István szabó’s highly uneven Sunshine, starring Ralph Fiennes in three separate roles, is an epic romance encompassing several generations of a Hungarian Jewish family as well as most of the twentieth century and its attendant political horrors. Szabó’s script originally ran some 600 pages; the version that’s on the screen, written in collaboration with the American playwright Israel Horovitz, lasts three hours. The results are schematic yet sprawling. We’re watching the playing-out of a thesis, which could be summarized as You can never escape your roots, but along the way Szabó demonstrates the kind of grand-scale ambition one still sees in novels but rarely sees anymore in the movies. What I am speaking of here is conceptual ambition, not the bigger-is-better pomp and pageantry that most filmmakers mistake for breadth.
You certainly feel like you’ve been through something when Sunshine ends. But what, exactly? Szabó’s specialty, notably in films like Mephisto and Colonel Redl, both starring Klaus Maria Brandauer, is dramatizing the bloody confluence of politics and matters of the heart. He is a fatalist who believes that history plays out our destinies. And yet he is drawn to the ways in which people fight the inevitability of their fates. He’s drawn to decadence too; the most memorable moments in his movies are not the humanist ones but, instead, those passages in which the screen is wormy with terror and corruption.
The Sonnenscheins (the name means sunshine in German) are the family whose destiny is being played out. Emmanuel (David de Keyser), the patriarch, created the family fortune with the marketing of an herbal health tonic; his advice to his two sons, Ignatz (Fiennes) and Gustave (James Frain), is to “take nothing on trust, see everything for yourself.” Gustave, in love with Ignatz’s wife, Valerie (Jennifer Ehle), a first cousin raised within the family, becomes a firebrand physician who rails against the reigning Austro-Hungarian monarchy; Ignatz becomes a judge and staunch defender of the empire. With his father’s blessing, he changes his surname from the Jewish-sounding Sonnenschein to Sors, an acceptably Hungarian appellation. Neglecting his wife, who despises his accommodationist cravings, Ignatz is a caricature of middle-class respectability, a poseur whose pose has become the man.
His son Adam (Fiennes), an even fiercer assimilator, grows up into a lawyer and champion fencer who converts to Catholicism in order to compete at the highest levels. A gold-medalist at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, he ultimately is done in by the Fascist forces he refused to foresee. Adam’s young son, Ivan (later played by Fiennes), who narrates the film, watches as his father is tortured and murdered before his eyes in a concentration camp, and survives to revenge himself as a Communist – before falling victim to yet another strain of totalitarianism.
Szabó carefully sets up the three characters played by Fiennes to represent the phases of a man’s life: Ignatz wants power, Adam glory, Ivan redemption. He gives each of them a distinct look, too, as a beard gives way to a mustache and ultimately to a more sunken, sallow countenance. Casting Fiennes in all these roles is something of a stunt, but at the most basic level of our not confusing one man with the other, he brings it off. Missing, however, is the spellbinding performance that would unify this behemoth of a movie. Szabó’s films require not only heroic protagonists but heroic actors to play them, someone like Klaus Maria Brandauer. (What has happened to him?) Fiennes’s soulfulness can be wearying. He’s too elegantly refined, too effete, too Dirk Bogarde-ish to carry the day. His resonant blankness doesn’t allow us to see behind the mask, and in roles like these, that’s a near-fatal flaw.
The meanings of this movie seemed coerced rather than arrived at. If we are meant to interpret Sunshine as a cautionary tale about the dangers of denying one’s roots, we come face-to-face with the realization that for the Sonnenscheins, it ultimately mattered little to their survival whether they declared themselves Jews. Would a scenario in which Ignatz and Adam embraced their Jewishness have resulted in a far different fate? Name change or no, Hitler and Stalin were still waiting in the wings. In one unsubtle scene, Ivan is asked why no one among the thousands of prisoners was moved to save his father when there were only three officers in command. At times, Szabó seems to be implying that his characters’ accommodations brought on the dictators. The family, starting with Emmanuel, is never shown to be terribly rooted in Jewish tradition anyway. That may be part of the point, but we are being asked to mourn a lost cultural bond that has never been fully established for us.
There’s something uncomfortably punitive about the way Szabó frames this story. Ignatz’s wife, now a wise old matriarch (played radiantly by Rosemary Harris, Jennifer Ehle’s mother), speaks of the family’s fate as a Jewish fate. Is the assimilationist dream of wanting to belong such a grievous malady? And if one takes the larger view that many of these people have indelibly compromised their individuality, then why do they yet seem so individual?
For all its scope and intermittent power, Sunshine ultimately seems like a family squabble that Szabó has politicized into epic proportions. The brother-vs.-brother infighting, the messing-around with each other’s wives, the affairs and recriminations and capitulations would be just as likely to occur in Boise as in Budapest. Inflating their importance by presenting them against the backdrop of the Holocaust and the Gulag in the end deflates them. Whenever Szabó inserts documentary clips of the Jewish ghetto, or the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the acted-out drama is vastly diminished by comparison. Conceptual epics are wonderful things, but the concept here is as deficient as the curative powers of the Sonnenschein-family tonic.