After walking a laurel-strewn path with 2015’s Oscar-winning “Son of Saul,” Hungarian auteur Laszlo Nemes didn’t get lured in by Hollywood. Instead, he chose to dive into his own cultural heritage and explore the flaws of European civilization through the tale of a mysterious woman lost in Budapest on the eve of World War I.
“Sunset” re-teams the director with “Son of Saul” actress Juli Jakab, who he said looks convincingly as though she’s stepped from a time machine. Chosen out of hundreds of actresses who auditioned for the part, Jakab plays Irisz Leiter, a young woman who travels to Budapest in 1913 with hopes of pursuing a career at her late parents’ famous hat store. She soon learns of a brother she never knew she had and embarks on a journey to find him. During her quest, she stumbles upon secrets and witnesses the chaos foreshadowing the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
It’s a period piece but, in a subtle way, it’s also politically minded. Nemes said he was drawn to this chapter of history because it marked a pivotal time in the formation of Europe and the rise of extremism, and resonates in many ways with current times.
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“There was an expectation that something was going to happen. There was a thirst for the mythical, the unknown, along with science and a firm belief in technology….At the same time, below the surface, some dark, repressed, untamed forces were threatening this sophisticated world,” said Nemes, adding that he was interested in the “combination of light and darkness which co-existed.”
“Sunset” is also a personal film. “When I was a kid, my grandmother, who lived through the world wars, told me a lot about this century,” Nemes said. “That’s why I was inspired to tell the fate of a woman and see the events unfold through her eyes.”
Nemes, who studied at France’s prestigious Sciences Po university, said “Sunset” was an homage to Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s 1927 drama “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.” “‘Sunrise’ was an inspiration for me. It brilliantly depicted America’s urban craziness and the optimism that people had, the trust they had in progress, the inventiveness. Meanwhile, the film had a very Central European approach to filmmaking,” said Nemes, adding that both Murnau’s and his movies “tell something about a civilization’s hopes and despairs.”
As with “Son of Saul,” Nemes didn’t rely on any CGI technology. Sets were meticulously built to convey the authenticity of Budapest at that time, when it was considered the cultural capital of Europe. “I really wanted to give audiences a feel of how chaotic Budapest was at the turn of the century. There is no way to achieve that with CGI, which often ends up looking like intros to video games,” said Nemes. He insisted on shooting on 35-millimeter film, and employed some of the same subjective, handheld camera work seen in “Son of Saul.”
In fact, don’t expect Nemes, an ardent movie buff, to buy into the current hype over VR. “We’re already enslaved to our phones, and computers have taken over our brains. Let’s not give up on cinema,” he said. “Viewers need some kind of distance from what they’re watching in order to have subjective gaze.”
Produced by Hungary’s Laokoon Filmgroup and France’s Playtime, with the support of the Hungarian Film Fund, the movie was made on a budget of €9 million ($10.4 million).
Nemes, who is repped by UTA, said he doesn’t have a clear idea of what his next film will be but is reading material and could possibly make an English-language film in the near future. “Everything is open. Working in English opens up opportunities to work with great actors and step away from conventions.”