Sunset won the Critics’ Prize at Venice in 2018. László Nemes, the writer-director, won both the Cannes Grand Prix and the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for his previous film Son of Saul (2015). (He has two co-writers on Sunset.) However, the two films have been received differently by some reviewers and some audiences. I haven’t seen Son of Saul but I know it offers a narrative about the experience of a Jewish-Hungarian man in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. I suspect that whereas most audiences would at least recognise that story, the world of Sunset must be unknown to many modern audiences. I doubt many mainstream audiences in the UK or US would be able to tell you much about the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 1913. The elderly couple sat next to us in the cinema, were, I think Hungarian and they would know, but not perhaps one of the reviewers in Britain’s leading film journal Sight and Sound who is completely dismissive of the film. But the culture of pre-1914 Central Europe is very difficult to grasp and Nemes refuses to use conventional approaches to presenting it. This Milan Kundera quote from 1984 is used in the introduction to one book on Central European Cinema:
Central Europe is not a state: it is a culture or a fate. Its borders are imaginary . . . (quoted in The Cinema of Central Europe, Peter Hames (ed) 2004)
For those of us in the UK and North America, the history and culture of the former ‘Holy Roman Empire’ seems so alien because we haven’t experienced such a shifting sense of identity within territories that experienced occupations and changing borders over decades and over centuries. In 1913 when Sunset is set, the three connected kingdoms/territories of Austria, Hungary and Croatia-Bosnia, the remnants of the former empire after 1867, still constituted a powerful economic and military force and a highly-developed and sophisticated culture in Vienna, Budapest and Prague, but its citizens did not share an identity, a language or a religious identity. This multinational, multi-ethnic conglomeration would be torn apart after 1918 and the repercussions of the ‘end of empire’ are still being felt in the ‘New Europe’ of today. The original Hungarian title of the film is translated by Google as ‘eventide’ which seems more poetic and perhaps hints at foreboding. The film narrative offers a metaphor for the collapse of empire. This is hinted at in the opening titles but not made explicit. In the Press Pack, Nemes reveals the influence of F. W. Murnau:
This film is my personal testimony to the love of cinema, almost a century after the hopefulness of Sunrise by Murnau – a movie to which we pay homage. I hope that Sunset carries in itself something of the interrogations embodied by Murnau’s film.
What plot there is in Sunset focuses on a woman in her twenties who turns up at the most fashionable milliner’s emporium in Budapest (extravagant hats for women are the ultimate status symbol in the society). She is quickly revealed to be Írisz Leiter, the daughter of the founders of the Leiter brand who set up the shop. We learn that the parents died and that the infant Írisz was sent to Trieste where she eventually became an apprentice milliner. Now she is back, to the consternation of the current owner of the business Oszkár Brill. What does she want? What should he do with her? In the next few days the Leiter brand is celebrating 30 years in business with parties and dancing and visits by royalty and local aristocracy. Brill attempts to send her back to Trieste but Írisz is stubborn and will not be deflected from her mysterious purpose, especially when she discovers that she has a brother who is notorious and lives outside ‘society’ in Budapest. The more Írisz is refused answers or told to keep out of something the more she ploughs on. Is she some kind of angel figure? Or is she a ‘monstrous’ woman – the original meaning of monster being derived from ‘warning’. This extraordinary character, at once beautiful and resolute but also confused, requires a strong performance and Juli Jakab certainly provides it. Her ‘journey’ through the world of Budapest is presented by Nemes and his cinematographer Mátyás Erdély in long, carefully choreographed tracking shots with the camera often focused on the back of Írisz’s neck and with the city environment blurring through pulled focus (the lack of focus increases towards the narrative climax). This technique, which I understand worked well in Son of Saul, seems to have irritated quite a few commentators this time round.
Budapest is a bustling city and the aesthetic choices that Nemes makes help to give a us a sense of the contradictions. Vlad Ivanov gives an impressive performance as Brill and in one sense he seems to represent a multi-lingual élite who are in confident control of the city. But the empire is vulnerable, it may have modern technologies, arts and music but it also has ‘darkness’ and various dissident groups of socialists, anarchists and nationalists. The blurred backgrounds and different voices and sounds emphasise how disturbing it must be for Írisz. The empire has religious differences, persecuted minorities and traditional ideas. There are hints about the development of psycho-analysis. Írisz steps down from an electric tram but it looks like Nemes was unable to represent the Budapest underground railway, the second oldest in the world after London, opened in 1896.
Another criticism of the film is that it is too long at 142 minutes. I found it a riveting watch and it didn’t seem a minute too long, though because of the unusual approach to narrative, I sometimes did wonder whether a resolution would be signalled and when finally it came I was relieved to find it that it made sense and confirmed what I though the film had been ‘about’. That doesn’t mean that I understood everything. Far from it, but at least I felt I had a purchase on it, however tenuous. Reading the detailed director’s statement in the Press Pack has been very helpful. I should re-watch Murnau’s Sunrise and think about the other films that popped into my head during the screening. The film’s aesthetics require more study too. My viewing companion pointed out the fantastic sound design which I’d noticed but not thought about as there was so much going on with the camerawork, set design (physical sets built in Budapest), music and performances. We watched the film in one of HOME Manchester’s smaller auditoria (but with a big screen and excellent sound) and you should seek out the biggest cinema screen you can find. This won’t be easy in the UK since this is a Curzon release and it looks like it isn’t playing at Picturehouse venues which sometimes have larger screens because of the dispute over closing distribution ‘windows’. This does mean it is also available on Curzon’s VOD service, but you’ll need a quality home cinema system to do it justice. The film did tour various independent venues in May with both 35mm screenings and a Q&A with the director. It is showing at The Hyde Park in Leeds today and again on July 14. It is also showing at the Showroom in Sheffield and still on at HOME. Don’t miss it. The trailer doesn’t give away spoilers but it shows some of the sumptuous camerawork.
The western translation of O slavnosti a hostech, (also known as A Report on the Party and Guests) made Jan Němec’s film’s allegorical intention obvious; Němec co-wrote the story with Ester Krumbachová who wrote the screenplay. It’s likely that the satire of the film would have been obvious to the censors of the time anyway even if the original title is better translated as Of Celebration and Guests(according to Michael Brooke’s excellent notes in the Second Run DVD). The film was ‘banned forever’ in 1973 and not seen in Czechoslovakia until 1989’s Velvet Revolution.
The seven characters we meet having a picnic find themselves dragooned into joining a wedding party (although it was possible they were meant to be guests anyway otherwise why would the women change into smart dress?) after being interrogated by a bullying, and slightly unhinged, character with accompanying ‘heavies’.
The picnickers respond differently to the bullying ranging from resistance (he gets beaten up – see above) to appeasement; the woman tend to respond passively. They seem to be saved when the host insists they join the party but the banquet in the forest is an obvious manifestation of a world out of joint. Whilst Němec was no doubt satirising ‘communist’ Czechoslovakia, the dinner party is strikingly bourgeois with its fancy trimmings and Luis Buñuel’s influence is apparent. Buñuel saved his bile for capitalist bourgeoisie: Němec is likely to have been familiar with The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, Mexico, 1962); The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie, France, 1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (Le fantôme de la liberté, France 1974), all featuring dinner parties, came later. Western critics usually viewed Cold War art as being critical of the ‘communist’ system (often accurately) but ignored the potential for critique of the west. There’s no doubt to me that Němec and Krumbachová were having a pop at the bourgeoisie in general. Krumbachová also co-wrote the brilliant Daisies and was a costume designer on the Němec directed Diamonds of the Night.
The comedy is based both on the surreal absurdity of the situation and bourgeois manners that seek to accommodate rather than challenge repressive forces. The latter is obvious in the UK at the moment in the BBC’s coverage of the resurgent right as it insists on giving a platform to deranged scumbags like Carl Benjamin and Stephan Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) in the belief that this is a public service; in reality platforming fascists isn’t funny.
The Party and the Guests is funny, it shows Němec’s brilliance and retrospectively we can mourn his inability to make the films he wanted after being ‘disgraced’ by this wonderful example of the Czech New Wave.
One of the few things you can be sure about in Jan Němec’s début film, and contribution to the then nascent Czech new wave, is that the protagonists are on the run from the Nazis. Co-scripted by Němec and Arnošt Lustig, based on the latter’s novel, the film strips the source material almost bare. Here’s very little dialogue and the film is littered with might-be flashbacks but also might-be dreams.
Němec was in his early 20s when he went to FAMU, the film school in Prague, and apparently hadn’t seen any western art cinema to that date. It’s clear from Diamonds of the Night that he left the school admiring Luis Buñuel, Robert Bresson and Alain Robbe-Grillet. There are even close-ups of ants on a hand, an obvious nod to Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (France, 1929), but there’s nothing in Němec’s film that feels derivative. The Robbe-Grillet influence is particularly from Last Year in Marienbad (France, 1961) where the same events are seen over and over again but with differences. It’s this play of memories that Němec draws on but in his film it seems to be about events that have just happened, or are about to happen, or maybe never happen. This ambiguity situates the film firmly in surrealism, a favourite of Czech cinema, though the dreamlike narrative is rooted in genuine fear of capture. In a bravura opening shot, the boys run from a train taking them to a concentration camp. The long take rushes up the hillside with them; the camerawork throughout is superb. The prime cinematographer is Jaroslav Kucera, who was married to Věra Chytilová; Miroslav Ondříček is also credited. Both went on to make significant contributions to the Czech New Wave.
You could read the boys’ (or is it just one of them?) dreamlike state as being a result of exhaustion. In one scene they spit out bread even though they are starving because it makes their dry mouths bleed. In another a farmer’s wife may be assaulted, sexually or otherwise, as different possibilities are shown. The stark black and white cinematography, sometimes over-exposed, adds a gritty feel to the dreamlike imagery. In one scene, the boys’ seem to spend an age clambering up a scree slope; in another, one of them seems to be chatting up a girl. As to their fate, I can’t spoil it because I don’t know.
Němec apparently ended up making wedding videos in California during the 1970s after being forced from Czechoslovakia after the demise of the Prague Spring; I doubt he brought his artistic sensibility to them but it was no surprise that he couldn’t find work in Hollywood as a director. He was a consultant on The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). After the Velvet Revolution he returned to Europe and has continued to make films that, unfortunately, don’t seem to be available in the UK.
This title was screened in the Berlinale Classics programme and marked the return of a film that was the Golden Bear winner in 1975. It was also the film that established its director, Márta Mészáros, as a internationally recognised film-maker.
A widowed working woman in her early forties would like to escape the emptiness that surrounds her by having a child with her married lover, to whom she is attached only as a matter of habit. . . . One day, a girl who has run away from a home seeks shelter with her.”
The home is a state orphanage. The girl, Anna (Gyöngyvér Vigh), is in her late teens and already involved in a sexual relationship. The older woman, Kata (Katalin Berek), works in a factory but also has an interest in wood work, which she does in a small workshop at home. Her home is near a small town but separated from other houses and Kata is also separate from the other residents. The orphanage is very free in its control of the young people. This seems to be, in part, because it is under-resourced. But the manager does seem fairly sympathetic. This culture enables the young inmates to indulge in activities outside the home, so Anna regularly meets her boyfriend, Sanyi (Péter Fried) who lives and works in a nearby city and travels down to meet Anna.
The films gives a sense of these characters and the operation of the home when we see Kata, returning from work. Anna, in a group of teenage girls, teasingly confronting Kata begging cigarettes. And we also get a sense of Kara’s relationship with Jóska (László Szabó) at a tryst, he is clearly less involved than Kata. In a later scene in a park he is definitely troubled when Kata raises the issue of children. Even later he takes Kata home on the pretext of her being a colleague from work. His wife seems unsuspecting whilst there is also a young child in the family. Jóska is obviously a male chauvinist and that is his role in the narrative. But the much younger Sanyi displays a strong affection and responsibility for Anna. Whilst the manager at the home is seen later showing both sympathy and practical assistance to Kata and Anna.
We only get a representation of the Hungarian state at this time at a remove, but the sense is of a rather underfunded and inadequate bureaucracy rather than the stereotypical representation found in western films at the period.
The film has fine black and white cinematography by Lajos Koltai. Mészáros uses frequent long takes, not just for action but also for contemplation. Several times we see Kata at her work table and the sense of her ruminations on her situation. The film editing by Éva Kármentõ carefully juxtaposes the several repeated settings; Kara’s house, the orphanage and the places where Kata and Jósha have their trysts. There is much location work but production design by Tamás Banovich marries studio set-ups with the natural settings. And by the end of the film we see a traditional celebration with a convincing sense of ordinary people enjoying an occasion. The film sound and music by György Kovács fits in with a general naturalistic feel.
Mészáros scripted the film with two colleagues, Ferenc Grunwalsky and Gyula Hernádi. The writing both presents characterisations that seem taken from life; that are unconventional in terms of the European cinema of the time; and which develop with a real sympathy for ordinary people and everyday life.
In 1975 the ‘Berliner Morgen post’ commented;
The Hungarian director, a woman, has come up, not with a drama but a low-key reticent everyday story that is full of tenderness and hope. In a succession of filmed-to-the-life occasions, Kati Berek makes her mark as a sort of Budapest Annie Giradot. Quiet, strong and true.” (Giradot is a fine French actress who at this stage of her career had graced Rocco and his Brothers (Rocco e i suoi fratelli, 1960) with an outstanding performance).
The paper’s note of the director being a ‘woman’, picked up on the Mészáros being the first woman director to win a Golden Bear Award. And she and the film won a number of other awards as well. Márta Mészáros was there to introduce the film. She spoke with emotion of her memories of the visit to the Berlinale, she was then an unknown in western Europe and this her first experience of a major festival and major awards.
There was also a staff member of the Hungarian Film Fund Film Archive who have produced the digital restoration of the film onto a 4K DCP, with English subtitles. The restoration was based on the original camera negative and a magnetic tape of sound. This was supervised by the original cinematographer, Lajos Koltai. The restoration differs in an important manner from the original 35mm. Mészáros had wanted to shoot the film in a scope format but was unable to do so and the film used the academy ratio. This restored version has been produced in 1.85:1; closer to the desired scope format. In other ways it reproduces the original. The change of ratio is unusual. The Berlinale staff were unsure but thought the version at the Festival might have been in 1.85:1 as well. This presumably would have involved plates or masks in the projector. I think when I saw the film, long ago, it was in academy. I have to say that in 1.85:1 there was no obvious cropping of the image. We did not hear the technical description of how the reframing was achieved.
The archive have actually restored ten other titles directed by Mészáros between 1969 and 1999, including the famous ‘Diary’ series. They have all been restored digitally at 4K and will be available this year and in 2020. Given Mészáros’ status,
together with her contemporaries Agnès Varda, Larissa Shepitko and Vera Chytilova, she ranks as one of the most significant female authors in the world.” (Restored Films of Márta Mészáros, Hungarian Film Fund).
We should expect this title and the other titles that follow to get a British release. This film was a deserved winner of the Golden Bear in 1975 and has maintained its quality and relevance; Mészáros’ other films equally offer both quality and satisfaction.