I have been reading Simon Winder’s Danubia for about two months now. Like his earlier Germania, it is a deliciously meandering, eclectic, and utterly idiosyncratic rendering of geographic history — in this case, that of the Hapsburg Empire. I am on the next-to-last chapter and the ill-fated Franz Ferdinand has made his appearance, so the end is indeed near.
When I learned the other day about a new movie called Sunset, set in 1913 Budapest, in the twilight and the heart of the Hapsburg Empire, the synchronicity could not be denied. The opportunity for enrichment and enlightenment moved this film to the top of the list.
We went to the city today and saw it at the Paris Theater, which is a lovely big old-fashioned place. The movie is almost two and half hours, but it was so absorbing and so visually interesting that the time never lagged for me.
Rarely have I seen a movie where the format so perfectly suits the content, where the filmmakers’ technique so precisely captures the theme and tone. The still above encapsulates what I mean: the heroine — the young, displaced Írisz Leiter, who is seeking her truth and becoming herself — is in almost unsettling closeup, with the world around her out of focus, out of context, out of reach. In almost every scene, we are so close to Írisz we are almost tripping on her heels; our view of the world is as close to hers as possible without the camera becoming her. I was so frustrated at the beginning: the film is rich with period detail, glorious clothes and textures and patterns and objects; all so well realized you can feel the heatwave the newspaper boys hawk about; sense the throbbing thrumming vitality of the Budapest streets and city life. But you can’t crane your neck or train your eye to focus on any of it. Because we are stuck with only the details that present themselves to Írisz, and she only gradually comes to make any sense of the conflicting information, lies, confabulations, contortions, distortions, decadence, depravity, and chaos that swirl around her — slowly gaining some perspective on the morass in which she finds herself. It also imparts a hypnotic, dreamy quality to the actions of the film: she just sort of finds herself in situations without she, or we, having a clear understanding of how she got there and what it all means.
It is a breathtaking achievement when you think about it. And really, that’s where the viewer should focus his or her energies, because thinking deeply about the plot per se is problematic, as there is much that doesn’t bear much scrutiny. Briefly, Írisz comes to apply for a job at the very tony millinery shop that had been founded by her long-dead parents. She is rebuffed from all sides and at all turns in her quest to figure out her place and her people. She learns very abstrusely, obliquely, perversely, that she has a brother, an outlaw rebel who has tortured and killed a local count before his wife’s eyes. She immediately seeks out her brother — the first of many occasions in the film when she will do exactly what everyone around her warns her against, usually when she has been given another task to do instead (which she never does). She is a queer combination of passivity and willfulness, but one which I think makes more sense if we remember how young and unformed she is. Keeping in mind the Sondheim dictum on youth from Follies that I love, a time when: “Everything was possible and nothing made sense.” In Írisz’s case, it is the latter that is her defining feature — as borne out by her (and by extension, our) inability to make literal sense of her surroundings: everything not right up in her face is out of focus, unclear, unexplored. And we’re back to why the film’s brilliant.
Her youth and naivety explain much — but not all — of her reactions (and nonreactions) to the confusing situations in which she finds herself. But I think too that the filmmaker is using Írisz’s sometimes decidedly odd decisions to comment on a tendency observed in contemporary Europe and America: to look at the facts of a matter and completely misinterpret them, to act on a belief because it has been persuasively presented. Too, the movie’s writer/director, László Nemes, has noted that the lesson of history is precisely “how little we can understand of our world.”
I do not wish to spoil the film, and so will not trace its arc or delineate its plot. But I do want to tie it back to my Winder book and the fall of the Hapsburg Empire. And for that, I must mention the World War, which is of course where all this leads. And I must mention that what Sunset revealed to me about the First World War — that it would be perceived very, very differently in a Hungarian context (Nemes is Hungarian) than the American/British characterization of utter tedium and futility — was completely unexpected and startling: as if we were thinking of two different wars. So the enlightenment and enrichment I had sought was secured: a new perspective on this fascinating war.