“Gloomy Sunday” is, as the film’s subtitle tells us, a song of love and death (“Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod”). Composed by Rezso Seress in 1933, the song earned the eerie distinction of being the inspiration for — or at least the soundtrack to — a rash of suicides in the ’30s. Much of that is legend, I’m sure, and certainly there were plenty of reasons to commit suicide in Eastern Europe in the ’30s without using a song as scapegoat, but the idea of such a thing is intriguing.
German director Rolf Schubel’s film “Gloomy Sunday,” adapted from a novel by Nick Barkow, blends history, fiction and a healthy dose of violin-scored melodrama into a lovely, aching little movie. It begins in the present, with a man celebrating his 80th birthday at a Budapest restaurant called Szabo, where he spent some time in his youth. He requests that a particular song be played by the house pianist and violinist, and as its haunting tones overtake us, he collapses into death. “That song is cursed!” declares a witness.
We are then transported to those bygone days, just prior to and during World War II, when the restaurant was new and when its patrons were many. The owner is Laszlo Szabo (Joachim Krol), a paunchy, average-looking man who has had a relationship with his head waitress, the enchantingly beautiful Ilona (Erika Marozsan), for four years. He knows that many of the restaurant’s male patrons are bewitched by her, but he is oddly unthreatened — even pleased by it, in fact, as their fondness for Ilona keeps them coming back night after night.
Into this little slice of Hungarian heaven comes Andras Aradi (Stefano Dionisi), a handsome pianist who is hired to provide live music on Szabo’s newly purchased grand piano. He is smitten with Ilona, as is everyone, but this time Ilona demurely returns his affections. Laszlo remains unconcerned about the prospect of losing his love to another man, and in fact Ilona begins sleeping with both men and does nothing to hide it.
It is here that I must note the apparent difference between European and American men, if the films of that continent are to be believed. These three-way relationships, where two men share a woman with little or no jealousy, are the subject of enough European films to be considered commonplace. In American films, men are far too territorial to allow such a thing. “Gloomy Sunday,” “Jules and Jim” and “The Dreamers” are three European films off the top of my head that have done it, while the only American one I can recall is “Threesome” (and that only because my colleague Scott Weinberg pointed it out to me).
I mention all this because, despite what you might think, the unconventional (or perhaps it is conventional — I’ve never lived in bohemian Europe) nature of Laszlo, Ilona and Andras’ relationship is not the focus of the film. There is a brief moment when the men believe it will be impossible to go on this way, but that dilemma is resolved and the movie jumps ahead three years, where they have settled into a comfortable three-way relationship, Ilona going home with one man one night and the other the next. Or maybe the same man twice in a row, it doesn’t seem to matter.
No, the focus of the film, at least for a while, is the song “Gloomy Sunday,” a poignant and sad melody written by Andras for Ilona’s birthday early in his career at Szabo. It quickly becomes a favorite among patrons, including Hans Wieck (Ben Becker), one of Ilona’s more ardent admirers and eventually a colonel in Hitler’s military. Music producers hear it one night, a recording is made, radio stations play it, and “Gloomy Sunday” becomes a hit.
The drawback to this success is the bizarre string of suicides connected with it. First there are five suicides in three days, all enacted with “Gloomy Sunday” on the phonograph or after the victims had heard it at Szabo. Then, paralleling Hitler’s march across Europe, “Gloomy Sunday” marches across the world, leaving dozens of suicides in its wake.
The film does not attempt to explain why, exactly, people would be driven to suicide by a song. We’ve all heard music that made us want to kill ourselves, but this isn’t Toby Keith or Avril Lavigne. “Gloomy Sunday” is a GOOD song. But if it makes casual listeners kill themselves, you can imagine its effect on the man who wrote it.
Through it all, the film continues the romance among Ilona, Laszlo and Andras, and how it is impacted by the Nazis. (Laszlo is a Jew.) Wieck re-enters the picture during the war, not interested in Hitler’s “Final Solution,” particularly, but more in making money, cutting deals and doing favors for anyone who can pay him. He is practical and mercenary, perhaps not as evil as his bosses, but surely no saint either.
His effect on the threesome is profound, and though the film has a few touches of wry humor scattered throughout, it is mostly a drama. It is unabashedly romantic with its classic themes of love and betrayal and its vivid re-creation of the old-world beauty and charm of pre-war Budapest.
Is it sad? Well, most films involving Nazis are. But it also has a fantastically satisfying conclusion, marred only somewhat by a hideous modern rendition of “Gloomy Sunday.” It’s a film worth seeking out, a good fit for a rainy Saturday or any other less-than-bright day of the week.
B (1 hr., 54 min.; German with subtitles; )