Programme Notes: Sunset


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Spoiler warning: this article reveals key plot developments

László Nemes’s second feature arrives at cinemas loaded with superlative expectations. His first film, Son of Saul (Dir. László Nemes, 2015), was a powerful meditation on the horrors of the Holocaust that earned almost universal acclaim, winning an Oscar, a Bafta, the director’s prize at Cannes and five-star reviews across the board. Stylistically it was a directorial calling card, a statement of intent from a filmmaker who explicitly stands in opposition to the conventions of mainstream cinema’s output in both form and content. Despite the inescapable prison of the film, which led viewers through the daily routine of Jewish people forced to work in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Nemes provided his central characters with a palpable sense of agency usually lacking from many films, which tackle this difficult subject. 

Sunset (Dir. László Nemes, 2019) elaborates on the trademark visual aesthetic of Nemes’s debut – intense close-ups of faces, long takes and a soft focus, which lends his work a psychological realism. Its narrative, however, removes itself from the death factories of Auschwitz to a society suffering the burden of decadent decline – Budapest in 1910. Set during the death throes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Sunset revolves around Irisz Leiter, a troubled young woman who has come to Budapest to apply for a job as a milliner with the Leiter hat company, which was founded by her late parents but is now a profitable business under the management of presentable entrepreneur Oszkár Brill. Irisz lost her parents in a fire before being sent to Vienna for adoption, and soon discovers that her estranged brother has been committing violent acts throughout Hungary’s capital. Now she’s on a mission to track down her sibling, and to uncover the secretive lives of the ruling classes that visit the Leiter store. 

If Son of Saul was like witnessing an explosion in full torrent, then Sunset is watching a lit wick burn its way to a stick of dynamite. A woozy languor permeates its many scenes involving the wealthy patrons of the Leiter Company, one that has led to a society thriving on the exploitation of anyone without cultural or financial cache. But as one character states, ‘The horror of the world hides behind these infinitely pretty things’, and their actions are stoking a nationalist anger which will play its part in the decimation caused by World War One.

Nemes creates a world of haves and have-nots, placing Irisz in the liminal space between the two and setting her on a path of ultimate alienation. She’s an outsider within the empire her family built, shunned for her experience of tragedy and for the violent actions of her equally alienated brother. Her loneliness in Budapest is further underlined by her gender; men shout at her in the street or paw at her without invite.

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Irisz’s inability to place her foot in either strata of society has led her to seek the approval of both, potentially unleashing a violent acrimony between the two that can’t be abated. Here, Nemes toys with the centuries-old narrative tradition of women finding ways to extinguish their gender and move seamlessly between the worlds of men and women, allowing them to participate in culture as more than second-class citizens.

The result of this proto-feminist overview of Austro-Hungarian society is necessarily difficult to analyse, its knotted structure lending it the complexity of a detective novel. Why does Oszkár seem relentlessly shifty? Are Irisz’s brother’s actions psychotic or the work of an anarcho-political activist? What are the ruling classes doing with the ‘chosen’ women who work in the hat store? These are questions which Nemes only scratches the surface of, a decision made to shock an audience from complacency. “It’s a labyrinth,” Nemes recently told The Guardian. “The audience has to accept confusion as part of the process – and people don’t like that! I have come to understand that it creates major anxiety. But that is the challenge and the promise: to experience the world through the eyes of someone who is not a god. Then you’re not just a popcorn-eating machine, you’re someone for whom this experience can become personal and subjective and meaningful.”[1]

Subjectivity in experience lies at the centre of Sunset, just as it did with Son of Saul. Its cast of characters are less people and more unpeople, its plot is buried in a murk of unknown motivations, and its protagonist is too excluded from society to ever understand its machinations. The viewer is left to attach their own prejudices and opinions to the action on screen. 

Where the film is clear is in its socio-political message, which builds on Nemes’s fears of civilised societies’ rapid collapse into barbarism. His films have a kinship with The Serpent’s Egg (Dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1977), Come and See (Dir. Elem Klimov, 1985) and Werckmeister Harmonies (Dir. Bela Tarr, 2000) in their ability to frame historical moments as prescient warnings about the present. ‘“I really have the feeling that a self-assured civilisation such as ours is preparing our own destruction,”[2] stated Nemes in a recent interview, and Sunset shows how quickly that destruction can arrive. 

Nero isn’t only fiddling while Rome burns, he’s lighting matches and burning along with it. As an Eastern European Jewish man living in our modern era of right-wing populism, Nemes’s fixation on the horrors harvested during the early-twentieth century is more relevant today than most contemporary audiences would feel comfortable admitting.

 

Kevin Fullerton
Freelance Writer and PhD Researcher in Film at the University of Dundee

May 2019



[1] Catherine Shoard, ‘Son of Saul’s László Nemes: “Our civilisation is preparing for its own destruction’ in The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/may/10/son-of-sauls-laszlo-nemes-our-civilisation-is-preparing-for-its-own-destruction

[2] Ibid. 


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