Like the characters in his three-generational saga “Sunshine,” director Istvan Szabo is descended from a highly assimilated Hungarian Jewish family.
“For five generations, my ancestors have been doctors and lawyers in Budapest,” says Szabo, speaking by phone from the Hungarian capital.
Yet, despite the superficial parallels between the Sonnenschein — German for “Sunshine” — and the Szabo families, the three-hour movie about four generations in the life of a Hungarian Jewish family is not autobiographical, the director and screenwriter insists.
Each character in the film, scheduled to open in New York and Los Angeles on June 9, represents a composite of five or six people whose lives or stories Szabo has encountered during his 62 years.
It might have been fascinating to delve deeper into the life of Szabo, recipient of 60 international awards and an Oscar for such penetrating movies as “Mephisto,” “Colonel Redl” and “Hanussen.”
But Szabo would have none of it. After reluctantly acknowledging that he was hidden by nuns during the Holocaust, he declares firmly, “I am not happy talking about myself.”
Discussing the film, though, is another matter. Although Ralph Fiennes, in the triple role of grandfather, father and grandson is the obvious star of the film, the key character, according to Szabo, is the family matriarch, Valerie.
Played by Jennifer Ehle as a young woman and by Rosemary Harris as an older one, Valerie lives through the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nazi occupation and Communist rule — and remains true to herself.
“She is the most courageous person of all, the only one who remains faithful and never denies her origins,” Szabo notes.
To understand the attitudes and changing fortunes of the Sonnenschein family, it is important to know about the role of Jews in Hungarian history.
“In 1848-49, when Hungarians revolted against the Austrian Hapsburg monarchy, 20,000 young Jews joined the revolution, and many of them were imprisoned after the Hapsburg victory,” Szabo says.
“So the Hungarian Jews were very nationalistic and felt that the `invisible wall’ that for instance separated German Jews from their gentile neighbors did not exist in Hungary.”
To illustrate the point, Szabo points to the town of Kecskemet, about 45 miles from Budapest.
“There the main square is surrounded by seven different houses of worship, which were all built toward the end of the 19th century,” Szabo recounts. “There is a baroque Catholic church, a Christian Orthodox church, a Protestant church, an Evangelical middle school, a synagogue and another Catholic church. And in the middle of the square is a coffee shop for everybody.”
Szabo says he always envisioned that the Sonnenschein men, over three generations, would be played by the same actor and he rejects the suggestion that this triple-casting might confuse viewers.
“By using the same face for grandfather, son and grandson, I wanted to show that the challenges of history, the Jewish struggle to be accepted by society, repeated itself in every generation,” Szabo notes.
“However, I needed an actor who could create different characters, and I think that Fiennes has succeeded admirably.”
Hungarians apparently agree. The film is a great success there, especially among the country’s roughly 100,000 Jews. In its first month, an unprecedented more than 100,000 people viewed this film in Budapest alone.
Many Hungarian Jews see the film as a history of their own lives.
“We thank you for this film, now we understand better our own role throughout the history of Hungary and within the delicate web of its society,” one local Jew told Szabo during a lively discussion of the film in the Budapest Jewish Community club.
Szabo answered, with a metaphor, a visiting Israeli’s question about the lack of Zionist ideology in the film.
“Every apple has a different taste, depending on the geographical location, where it is grown. The taste of the apple is different from the taste of an apple grown in England or in Greece. I like the Hungarian apple more than the others,” he said. “This is the realistic picture of Hungary’s Jewry.”
(JTA correspondent Agnes Bohm in Budapest contributed to this report.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.