Istvan Szabo's Century of "Sunshine"
by Anthony Kauffman
The last 100 years or so, if you ask veteran Hungarian director Istvan Szabo (Oscar winner “Mephisto“), were anything but sunny; in fact, he often uses the analogy of the sinking Titanic to describe our last century. And his latest movie “Sunshine” (now playing in New York and Los Angeles) — a 3-part epic tale of family and nationalism that spans the decades — zeros in on the worst political periods of our time, from the rise of Fascism to the Nazi Holocaust to the tyranny of Stalinist Communism.
Ralph Fiennes portrays three generations in a Jewish Hungarian family: first, as an aspiring judge faithful to the Austro-Hungarian Empire; second, as an Olympic fencing champion and victim of Nazism; and finally as a Communist police bureaucrat. Along the way, from grandfather to father to son, they lose their name, their religion, their identity and experience incest, love, betrayal, anti-Semitism, murder, coercion, and finally, a little bit of self-awareness. The film also stars William Hurt, recent Tony winner Jennifer Ehle (“The Real Thing“), Rachel Weisz, Deborah Kara Unger, and Molly Parker.
Originally written as a mini-series for German television, Canadian producer Robert Lantos urged Szabo to rewrite the Hungarian-language script into a shorter English-language film. (The result still clocks in at three hours.) Shot over a four-month period for a total 112 days, Szabo’s most recent film is both his most ambitious and his most personal.
In an odd choice of place, indieWIRE spoke to Szabo in the all-glass penthouse of the annoyingly chic Time Hotel in New York City. “No, it’s impossible,” Szabo says in his thick Hungarian accent, clapping his hands to check the acoustics of the room. “You hear my voice coming back,” he repeats, listening to the echo. “Coming back!” He’s not happy, but regardless, we press on about short films, simplicity, and chronicling the changing decades.
indieWIRE: So your first film work began forty years ago. How did you begin making films in Hungary?
Istvan Szabo: I finished film school, like everybody who was working in the film business in Hungary, and then I became an assistant director and worked with several different directors. And while I was an assistant, I did some short films and they were quite successful [“The Concert” was nominated for the Best Short at the 1963 Academy Awards]. So I got the possibility to do my first feature film “The Age of Daydreaming” when I was 25. And since then, I’ve been making feature films, but also short films, because I like them very much.
iW: Why is that?
Szabo: Because I can try different forms, so it’s research to me. I had a long, long period, maybe 20 years, when I did between every feature film a short film to find out something, how to do it without the big responsibility of millions and millions of dollars. You have a little money and a little camera and you can try to find something out.
iW: Was there any smaller project you used to prepare yourself for “Sunshine”?
Szabo: I think I did several feature films that may be the roots for “Sunshine.” For the personal view, “Father” , for the political subject, “Mephisto”  and “Colonel Redl” , and for the love story, “Confidence” .
iW: Do you think this is a film you could have made 20 years ago?
Szabo: No, no, no. Because twenty years ago, I didn’t have an idea of how to tell a story. Twenty years ago, I had a wish, like every filmmaker, I had a wish to show something very unique, very special. The “Director Szabo” was important to me. And today, after many years, I have forgotten this wish to show myself. Today, I think I’m not interesting to the audience. The story is interesting and the actors representing my story are interesting. So today, I never want to find a shot that is special, which is my personal idea. My wish is only to find the shot that is clear, and the best for the actors, to show what they can show. Giving all the possibilities to the actors. And a clear picture. Simplicity is my wish today, and simplicity is maybe the most difficult thing. Because it must be clear and understandable and powerful. So simplicity is the only thing.
iW: But in this film, you tell these three different stories quite differently visually.
Szabo: I don’t think so — that they’re different visually. From my point of view, they are different because the time changed. We wanted to show how the world is going down like the Titanic. So in the beginning of the story, the end of the 19th Century until the First (World) War, was a golden period for middle Europe. So we showed a world that is rich and beautiful, like the coffee shop or the large house or the beautiful costumes. Or a spoon or a glass of water, how marvelous it was made. And then slowly, at the end of the 20s and the 30s, when vulgar people took over the power — the Nazis and Fascists — the taste goes down and you see how cold everything becomes. And then having the Second World War, which burned down and ruined everything, then we arrive in the Communist period, which is even worst taste and even colder and dirtier. So we have the same coffee shop from the beginning, but you can see it goes from a marvelous public space to a self-service restaurant that is poor and stupid. This is what we wanted to show. That’s why it’s visually different. It’s not our view is different; the reality became different.
iW: Can you talk about the intermingling of that political background with the personal stories and conflicts? This balance is so prevalent in many of your films.
Szabo: I think the background — and the visual effect as you mention — is an important part of the story and the family story is how to be in a society, how to be accepted by a society, how to assimilate. So there’s a connection between them; they’re eating each other; they’re making love to each other, philosophically. The first character, the judge from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to the third man, who is a policeman, the language changes. My idea was in the beginning of the film that the language is like literature, they use fine words, romantic lines, they know what literature is. The second story is more exact, not so rich. And the third is vulgar. Even people in high positions use four-letter, vulgar words. So the story, through these three steps, shows on every possible level — sets, costumes, language, words, mentality, human touch (in the beginning, there is connection and in the third story, everyone’s separate and they’re only using each other)– how the Titanic sinks.
iW: Nationalism seems to be a destructive force in the film. Do you agree?
Szabo: Yes, because I separate patriotism and nationalism. Nationalism means to me that you are full of hate for every one else, and patriotism is you love everybody and your place and your world. So I am for patriots and against nationalists.
iW: The end does offer some hope. But I sense that you have a very strong affection for the past. Do you really feel there is hope in our new century?
Szabo: I think if you have the courage to be yourself; if you don’t have this disease to please everybody else, and you’re able to cut your roots and if you can be yourself, then there is hope to survive.
iW: Do you have any memories as a child of the fascist party, the Arrow-Cross, in power?
Szabo: No, I was born in 1938, so I was only 6 then, at the close of the Second World War. So I have no memories of it.
iW: You tell the story of that period through many details. Did that come from pure fantasy or did you do a lot of research, talking to family members, etc.?
Szabo: I spent forty years for this. All the stories I heard around the family table from my grandmother and grandfather and friends I tried to put in this film.