The iconic ’30s song “Gloomy Sunday” gets a distinctive celluloid setting in this well-played, cleverly scripted pic in which music and character are inextricably combined. Despite the charged setting of WWII Hungary and Nazi-Jewish tensions, the movie is more a romantic love story woven round the memorable melody than a regulation war drama. With the right promotion, some niche theatrical play is not out of the question, especially in Europe, for this well-crafted riff on a true story.
Movie is bookended by segs set in the mid-’90s, with the closing one containing an ironic twist. As the film opens, a wealthy German businessman (Rolf Becker) revisits a Budapest eatery, Restaurant Szabo, for the first time in 50 years. He’s welcomed, with much deference, by the current owner (Andras Balint) and given a splendid meal — only to die of a sudden heart attack after hearing a song and seeing a photo of the beautiful young woman for whom it was written 60 years earlier.
Dissolve back to the Hungarian woman, Ilona (Erika Marozsan), and the man with whom she happily shares her life, Laszlo Szabo (German thesp Joachim Krol), the original owner of the restaurant, one of the city’s finest. Ilona is a dab hand at the ivories, but both decide they need a professional pianist to add the finishing touch to their small but classy business. They hire Andras (Italy’s Stefano Dionisi), a sallow, serious guy with a special something that immediately catches Ilona’s eye.
One of their regular customers is a German salesman, Hans (Ben Becker), who proudly shows themthe latest product from the Fatherland — a Leica camera — and becomes enamored of Ilona. When she rejects him, he drunkenly jumps in the Danube but is rescued by Laszlo, and the three manage to remain close friends. Even closer, however, are Ilona and Andras, who, with Laszlo’s acquiescence, become lovers.
Andras has sketched a tune for Ilona, and Laszlo cuts a deal for the shy composer with some Austrian record company execs who visit the eatery one night. The melancholy, Weltschmerz-laden tune (still without lyrics) becomes a huge success, and goes on to conquer the U.S. as well. But it also seems to carry a mysterious spell: People start committing suicide to it, and in Hungary alone, 157 people die in the space of eight weeks. Meanwhile, the German army has marched into Austria.
An hour in, pic flashes forward three years. Hans returns to Budapest, but as an SS colonel, not a salesman. Despite his professions of continuing friendship with Laszlo, tensions grow between the former friends, complicated by Hans’ unquenched admiration for Ilona and his sideline of offering Jews free passage out of the country in exchange for money. Andras, too, becomes drawn into the fatal web.
The ingredients of the story are basically schematic: a semi-good Nazi (Hans) , bad Nazis; a catholicJew (Laszlo), Orthodox Jews; a Christian (Andras); a free-thinking woman (Ilona), and so on. But the performances, and well-written script, manage to humanize the characters in a way that becomes genuinely involving: A scene in which Hans baits Andras to play the song for him and a fellow Nazi officer has a palpable tension in which the bonds and differences among the four leads are brought to boiling point.
“Gloomy Sunday” is also one of the few films to integrate a melody with every stage of the characters’ relationships rather than use it as just aural icing. The smooth underscoring by Detlef Petersen and Rezso Seress has its own flavor, which hints at the title music without endlessly recycling it in orchestral dress; the audience hears the piano melody only when the characters do — first as an unfinished sketch, then complete, then with lyrics. As such, it takes on a special quality that binds the picture together, as a true “song of love and death” (per the German handle). Given that it’s more of a series of harmonic progressions than a conventional “tune,” there’s no sense of melodramatic overload.
The same could be said for the performances, which are naturally drawn without becoming romantic cliches. Krol, one of the best German actors of his generation, is superb as Laszlo, underscoring his character’s easygoing, survivalist nature without falling into self-pity or suffering-Jew cliches. As the nationalist-turned-Nazi entrepreneur, Becker is as forceful and physical a screen presence as ever, and voluptuous Hungarian thesp Marozsan more than holds her own against these two experienced actors, fully believable as an assured young woman who could inspire the passions of three very different men. Dionisi is less effective as the intense young pianist-composer, but is OK.
Ursula Hoef’s editing is extremely smooth, in an undemonstrative way, and director and co-writer Rolf Schuebel, whose career has largely been in docus and telepics, turns in a pro job. Period decoration is fine on a reasonable budget, with location work in Budapest and interiors shot in Cologne.