Gloomy Sunday
Ein Lied von Leibe und Tod
review by Gregory Avery, 5 December 2003

A Song About Love and Death

Budapest, the 1930s. Laszlo (Joachim Krol) likes Ilona (Erika Marozsan). She likes him, as well. That much is evident in an early scene where we see them in the bath together (that's "bath" as in "tub"). And it is a rather nice-looking tub, too, one of those large porcelain affairs with.... Anyway, Laszlo and Ilona are opening a new restaurant, and, rather than bring in the same old Hungarian Gypsy band to serenade the diners, they decide to hire a pianist. Enter András (Italian actor Stefano Dionisi). He likes Ilona, too. She likes him. She doesn't mind. Laszlo does. However, he decides that he would rather have half of Ilona than none at all.

The film Gloomy Sunday has been likened by at least one source to Jules and Jim, only, as pretty and appealing as Erika Marozsan may be, she's not exactly Jeanne Moreau's Catherine, with that edge that made her both dangerous and tantalizing, and thus made you understand why both Oskar Werner and Henri Serre would go nuts for her. The lovers in Gloomy Sunday may be free-spirited, but the film itself, save for some instances where Marozsan is shown in some decorous states of undress, is a lot closer to more old-fashioned period romances, with their combination of love, betrayal, and high passion amid the clash of events. (The film's main title is underscored with the subtitle A Song About Love and Death.) And, as well, no sooner do Laszlo, Ilona and András settle into a comfy menage-a-trois than it produces an most unexpected progeny. András composes a little tune, which he plays for Ilona. It meets with her approval. Soon, people are flocking to the restaurant, not just for the food but to hear András' composition. A record deal is struck. Then, András hears about the five suicides that occurred in the last three days, all people who had just heard András' melody. And he hasn't even set lyrics to it, yet!

There actually was a song called Gloomy Sunday, written by two Hungarian songwriters in 1935, and it was an international hit (Billie Holliday was one of the first to record it in the U.S.); the songwriters also found themselves in the middle of some unexpected scandal when the press linked an inordinate number of suicides to people who had heard the song (the BBC even banned it for a time, except as an instrumental recording divorced from its disconsolate lyrics).  In the film, it comes off as nothing so much like a musical version of the chain letter in Der Todesking, something that makes everyone who comes in contact with it so despondent they chuck it all in. Soon, the body count has risen to 157 in 8 weeks, and a newsreel reports -- right after showing Hitler's armies pushing into western Europe -- that the song is running amuck through the countryside: a body at the foot of the Eiffel Tower is accompanied by an announcer saying, "The tune's gruesome march across Europe continues...", after which it informs the audience that it has jumped the Atlantic and is causing Americans to put record players in the front seats of their Studebaker convertibles and drive straight into the drink while listening to András' melody.

Laszlo, Ilona and András no sooner get back from a much-needed picnic in the countryside to steady their nerves than their old German friend Hans (Ben Becker) turns up, only this time in an S.S. uniform. Laszlo is of Jewish decent, but Hans decides to protect him, if only because Laszlo's restaurant serves the best "Magyar roulade" -- a specially prepared meat dish, served rolled -- in town. Hans also likes Ilona, but he can never get past first-base with her -- he may call her a heavenly angel, but she replies, "We heavenly ones tend to be rather conservative." This is just as well, since Hans turns out to be bilking all of Budapest's Jews out of their valuables, hoarding them in coffins (!) which he then seals and sends off to store for after the war. (Hans' biggest aspiration in life is to one day run a successful import and export business.) However, Hans makes the terrible mistake of crossing Ilona; he may  be rich, but this is the woman who had, as one character puts it, "the song, you know which one" written for her.

"I would like to take all my baths in your tub," Ilona tells Laszlo, romantically, at one point. Do not let this stop you from seeing the picture, though. Filmed in burnished, gold-hued tones, it moves quite nimbly and never takes on the stiff, arid tone of many self-conscious "prestige" pictures, and while the characters (and filmmakers) never do manage to come up with a conclusive explanation as to what the "message" of the title song is (it's probably just as well that they didn't), the three lead characters turn out to be perfectly enjoyable ones to spend a few hours with. Gloomy Sunday opens and closes with a scene set at Laszlo's restaurant in modern-day Budapest, where the icy (or musical) hand of fate reaches out to.... Suffice to say that the movie has one more plot turn in store which I absolutely did not see coming, yet is satisfying in the way that an adroitly-executed surprise twist can be. (I am comparing this to, for instance, the fraudulent "twist" that was tacked onto the very end of a film that came out earlier this year, The Life of David Gale, which succeeded only in filling one up with animosity towards the movie while repudiating everything that had come before.) Gloomy Sunday also seems nostalgic for a vanished period in time, and for a type of filmmaking -- handsome, romantic, heart-tugging and unabashedly  sentimental -- the type of filmmaking that makes you want to try some of Laszlo's rapturous Magyar roulade yourself.

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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