Sunshine, directed and co-written by the Hungarian Istvan Szabo but with an entirely English-speaking cast, is a superbly well-crafted film that manages, unlike so many of its elephantine brethren these days, to keep our attention riveted throughout its three-hour length. For what it is, it could hardly be better, but what-it-is is family- saga soap opera that piggybacks on several of the 20th century’s more regrettable passages for most of its emotional energy. For Jews, it also has a thumpingly resounding message about the inevitability of Jewishness — as a racial and social identification, not a religious one — and the wrong and misguided hopes of assimilation which so unfortunately dominate the middle two of the four generations of the Sonnenschein family that the film concerns itself with. To a gentile critic such emphasis on a Jewish racial identity without reference to the Jewish religion, though it is entirely understandable in the light of 20th century history, smacks a bit of the craze for identity politics which has had such unfortunate consequences in that century’s closing decades.
But given the film’s assumptions about racial identity, it does a magnificent job of dramatising and illustrating them. The story concerns the Hungarian Sonnenscheins (German for “sunshine”) whose patriarch, Emmanuel (David de Keyser), comes to Budapest in the mid-19th century with a recipe for a tonic (called Sunshine) which is immediately successful and makes his fortune. The story proper, however, begins with the romance between Ignatz (Ralph Fiennes), one of the twin sons of Emmanuel and his wife Rose (Miriam Margolyes) and his adoptive sister, Valerie (Jennifer Ehle). Though they are in fact cousins, Rose especially sees the liaison as incestuous and pronounces a curse upon the marriage before she realizes that Valerie’s pregnancy makes marriage necessary.
This curse has a symbolic significance, coming as it does as a result of the younger generation’s disobedience of parental authority (much is made of Emmanuel’s having bowed to such authority himself in a similar situation in his youth). Later when Ignatz is told that his legal career would be advanced if he were to change his name to something that sounded “a bit more Hungarian” — that is, a bit less Jewish — he and Valerie and his brother Gustave (James Frain) all decide together to change their name to “Sors,” which in Hungarian as in Latin means “lot” , “fate” or “destiny.” Again, the symbolism is a bit heavy-handed, but the point is well made when the three of them come laughing and gay from the registry office after the official name change, as if it were to them, as indeed it seems at the time, a joyous liberation from the dead hand of family and tradition. Emmanuel asks if they mean also to change their religion. Ignatz assures him that there is no thought of that.
This sense of the promise of the new is the best thing about the film and what makes it transcend its somewhat narrow concern with Jewish ethnicity. In one way it is far too obvious to have Ignatz at a New Year’s Eve party on December 31st, 1899 proposing a toast to the 20th century by saying “I predict this will be a century of love, justice and tolerance,” but the sentiment was widely shared at the time and the dramatic ironies so obvious from our point of view are history’s and not just Szabo’s. I only wish he had devoted a bit more time to Gustave’s career in radical and Communist politics, which was the theatre in which so many of those hopes of a better world played their too-brief part in the century’s story and expired.
Instead he concentrates on the story of Ignatz, whose efforts to serve the Emperor as an incorruptible judge in a time of great corruption end with the empire’s defeat in the First World War. Ignatz dies a broken man and the focus shifts to his son, Adam, also played by Mr. Fiennes, who carries the process of assimilation a stage further by converting to Roman Catholicism and marrying a gentile. He is a champion fencer who wins the Olympic gold medal in sabre for Hungary in the Berlin games of 1936 (his story here is loosely based on that of the great Hungarian fencer Endre Kabos, who did win gold in 1936). The film’s most unforgettable scene takes place in a concentration camp a few years later when Adam, invited to identify himself as a Jew, insists that “I am an officer of the Hungarian army…the national fencing champion…an Olympic gold medalist” even under the immediate threat of death.
“I’ll show you what you are,” says the guard. “You’re garbage.”
From here the focus shifts to Adam’s son, Ivan, also played by Mr. Fiennes, who becomes a secret policeman, ruthlessly hunting down ex-Nazis for Hungary’s post-war Communist government — until his inevitable disillusionment. The film ends with the end of the Cold War and Ivan’s re-branding as, once again, a Sonnenschein. Szabo says that “I think this story shows how three supposedly different regimes — an Empire, a Nazi regime and a Communist regime — each promise happiness but carry out dreadful acts in the name of society’s betterment.” Although this, he says, “has repeatedly been the experience of the 20th century,” he himself indulges the hope that “sometimes a generation comes along that will not continue the cycle.” This seems to me rather a glib conclusion to this harrowing story of modernity, but we must just hope that, unlike Ignatz Sors at the turn of the last century, he is right.