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
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
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
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.
~~ Jules Brenner