Sunshine (1999) – sensitive family drama from István Szabó
The Budapest Reporter has a serious on films which were made in Hungary. As we had tremendous numbers of great filmmakers like István Szabó, now we chose one of his most memorable film, the Sunshine (1999) to talk about the Hungarian factors (like places, actors, history) in it.
Directed by the legendary director of the Academy Award winning movie “Mephisto” (1981), István Szabó, “Sunshine” tells the story of three generations of Sonnenschein’s during the political turmoils of the 20th century. The film stars among others, Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong and William Hurt.
The story revolves around the titular Jewish family, whose fortune comes from selling a herb liquor, called the Taste of Sunshine (inspired by the Zwack family’s Unicum). Ignatz gets involved in the muddy political waters of the late 19th century Hungary, after changing his name to hide his Jewish heritage, from Sonnenschein (“sunshine”) to Sors (“fate”). After a long romantic affair with his cousin, Valerie, the two marry, when she becomes pregnant.
Along with his communist leaning brother, Gustave, they fight in the first Wold War, after which the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy collapses. After they establish the new Kingdom of Hungary under Horthy’s rule, Ignatz is asked to prosecute people who participated in the short-lived socialist government, like his brother. He refuses, losing his societal status, falls ill and dies.
His sons, Istvan and Adam excel at fencing, and despite their successes on the field, including winning the Olympics in 1936, and receiving initial differential treatment and partial exemption from the anti-Jewish laws, when the Nazi Germans occupy the country, they are sent to a concentration camp (this part was inspired by the story of Attila Petschauer).
Only Adam’s son, Ivan survives, who after the war joins the communist state police. After having to betray Knorr, his boss and friend, Ivan becomes disillusioned with the regime, standing up to them in 1956, which leads to his decade long imprisonment. After his release he fruitlessly searches for the family liqueur’s long lost recipe, but instead of that, he finds something much more precious: his identity.
Fiennes played multiple roles in the movie, multiple member of the Sonnenschein/Sors family, while the real life mother-daughter duo of Rosemary Harris and Jennifer Ehle played the character of Valerie at different stages of her life.
The movie was a Hungarian-Canadian-German-Austrian co-production. The cinematography was done by the highly accomplished Lajos Koltai, Szabó’s frequent collaborator. The hauntingly beautiful soundtrack is the work of the legendary French composer and three-time Academy Award winner, Maurice Jarre.
Most of the movie is set in Budapest, and that’s where most of the scenes were shot, along with some that were done in Vienna, Paris and Berlin. Prominently featured in the movie is a certain building in 15 Bokréta Street, which served as the Sonnenschein Estate. The house still bears the fictional companies name on the facade. The interior shots were done nearby, in the Liliom Street.
The cast included quite a lot of renowned Hungarian actors, including Mari Törőcsik, Eszter Ónodi, János Kulka, András Stohl and Frigyes Hollóssi.
If you’re interested in finding out more of Hungarian history, or interested in the historical treatment of Jews in Central Europe, I would highly recommend giving the film a chance. Despite the dark subjects, it never fails to showcase the importance of family, tradition, human dignity and hope.