Gloomy Sunday
Ein Lied von Leibe und Tod
review by Elias Savada, 5 December 2003


A half-century has lapsed since prominent German industrialist Hans-Eberhard Weick (Rolf Becker) has promised his wife a visit to Budapest, which holds some distant yet obviously memorable connection to his past. In celebrating his 80th birthday there at a luxuriously elegant restaurant, in the company of an ambassador and other friends, the stately gentleman recalls bygone days while dining on elegant china. He assuredly places a banknote in the pocket of an aging violinist and makes a request, "Please play the song. You know, the famous one." Perhaps unfortunately, perhaps not, Hans's birthday celebration is cut short as the melancholy Hungarian "suicide" song (which bears the film's title and is best remembered in a 1941 Billie Holiday rendition) ends. Moments after he has focused on an old photograph atop the accompanist's piano, his half-smile turns shamefully downward, his body trembles and collapses to the floor, and he dies. The restaurant owner blames the song, a cursed piece written for love, for the woman in the photograph, sixty years earlier.

It is definitely fate, but a totally different variety, that has caused Weick's demise. The core of the film hastens back to the late 1930s, and it is there where you'll have to amble through Gloomy Sunday's less than remarkable, albeit haunting, first half, commencing with Jewish restaurateur Laszlo Szabo (Joachim Król) opening a new, swank restaurant bearing his name. With the help of girlfriend/hostess Ilona Varnai (Erika Marozsán), they set out and quickly succeed in building up a stellar reputation among the well-to-do. While auditioning pianists, Ilona's eyes are drawn to Andras Aradi (Stefano Dionisi) and his sadly determined demeanor. Laszlo notices the intoxicating spell Ilona casts on men who cross her path (especially if she's wearing low-cut dresses), but is reluctantly game for the civilized Jules & Jim relationship that follows. The aforementioned blond-haired Wieck (now played by Ben Becker, Rolf's son) is a salesman visiting from Berlin so romantically overwrought when Ilona rejects his half-drunken marriage proposal that he becomes the first (attempted) suicide shortly after hearing Gloomy Sunday, Andras' birthday gift to Ilona. The ever-optimistic Laszlo rescues Hans after a late night dive into the Danube.

Ilona drifts between her lovers, happy one moment, unbearably forlorn the next. (These mood shifts reflect the film's problem balancing its various tones—romantic one minute, seriously dramatic the next, with occasional comic relief.) Lazslo, ever the businessman and consummate restaurateur, uneasily realizes that even having a part of her is better than none. They share love, life, and good food. Laszlo even manages to make a record deal for the pianist, while Weick writes from Berlin of the re-energized German economy as it "expands" its horizons. As any publicist can tell you, even bad news can be good news, and that is just the case as the song sparks worldwide suicides, making for grisly newsreel footage and booming business, for the restaurant and the musician. And it doesn't even have the lyrics written yet!

Three years pass. Hans returns a Colonel in the SS, married, a father, and determined to advance the Nazi cause, yet also driven by a more sinister urge. Despite the dreary conditions and scarcity of food, the restaurant remains open and profitable. And Andras has composed his lyrics. But the trio's happiness ticks lower as World War II wrecks a deadly toll on them.

Thus starts the more enlightening final half of the film, which redeems itself with some harrowingly typical Nazi tit-for-tat, particularly the penchant of Weick for a local meat delicacy, a fetching woman, a poignant tune, and hardball tactics with members of the local Jewish community to steal their assets in exchange for freedom to Switzerland. Direct Rolf Schübel's film begins to entrance when these four lives become part of a biographical sketch of the mournful ballad and a love-hate relationship that makes for a very unstable rectangle. The film's final 30 minutes create a dour mood for the three Hungarians, but swells up to a fitting bookend and zinger of a finish.

Gloomy Sunday (Ein Lied von Leibe und Tod), a 1999 German feature that has won have a dozen awards, is now being released theatrically in the United States by Menemsha Films (three years after it was offered on a Region 2:Germany DVD), which has been distributing the German Jewish refugee documentary Shanghai Ghetto. Originally to have been handled here by Arrow Releasing (which considered changing the title to The Piano Player), Menemsha picked up rights when a New Zealand distributor of the film mentioned it had been playing at the Arts Centre Cinema in Christchurch for more than two years. In the congested arthouse market it may have earnest intentions and curious grosses, but I fear it will have rough sledding -- Indeed, it disappeared after a brief week or two at Washington's Avalon Theater.

Directed by:
Rolf Schübel

Joachim KrólStefano Dionisi
Ben Becker
Erika Marozsán

Written by:
Rolf Schübel 
Ruth Toma

NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.






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