László Nemes’ follow-up to his extraordinary “Son of Saul” employs a cinematic technique similar to that he used so powerfully in the previous film, but to much lesser effect in this case. As in “Saul,” he and cinematographer Matyas Erdely focus on the perspective of a single individual, so that we in effect see, and experience, what that person does almost exclusively. Here, however, what is revealed by the approach yields something far more opaque and elusive than the microcosm of the horror of the Holocaust captured in the previous film.
Not that the subject of “Sunset” isn’t one of like historical importance and continuing reflection. Moving back some thirty years from his evocation of the unimaginable suffering and pain inflicted by the Nazis on their victims during the Second World War, Nemes and his writing partners seek to portray the chaos and violence that led to the outbreak of the First World War, and thus to the brutal trench fighting of that conflict recently recreated from archival footage in Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old.”
The point of entrance for the exploration is a young woman, Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), who returns to her hometown of Budapest, the de facto capital of the Hungarian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1913. Her hope is to secure a position at the upscale millenary shop still called Leiter’s after her parents, who had operated it until they died mysteriously in a fire when she was only two, leaving her an orphan. She was removed from the city and raised elsewhere, eventually learning the hat-making trade herself.
At first she is taken to be a customer by imperious manager Zelma (Evelin Dobos), but her application for employment is summarily rebuffed by the store’s current proprietor, Oszkar Brill (Vlad Ivanov), who civilly but determinedly advises her to go back to Trieste, where she had had a job, and buys her a return ticket for the next day, putting her up in a shabby hotel for the night. There she will face the first of numerous dangerous encounters she has in the chaotic city—a near-assault by a bearded man (Levente Molnár) whose ramblings about a brother she never knew convince her to stay and search for her sibling.
As it turns out, Kálmán Leiter is a renegade figure, a radical anarchist who—we gradually learn along with Irisz—went underground half a decade earlier after killing Count Rédey, whose widow (Julia Jakubowska) is still in mourning. Kálmán is still on the loose, apparently the leader of a revolutionary cabal out to overthrow the government by acts of terror, such as assassinating a visiting German nobleman (Christian Harting)—who, it appears, is taking advantage of his stay to abuse the widowed countess. Irisz speculates whether her brother might have been unjustly maligned for saving the noblewoman from an equally abusive spouse.
At this point on might wonder whether “Sunset” will turn into a version of “The Third Man” in which Kálmán’s identity is finally revealed, for good or ill. But Nemes isn’t interested in that sort of straightforward closure: he follows Irisz into ever-deeper waters of uncertainty and seething unrest, introducing a multitude of characters who might be comrades of her brother, or enemies seeking to kill him, or perhaps Kálmán himself. (Or is he but an avenging ghost?) The atmosphere becomes drenched in duplicity, dread and sudden mayhem as the debauched ruling class is revealed as the perverse oppressors of ordinary folk—including the young ladies who work at Brill’s store—even as they maintain an air of serene elegance deferring to the decaying power of the imperial family. (The result is like a portrayal of late eighteenth-century French society, torn by divisions and hostility, that portends the downfall of the ancient regime in the excesses of the revolution.) It all explodes in street violence that then suddenly cuts to a final sequence in which Irisz has been swallowed up in the realities of the war that inevitably follows.
Seeing matters from a Hungarian perspective himself, Nemes understandably views World War I as sparked by the ethnic animosities that marked the Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—the anger of Slavic minorities against their German oppressors, which resulted in 1914 in the determination of the latter to take unequivocal action after the events of August in Sarajevo, which were seen as a direct assault on imperial rule. That was certainly an important factor in the outbreak of an armed conflict that eventually engulfed all of Europe, and other areas of the world as well. But of course there were other elements at work too, and it was the coincidence of them all that explains World War I; within that context, Nemes’ film seems more than a little reductionist.
Still, it is exquisitely fashioned. The production and costume designs by Laszlo Rajk and Gyorgi Szakacs, respectively, are almost breathtakingly meticulous, and the camerawork is frequently amazing as the camera follows Irisz through streets, mansions and outdoor celebrations, with snatches of conversation and music ebbing and flowing as she progresses (or, more accurately, simply moves, from mystery to mystery). To be sure, you may well tire of the plentitude or tracking shots showing the back of her head as she walks obstinately forward, but even then you have to marvel at the technical feat.
The stylistic choice nonetheless reduces Jakab’s ability to make Irisz a very compelling figure; she remains a rather blank slate on which the viewer has to paint his own reactions to what she sees and hears. The other cast members, however much screen time they might have, are too sketchily and rigidly painted to elicit much emotional pull: some are so controlled that they seem like mannequins, while others are so rambunctiously unhinged that they come across like zanies. All, however, appear to be doing precisely what Nemes wants, acting like pawns on a chessboard; “Sunset” is unquestionably the work of an auteur.
One can summon a great many cinematic comparisons in discussing the film. Nemes has acknowledged Murnau’s “Sunrise” as an influence; one could also make a case, only half-jokingly, for “Sunset” as a sort of perverse rethinking of “The Shop Around the Corner.” Kubrickian allusions abound, from the final scene evoking “Paths of Glory” to the tracking shots that recall the steadicam emphasis in “The Shining,” the fastidious period recreations reminding one of “Barry Lyndon,” which in its way also depicted a society on the verge of collapse, and scenes mimicking the orgy sequences of “Eyes Wide Shut,” also used as shorthand for degeneracy.
But each of those films employed its particular strengths to tell a coherent story, however unconvincing one might have found in the face of analysis afterward. By contrast Nemes’ concentrates merely on creating an escalating sense of chaos and confusion, which—it apparently argues—trumps any consideration of geopolitical factors as the explanation for the European catastrophe that consumed 1914-1919 and acted as a dark shadow over the decades following. “Sunset” is beautifully crafted, but in the end it’s a self-indulgent, frustrating piece whose pretensions to profundity are simply claimed rather than earned.