How gloomy is "Gloomy Sunday," the award-winning 1999 German film about a ménage à trois (a love quadrangle, actually) set in Budapest just before and during World War II? The movie is a fictionalized account of a real song once dubbed the "Hungarian Suicide Song," a song so sad it purportedly prompted quite a number of suicides. Indeed, the composer of the song, Rezso Seress, himself committed suicide late in life.
No, the movie won't inspire similar thoughts in the viewer. In fact, the movie is quite romantic, if predictably tragic. The movie's subtitle is "Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod" ("A Song of Love and Death"), if that gives you an idea of the film's subject matter and tone. The real-life song, written in 1933, has been recorded many times, popularized in America by Billie Holiday in the early 1940s but done earlier by Hal Kemp, Paul Robson, Artie Shaw, and others. I think I first heard it years ago by Mel Torme. Heck, even Lou Rawls, Jimmy Witherspoon, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Brightman, Marianne Faithfull, Elvis Costello, and Ricky Nelson have recorded it. The film gives us some idea of the impact its melancholy lyrics and hypnotic tune have had on people.
"Gloomy Sunday" involves three men--one noble, one intense, one naive--and their love for a captivating woman. It also involves the aforementioned song, envy, jealousy, and, because it is told largely in flashback, the despair of the Holocaust. Director Rolf Schubel deftly interweaves these disparate elements, creating a surprisingly cohesive whole. While the movie's story line may resemble a typical love story, it most assuredly is not, and its surprises are among its greatest assets.
The setting is almost wholly within a fancy Budapest restaurant, Restaurant Szabo, the movie beginning in the present day. An elderly and powerful German businessman, Hans Wieck (Ben Becker), is celebrating his eightieth birthday in the restaurant, which he hasn't visited in many years. He asks the violinist to "Please play the song. You know, the famous one." It is a haunting melody, and it brings back memories of Wieck's love for Ilona Varnai (Erika Marozsan), a young woman who once worked there. The song affects him so much that he collapses on the floor and dies then and there, apparently of a heart attack.
The song is "a curse," exclaims the restaurant manager, "although it was written for love, for her, sixty years ago." At this point, the film looks back to 1939 and tells the fictionalized tale of the song's origin and the complications it brought in its wake.
Laszlo Szabo (Joachim Krol) is the Jewish-born owner of the restaurant, and he is Ilona's lover. Together, they manage the place. All is going well for them, their two-year relationship flourishing despite what appears to be more than a few years difference in their ages, until Laszlo decides to hire a pianist to play the big Bosendorfer grand in the center of the dining area. The pianist he chooses is Andras Aradi (Stefano Dionisi), a handsome, dark-haired chap around Ilona's age, who takes an instant liking for Ilona and she for him. Before long, the two men are sharing the same girlfriend, somewhat shakily at first but eventually coming to a mutual understanding. It is during this time that Andras comes to write "Gloomy Sunday" for his loved one, playing it in the restaurant each night, just for her.
Ilona enchants and beguiles every man she meets (understandable when you see the lovely Ms. Marozsan in the role), and this includes a young German, our friend Hans from the beginning of the story, who comes to frequent the restaurant. The first time Hans talks to Ilona, he asks her to marry him, but she already has two men in her life and doesn't need another. She turns him down, causing him great remorse, so much so that he tries to commit suicide (perhaps also as a result of listening to the song), but Laszlo saves his life, a turn that will find its way back into the plot as the years go on.
Meanwhile, Andras records the song, it becomes an international sensation, and people say it prompts literally hundreds of suicides worldwide. Andras loves the money and the fame the song brings in, but he isn't too keen on the morbid deaths the press attribute to him personally.
Then three years pass, and we're deep into World War II. Hans returns to occupied Hungary as a Nazi officer and war profiteer, and from there the story takes ever more curious turns, leading to an altogether unexpected conclusion.
It's hard to say which is more ravishing and alluring in the movie, Ms. Marozsan or the celebrated song. Together, they cast a spell over the viewer, helped immeasurably by the film's color scheme, which always reinforces Ilona's beauty, and the piano music, which plays almost continuously throughout the story. You'll probably find yourself humming it long after you've finished watching the film.
"Gloomy Sunday" exudes joy and heartbreak and a good deal of pure, unadulterated sensuality. You will also find an excellent feeling for period atmosphere; some poignant acting; a wonderfully evocative tone and mood; and perhaps a trifle more self-importance than the story actually deserves. It's a kind of love story for people, especially guys, who generally hate love stories. This one, though, may bewitch, bother, and bewilder even the most cautious non-romantic.
The movie's original 1.85:1 screen ratio here nicely fills out a 1.78:1 widescreen television, and its high-bit-rate transfer is almost too much of a good thing. The color levels are quite deep and intense, too much so to look absolutely natural. Faces are particularly dark, but the deep levels do create a vivid picture. Background grain is not an issue, although the overall image has a slightly rough, grainy appearance to it.
Regardless of the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, I wouldn't look for much surround activity. If there is any, it is in the musical ambience, and there is precious little of that. In compensation, however, the sound is quite dynamic, the opening title music subtly punching out the main tune most realistically. Bass is always present when needed, the tonal balance is nigh-well perfect, and, as we would expect from a modern film, the dialogue is crisp and clear from a dead-silent background.
Warner Bros. chose to let the movie do all of the talking for itself, the studio providing scant bonus materials. There are twenty-one scene selections, but no chapter insert; an opening menu; German as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. Frankly, the movie is more than enough.
A critic's quote on the keep case says that the movie is "a throwback to classics like 'Casablanca.'" There is a point there, although I wouldn't carry it too far. There are superficial similarities in the time and place settings, the music, and the situation of several men in love with the same woman, but from there on out, "Gloomy Sunday" is its own film.
That said, "Gloomy Sunday" is still close to being an old-fashioned love story, with a few decidedly modern twists and, of course, more sexuality and nudity than one would find in an older movie. It's got a beautiful song at its heart, too. Just be sure to stay away from rivers, knives, ropes, and poisons after you hear it.