If an individual needs musical accompaniment when committing the act of suicide, a song titled “Gloomy Sunday” would seem an appropriate choice. Legend has it that hundreds of people felt similarly and ended their lives listening to this popular ’30s tune.
Written in 1933 by two Hungarians, Rezsô Seress (music) and László Jávor (lyrics), “Gloomy Sunday” gained international notoriety as the “Hungarian Suicide Song” after a spate of suicides was attributed to its melancholy mood. Billie Holiday’s terrifically textured jazz rendition further solidified the song’s place in popular culture. Adapted from a book by Nick Barkow the 1999 German film Gloomy Sunday uses the original song and its sad history as the basis for an epic romance. Set in Budapest in the years before, during, and after World War II the film examines the power of love, music, and friendship.
László Szabo (Joachim Król) has a comfortable and fulfilling life as the owner and operator of an upscale Budapest restaurant where his beautiful lover, Ilona (Erika Marozsán), also works as a waitress. Friendly, good humored, and estimably fair, László is well liked and respected by his diverse clientele. Among the regular patrons of László’s restaurant is Hans Wieck (Ben Becker), a young German, who is as enamored of Ilona as he is of László’s famous beef rolls. Despite his persistence, Hans is rebuffed by Ilona and, in drunken despair, he plunges off a bridge into the Danube. By chance László is a witness to the suicide attempt and rushes into the river to save him. A fragile friendship is thus borne between the Jewish László and the young German businessman.
The arrival of Andras Aradi (Stefano Dionisi) as the new house pianist of the restaurant disrupts the idyll László has worked so hard to create. Ilona is instantly attracted to the young, brooding musician and quickly falls into a romantic relationship with him. Unable or unwilling to relinquish their individual relationships László, Ilona, and Andras settle into what can only be described as a thoroughly civilized ménage à trios.
Inspired by Ilona’s love, Andras composes a piece of music entitled “Gloomy Sunday”. The song becomes a favorite with the restaurant’s patrons and quickly attracts a broader popularity. With the help of László a deal with an Austrian record company is made and the song becomes an international hit. Along with the success, however, comes unexpected tragedy as the melancholic melody is linked to a rash of suicides – 157 in Hungary alone over an eight-week period.
The arrival of Nazi troops in Hungary soon overshadows the frenzy and notoriety surrounding Andras and his ‘suicide song’. Among the troops entering Budapest is Hans, the young German, who is now newly minted as an SS colonel. Craving both László’s beef rolls and Ilona’s beauty, he returns to his favorite restaurant and re-establishes his role in the lives of László, Ilona, and Andras.
It is not until the last third of the film that the emotional power of the story begins to take hold. As the realities of the Nazi occupation press the violence of the streets into the cloistered walls of László’s restaurant the characters, for the first time, realize the true threat to their happiness and love. It is here where the incongruity of the film is most apparent as the intimate human relationships and conflicts of László, Ilona, Andras, and Hans are unsatisfactorily integrated with the brutal scope and drama of the historical reality. The filmmaker’s restrained plotting of the Nazi invasion and exodus of Hungarian Jews is ineffectual as the reality of the Holocaust immediately trumps any emotional buildup of the romantic love story. In spite of this flaw the film remains an engaging piece of cinema, mostly due to its strong lead performances, subject matter, and compelling ending.
Becker, in the stock role of a young Nazi officer, is both strong and convincing. He demonstrates how a Nazi officer’s personal greed, moral ambiguity, and unchecked authority were often times a more lethal combination than any overt hatred of the Jewish people. Joachim Król is equally powerful in the role of László. Eschewing self-pity and cliché, the appeal of this seemingly ordinary man is easy to understand as the character is infused with an understated charm, humor, and determination.
Marozsán’s on-screen presence is arresting and her physical beauty undeniable. Why men would be instantly drawn to her is easy to understand. What is less clear, though, is her personal motivation and story: Is her unwavering devotion to László borne out of love or a complicated platonic loyalty? Is there an identifiable but unspoken melancholy within Ilona that inspired Andras to compose “Gloomy Sunday”? Does she see in Andras a chance to open her heart and reawaken her own passion for music? or is she merely exploiting an opportunity in the hope of escaping the comfortable walls of László’s world? Unfortunately we never get the opportunity to answer such questions for Ilona’s beauty, unlike Andras’s composition, remains superficial and is never given the opportunity to be explored and thus fully realized.
Gloomy Sunday is an accomplished, if somewhat melodramatic and pat piece of entertainment with solid performances, direction, and cinematography. Unable to fully harness the power of its melancholic music the film remains more a (satisfying) pop piece than a transcendent, movie-going experience.