People who bemoan the fact that Hollywood doesn’t make semi-tragic romances of the sort the studios turned out so effectively in the 1940s should check out this wonderfully entertaining, old-fashioned melodrama of love and war. “Gloomy Sunday” may be in Hungarian with English subtitles, and it may star a pan-European cast–German Joachim Krol, Italian Stefano Dionisi and Hungarian Erika Marozsan–but if you exercise a little imagination you could see Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid in their roles. The result might be thought a sort of eastern European “Casablanca,” with Budapest replacing the North African city and a restaurant replacing Rick’s. That’s an exalted comparison, of course, and Rolf Schubel’s film doesn’t quite measure up to its predecessor, but it’s a very enjoyable throwback nonetheless.
“Gloomy Sunday” is an unusually friendly romantic triangle between two men and a woman–think of “Jules and Jim” without the Gallic pixie dust and pretension (Truffaut’s picture has always seemed to me one of the most overrated of films)–that turns into a decidedly unwelcome quadrangle. What links the story threads together and gives the picture its tone of nostalgic regret is the title song, a mournful but strangely haunting ballad that became a great international success after it was penned by two Hungarians in 1935; unfortunately, it became a source of great controversy as well, when scores of people–many of them relatively young–committed suicide while listening to recordings of it. This much of the story is historical fact; Nick Barkow used it as the springboard for the novel which created the fictional romance that Schubel has now dramatized. According to this telling, the song is composed at roughly the same time as it actually was, but by Andras Aradi (Dionisi), a handsome but moody pianist who’s taken a job playing at a Budapest restaurant just opened by exuberant entrepreneur Laszlo Szabo (Krol), in which Szabo’s free-spirited girlfriend Ilona (Marozsan) acts as a beautiful hostess. Andras has fallen for Ilona, and the song represents his longing for her as well as his melancholic personality. Ilona has also attracted the eye of a socially inept German businessman, Hans-Eberhard Wieck (Ben Becker), who comes to Szabo’s every night for his favorite “beef roll” and even proposes, unsuccessfully, to her. The upshot of all this is that Hans, whose attempted suicide in the Danube in the face of Ilona’s rejection is foiled by Laszlo, returns to Germany to make his fortune while the Hungarians remain behind in an ostensibly friendly but understandably tense triangle. All, however, collaborate in the recording and marketing of Andras’s song, which becomes a sensation (and gives rise to the spate of suicides, just as the actual composition did). Cutting ahead to the war years, Szabo’s restaurant continues to flourish even after Hungary has fallen under Nazi occupation, when Hans returns as a member of the SS. Wieck serves as a sort of protector for Laszlo, who though Jewish has been secular all his life, despite his Nazi colleagues’ virulent anti-Semitism; but in a sort of cynical reworking of “Schindler’s List,” he also accepts payment for arranging the transit of wealthy Jews out of the country. The complications among all four characters escalate as the German application of their genocidal policies grow more determined, the Russian advance into eastern Europe accelerates, and each member of the quartet becomes more desperate. The whole tale is bookended by sequences set in the present day, with Hans, now an elderly industrialist, returning to Szabo’s restaurant to celebrate his birthday in the prologue, and a satisfying twist ending explaining why his visit proves not quite the joyous re-acquaintance he’d expected.
It’s certainly true that this scenario has a potentially overripe air to it, and it’s undeniable that Schubel exults in its rich emotions and moody tone. But that’s all part of the enjoyment. He and Ruth Toma have done a nice job of transforming Barkow’s deft combination of fact and fiction into a fine scenario, and the result has been given real sheen by the lustrous cinematography of Edward Kiosinski. The cast is admirable. Krol makes Szabo a very engaging fellow, capturing his eagerly ingratiating personality but also his deeper emotions toward the close, and Dionisi pines and smolders convincingly; Marozsan, meanwhile, makes one believe that she’s a woman whom men would fall heedlessly head over heels for. Becker, like Krol, is persuasive in both his guises–as the awkward incipient businessman of the mid-thirties, and the self-serving SS man of the war years. (Wieck is played in prologue and epilogue by Ben’s father Rolf.) And suffusing everything is the title song itself, used as a recurrent motif in the lush score by Derlef Petersen and Rezso Seress.
The title may be “Gloomy Sunday,” but the picture’s old world charm and skillful employment of the tropes of World War II melodrama should leave a pleasantly nostalgic glow.