Cinema Signal:

Short History of the Hungarian Cinema

. "Gloomy Sunday"

Literally, "Schmaltz" is chicken fat, added to give flavor and substance to an otherwise bland dish. In movie terms, it's the addition of sentimental romanticism to extend and hype moments that the filmmaker worries is too droll to make in direct, unembellished terms. This quirky little film about a triangular love affair, masquerading as "old fashioned", is made with plenty of Hungarian schmaltz while completely living up to its title. Be forewarned. Your mood is at stake.

But schmaltz is not the main ingredient in director/co-scriptwriter Rolf Schubel's screen adaptation of Nick Barkow's novel, "Ein Lied von Liebe un Tod", (a song of love and death). The multiple love story defies its period's conventions every bit as much as today's, while a song melody haunts the entire scenario.

Sometime after the second world war, a powerful German ambassador chooses to celebrate his 80th birthday in Szabo's, a restaurant he remembers from pre-war years. During the meal he falls dead, causing us to flash back to previous times to look for an explanation.

It's 1940 Budapest when a restaurant can stand out for quality and steady clientele despite the fact that it's owned by a jew. Laszlo Szabo (Joachim Kroll) not only enjoys the success of his bistro but can boast an even more passionate enjoyment of his relationship with adorable Ilona (Erika Marozsan), a waitress who, through charm, beauty and personality, attracts the attention of most males that come through the door. The relationship is an open one, however, with neither vying for the permanence of marriage.

When Szabo and Ilona audition pianists, they choose disheveled latecomer Andras Aradi (Stefano Dionisi) as soon as they hear his song of lament and sadness, "Gloomy Sunday." Its strains of deep introspection contain a gripping morbidity and lingering moodiness despite the fact that he, the composer-pianist, has not been able to add a lyric.

As a gift for her birthday, Aradi dedicates the song to Ilona. Ilona takes a liking to Andras and pursues her interest into his bed. This is not at the expense of her relationship with Szabo, but simultaneous with it. In other words, she takes two lovers. It's not a menage a trois, since she alternates between them, but it does create a turbulence of emotional confusion and pain.

When steady customer Hans Wieck, a rather awkward though amiable German, hears Aradi's melody and learns of its dedication, he's smitten and moved to propose marriage to Ilona, offering to take her with him on his return to Germany. Ilona rejects him. He apparently doesn't have what it takes. Not being able to accept that reality, he takes a plunge in the Danube, is rescued by good natured Szabo, and departs for his homeland.

One night Szabo learns that 3 executives from the radio-music industry have come for dinner. He assumes the role of talent manager by arranging for Andras to play his haunting melody just as the trio relaxes over dessert and cigars. They are impressed with the music, leading to a contract and airplay. The song captivates Budapest, brings fame to Aradi and to the restaurant, all the while influencing a growing number of people to commit suicide to its strains.

At the same time, the Nazi's power is growing and expanding into Hungary where more and more Nazi officers are throwing their weight around. Wieck, now a brigade commander mostly interested in his sideline of war profiteering, returns to the restaurant in full uniform and an officious, in-charge attitude that doesn't hide the fact that he's still hot for Ilona.

The interplay between the romantic elements and the war based political backdrop are evocative of films of an earlier era but stands out for their originality of character and the interweaving of the sad Hungarian song. In reality, it was composed in 1935 by Rezso Seress and Laszlo Javor, was banned there for driving some Hungarians to suicide, and was subsequently made famous by a string of American and international artists beginning with Billie Holiday.

Just when the movie threatens to lapse into the kind of melodramatic corniness you might expect from a 40's movie, it pulls out something all its own to compel attention and you realize that you're into something unpredictable and that you're really quite involved with these mystifying people locked in ironic embrace.

Striking the grace note to it all is the head-to-toe beauty of the enchantress in the center of the piece. Erika Marozsan is more than credible as the object of men's desires and exquisitely compensates for the schmaltzy wanderings in an imperfect but tantalizing tale that has a good share of steaminess on the menu.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

The Soundtrack Album


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Erika Marozsan as Ilona

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