Unconventional love triangle elevates wartime drama set in Budapest
Director Rolf Schübel vividly brings this sort of beauty to visual life in “Gloomy Sunday,” the story of a Jewish restaurant owner, the woman he loves, and the pianist that brings them success.
Set in Budapest, “Gloomy Sunday” begins with a German industrialist returning to Budapest after many years, to celebrate his 80th birthday at the restaurant Szabo. While being toasted by his friends, he drops dead when the musicians abide his request and play the piece “ Gloomy Sunday.” The movie then spends all but five minutes in flashback, showing how László Szabo (Joachim Król) and his lover Ilona (Erika Marozsán) wind up in a three-way relationship with pianist András (Stefano Dionisi), an arrangement haunted by the specter of yet another man. Marozsan is a true radiant beauty and it’s not hard to see why she has three men in love with her at once.
András writes “ Gloomy Sunday” as a birthday present for Ilona, playing it for her in her lover’s restaurant, and that night, they start their part of the three-way affair. The very same night, however, shy German businessman Hans Wieck (Ben Becker), proposes to her. Turned down, he jumps into the Danube, only to be fished out by László, the restaurateur.
Hans goes back to Germany, and shortly thereafter, László helps Ilona arrange for some Vienna recording executives to hear András play “Gloomy Sunday.” It becomes a major hit, but the song’s sorrowful strains touch off a string of suicides. Meanwhile, after some predictable initial jealousy, László and András come to terms during a drunken evening, and the two men wind up happily sharing the love of Ilona.
In fact, the three of them adjust so well to the arrangement that it seems it could continue indefinitely, but for the interference of two external factors. First, the media make hay out of the song being “cursed.” Then, the advent of World War II brings back Hans, now an SS officer who has found great business success in the intervening years. Though László is Jewish, he is secular, and Hans protects him out of a feeling of indebtedness. But, despite the fact that he has married, Hans is still in love with Ilona, and shows how Germans had a way of occupying even their collaborating partners. The ménage-a-trois among Ilona, László, and András, practically indestructible under normal circumstances, cracks under the strain of the war.
What keeps “Gloomy Sunday” from being a “ Holocaust movie” is simply that it’s not about the Holocaust, but about three Budapest residents during wartime happily settling for an unmarried state of shared bliss. The closeness among Ilona and her two lovers is a source of strength, steeling them for the sacrifices that inevitably follow. Hans, an exceptionally smart businessman, gives us a window, not into Nazi ideology so much as the cunning and avarice that allowed so many German industrialists to survive the war, fortunes intact, their pockets lined without once flinching at the human cost. That is the true evil depicted here.
“Gloomy Sunday” is not a perfect film, but director Schübel propels the story of four very believable and human characters trying to survive while navigating world events. The cast is terrific and the costumes and direction spot on, but the element that unifies the film and gives it a sad, beautiful luster is the repeated playing of the title song, which resonates with every mournful, melancholy chord you’ve ever heard in klezmer blues or gypsy violins from Central Europe.