Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Arts & Culture Film Set in Budapest is ‘gloomy,’ but It’s Masterfully Shot and Told

November 3, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

“Gloomy Sunday” is the English title for the German-Hungarian film that translates more aptly as “A Song of Love and Death.” But under either name it is a movie of exceptional visual and dramatic beauty.

Opening in the 1930s in Budapest, “Gloomy Sunday” starts as a good old-fashioned love triangle, or, rather, a quadrangle.

For Ilona’s birthday, Andras composes “Gloomy Sunday,” a haunting melody whose somber lyrics tell of a distraught lover contemplating suicide to rejoin his dead mistress.

The 1930s song became a phenomenal hit in its native Hungary, throughout Europe and in the United States after versions were recorded by Billie Holiday and Artie Shaw.

To the horror of its creators, the song triggered a string of suicides by young romantics throughout the world and became known as “The Suicide Song.”

Also affected is Hans, who tries to drown himself in the Danube after Ilona refuses to marry him. He is rescued by Laszlo, and the two men swear eternal friendship.

A few years later, Hans returns to Budapest in the uniform of an SS officer to assist Adolf Eichmann in the “Final Solution.” Hans is demanding large bribes from wealthy Jews to spare them from deportation.

Caught in the Nazi net is Laszlo, an indifferent Jew — “If my parents had been Iroquois, I’d be an Iroquois,” he says with a shrug — but a Jew, nevertheless. Initially, Hans shields his former rescuer, but ultimately turns his back as Laszlo is pushed on the train to Auschwitz.

Some 45 years later, Hans comes back to Budapest, now a fabulously wealthy businessman and even hailed as a noble savior of Budapest Jews during the war. He returns to Laszlo’s old restaurant, orders the violinist to play “Gloomy Sunday” and comes to grips with his past.

German director Rolf Schuebel masterfully underplays a story that could easily have descended into mere sentimentality.

Recommended from JTA