Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Story of Hungarian Jewry Told Through Eyes of 4 Generations

June 5, 2000
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

“Sunshine” is a massive, sprawling film that spans 120 years in the lives and loves of four generations of a Hungarian Jewish family.

It is part history course, part lust among the bourgeoisie and an all-around lesson on the ultimate futility of Central European Jewry’s attempt to shed its roots and assimilate.

The film starts around 1840, when orphaned 12-year-old Emanuel Sonnenschein – – German for “Sunshine” — sets out for Budapest carrying as his only endowment the secret recipe for a herbal tonic bearing the family name.

Emanuel and his tonic lay the foundation for the family fortune.

In the following 120 years covered by the film, his male descendants find success, convert to Catholicism and suffer under the Nazis and Communists.

The Sonnenschein men are matched by even stronger women, and there is a great deal of sexual liaisons and betrayals.

“Sunshine” was created and written with playwright Israel Horovitz by Hungarian Jewish director Istvan Szabo, known for melding historical and personal themes (“Mephisto,” “Colonel Redl”) and who drew in part on his family history in making the film.

The length of the film — three hours — and cast are of near-epic proportions. But the film focuses relentlessly on Ralph Fiennes, who portrays three generations of men: Ignatz, the judge; Adam, the fencer; and Ivan, the Communist interrogator.

Fiennes, who first came to international attention as the sadistic SS commandant Amon Goeth in “Schindler’s List,” here pictures assimilated Jews convincingly.

Nevertheless, having the same visage, with only minor alterations in facial hair styles, appear in three roles, confuses rather than unifies an already densely plotted and populated film.

Rosemary Harris stands out among the cast members as the matriarch who binds together the generations.

(“Sunshine” is scheduled to open June 9 in New York and Los Angeles before opening across the United States.)

Recommended from JTA