Title: Gloomy Sunday (German title: Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod) – 1999
Director: Rolf Schübel
Writers: Rolf Schübel (screenplay); Nick Barkow (novel)
This movie has a lot going for it just from the start where I’m concerned: (a) it’s based on an urban legend, and who doesn’t like those, right? (b) it’s set in Budapest, a city I fell in love with on my short business trip visit and which I plan to visit again someday (c) it’s in German, which I love because it’s not easy to find German language media to bolster mein Deutsch. All this makes me pre-disposed to like this film (certainly more than if it were not based on a urban legend, set in Cleveland and in French).
The film is adapted from a novel that I think I need to get my hands on. The story is loosely based on the urban legend surrounding “Gloomy Sunday” a song by a Hungarian composer that allegedly drove multiple people in Europe and America to commit suicide in the 1930s. It focuses in particular on the love triangle between the composer, a restaurant owner and a beautiful hostess. And because this is a 1930s period piece in Europe, you can bet your ass that it involves Nazis.
The love triangle is, well, odd. Not really ménage à trois, but definitely not conventional. I can’t say the relationship gives me warm and fuzzies, but it’s well done enough that I also don’t feel like bleaching my brain (a common problem when European film romances get weird). It’s well done for what it is. And, because this isn’t your typical mainstream Hollywood BS, one of the two male leads is, well, not much to look at. I appreciate that about a lot of foreign cinema, but in this case, being a German film, you see Mr. Mediocre-Looks’s bare ass which I, personally, could have done without (not so much because of my prudish American tendencies as because, well, it’s not a hot ass, so what’s the point?). For male viewers, you also get plenty of bare-breasted shots of the female lead (who is good looking). I was neither offended (meh, I have my own. Whatever) nor impressed (meh, I have my own. Whatever).
The scenery, is, of course, fantastic. I really do love Budapest. Seeing the movie meant I got to spend a lot of time squeeing and going “The Széchenyi bridge!” and “OMG, I WALKED THERE!” And it’s not unfounded squeeing because the city is beautiful (except in those places where the hideous Cold War construction crept in….thankfully the eye-sore of a Marriot I stayed in was skillfully avoided by the cameras). There are plenty of good establishing shots to feast your eyes upon. On a more interior note, Lazlo’s restaurant in which much of the action takes place is VERY similar to two of the restaurant’s I dined in while there. And the focus on the Hungarian rouladen, was nice because I had some of that….and a lot of other really friggin’ delicious dishes in that city (it’s entirely possible to gain weight just thinking about the food in Budapest).
Of course, since the movie is named after music, the music in the film is wonderful. Very classical. The theme is a truly beautiful piece. Piano is the primary mode of transmission, but there are some excellent incidences of violin as well (which actually fits more with the music I heard in Budapest). I’m strongly considering picking up the soundtrack to this one.
One of the downsides to the film is, well, inevitable. As I mentioned, it’s set in 1930s Europe. This means you will NOT avoid Nazis and Jews. It’s that damn elephant in the room you can’t avoid. But….at this point in time, even though it’s real and it’s true, it’s almost become cliche. Particularly because the German officer featured in this film is completely stereotypical in terms of his appearance: blonde, fair, etc. I can’t help rolling my eyes at that visual because the most-recently-off-the-boat Germans in my family are NOT blonde, blue eyed or fair. In fact, they literally “pass” for Mexicans (the Hungarians and Jews in the film look way more like many of my family than the German characters). I’m not saying I like the idea of my homies being associated with Nazis, but if we’re going to embrace the reality of Nazis being in every film about that era, we may as well embrace that not all Germans are fair and blue eyed.
Of course, the war and the Nazis are integral to the plot and you see that part coming a mile out. The relationship complexity adds the real flavor, though the plot still seems to drag a bit at times while you’re watching. I know this because I make notes. And because it’s a European film. I also know that the ending to this one makes me forget the drag every time I watch. It’s a more awesome ending that you get in a lot of European films, so double bonus on that one.
All told, I’ll give it 3 and ¾ jars of peanut butter. Deductions for the buttshots, the occasional plot drag and for the cliche German.