient) and a resume that includes several films set during WWII (Patient, Schindler’s List, The End of the Affair). Considering the screenplay’s limitations, the wonderful transition of Valerie from Ehle to Harris seems even more astounding: she has a fullness none of the other characters even approach. Sunshine easily could have stretched (and possibly did in early drafts) into a six- or nine-hour mini-series.
Unfortunately, while it may have been possible to make Sunshine for European television with its full vision, length, and integrity intact, it is doubtful that it would not have been accessible (more in terms of distribution than comprehension) to U.S. audiences. And so, the theatrical release plays like a Reader’s Digest version of the story. It’s still remarkable, engaging, and significant, but it is missing some of the passion and soul that might have emerged from the characters if they had more time to breathe and live. By historical epic standards, the film looks economical (that is, cheap) and not at all as gorgeous as one might expect.
Depressingly, this morality tale about assimilation reads like the product of global financing (probably the only way a film of such scale might get funded) and compromises on length, budget, and political furor for the sake of recouping its money in multiple international territories. As a result, it is simply not as audacious as one might hope. Still, Sunshine contains enough remarkable scenes, characters, and themes to make the enterprise commendable, even if it does not entirely live up to its potential.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/sunshine/