Sunshine (1999) 

 

 

Director:  István Szabó.

Starring:  Ralph Fiennes (Ignatz Sonnenschein/Adam Sors/Ivan Sors), Rosemary Harris (Valerie Sors), Rachel Weisz (Greta Sors), Jennifer Ehle (Valerie Sonnenschein), Deborah Kara Unger (Maj. Carole Kovacs), Molly Parker (Hannah Wippler), James Frain (Gustave Sonnenschein), David de Keyser (Emmanuel Sonnenschein), John Neville (Gustave Sors), Miriam Margolyes (Rose Sonnenschein), Rüdiger Vogler (Gen. Jakofalvy), Mark Strong (Istvan Sors), Bill Paterson (Minister of Justice), Trevor Peacock (Comrade Gen. Kope), Hanns Zischler (Baron Margitta), William Hurt (Andor Knorr).

three generations of Hungarian Jews from c. 1900 to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

The narrator of the story is Ivan Sors/Sonnenschein.  He talks about his great-great-grandfather Sonnenschein.  At twelve years of age he left the Austro-Hungarian Empire to find work to support his mother and brother, Sammy.  His father died in an explosion in his distillery where he made a good tasting tonic made from herbs that cured people.  Ivan's great-grandfather Emmanuel settled into a Budapest distillery.  At age 25 he had his own house and distillery.  The herbal brew was called a "Taste of Sunshine", "sunshine" being the English translation of Sonnenschein.  Emmanuel married Rose Deutsch and they had two sons: Ignatz (Ivan's paternal grandfather) and Gustave.  When Sammy died, Emmanuel and Rose adopted his daughter Valerie (Ivan's paternal grandmother). 

Ignatz, Gustave and Valerie grew up together and Valerie fell in love with her cousin Ignatz.  One day jealous Gustave tells his mother and father about Valerie and Ivan kissing.  Emmanuel tells Ignatz "I forbid you."  Ignatz concurs with his father, but Valerie tells him "Don't give into them so quickly" like a good little boy.  But Ignatz tells her that he must leave.  He goes to Vienna for further education and ignores Valerie's letters to him.  So the determined Valerie pays him a visit in Vienna.  Ignatz tries to resist her charms, but he gives in and they kiss. 

Ignatz finishes his studies and becomes Dr. Ignatz Sonnenshein.  Back home again Valerie is soon sleeping with Ignatz.  Ignatz becomes a judge and is even considered for the Central Court.  But to be appointed to the Central Court, he is told that he will have to change his name to something more "Hungarian".  Not only Ignatz, but Valerie and Gustave too, all change their names to Sors. 

Valerie tells Ignatz that they are going to have a baby.  Ignatz tells her that his mother will murder him and Valerie says "Me too!"  At dinner one evening Ignatz announces to the family that he will marry Valerie.  His mother Rose falls to the floor.  Despite Rose's objections, the two marry.  Gustave had wanted to marry Valerie but it was not to be.  (Emmanuel had at one time wanted to marry his own cousin, Sarah Bettleheim.) 

Valerie is an idealist and Gustave is a communist, but Ignatz is a very compromising man.  In a corruption case, he is asked to assist in the cover-up of the evidence.  Valerie is mad at him for going along with his higher-ups, but Ignatz tells her that he has no choice.  She tells her husband:  "You are selling your soul." 

It is the year 1900 and the family celebrates New Year's Eve.  A baby boy is born, who is named Istvan.  Ignatz is asked to stand for Parliament.  It is an invitation to join the Hungarian ruling class and his wife does not like it, since she feels the government is corrupt.  His father cautions that "Our people should not climb too high."  Another son is born to Valerie and Ignatz and named Adam (Ivan Sors's father). 

Ignatz is given a list of the names of people in socialist organizations in Hungary.  A superior asks "Why are Jews behind every attempt to overthrow the government?"  Ignatz has to tell his brother Gustave that his name is on the list.  Gustave tells Ignatz that his attempt at full assimilation into Hungarian upper-crust Hungarian society is doomed:  "You'll never be allowed." 

World War I begins.  Ignatz serves on the army staff.  He becomes a major.  He is then appointed Chief Military Judge of the Southern Front and is away from home for four years on the Balkan front. 

The emperor is dead!  And Emmanuel Sonnenschein also dies. 

The news arrives:  "We have surrendered."  The war is over and Ignatz returns home.  His boys are now young men.  His wife Valerie tells him that she is going to divorce him.  She refers to him as a man without feeling.  Ignatz accuses Valeries of taking his brother Gustave as her lover.  She denies it and says that she will suffocate without love in her life.  To try to prove he both loves her and has feelings he forces her to have sex with him.  He then cries.  But Valerie still wants to leave. 

1919.  The communists in Hungary take power.  Gustave becomes a high-ranking official in the new government.  And now Ignatz finds his name on a political list of suspicious persons.  Judge Sors is placed under house arrest.  Valerie, hearing about Ignatz's arrest, returns home.  She is allowed to visit Ignatz once each day. 

A military regime overthrows the communist government.  The family gets into a big fight.  Not long afterward, Ignatz dies and his mother Rose soon follows.  Adam is teased and harassed as a "Jew boy".  To become more confident he learns fencing.  He is a very good at fencing, but he loses a crucial match because he is Jewish.  Adam is told that he would be welcome in the famous fencing organization known as the Officer's Club.  But no Jews are allowed so it is suggested that he convert.  Adam converts.  He now aggressively chases Hannah Wippler who already has a fiancé and who tells him: "You are really too aggressive."

Baron Felix Margatay becomes his fencing coach and Adam wins the fencing championship. He then marries Hannah.  Istvan marries a woman named Greta.  A son is born to Adam and Hannah and is named Ivan Sors (the narrator of the film).  

His old tennis club wants Adam back, but Adam refuses.  He is starting to show a bit of anti-Semitism himself.  But he is reminded that he is still an outsider, when the caretaker turns the lights out on him as Adam takes late fencing practice.  He demands that the caretaker turn them back on and even manhandles him to get him to put the lights back on even though the man objects that he was only following his instructions.  Greta shows up at the club.  She is in love with Adam. 

The 1936 Berlin Olympics begins with Hitler looking for complete German domination.  But Adam is one of many who disappoint the German dictator by winning the gold medal in fencing.  Adam is told that Hungary courts disaster by blindly following the German lead. 

Adam goes to see Greta.  He is hesitant at first, but he soon begins an affair with her.  Adam learns that his coach Margatay's wife is Jewish and that coach has gone to Algeria.  The fencing champion calls his old coach a traitor. 

The news comes over the radio that Jews will be restricted in Hungarian public and economic circles.  But he also learns that his family is exempt because of their many services to Hungary in military service and the Olympics.  Despite his exemption, Adam finds that he has been thrown out of the Officers' Club.  He is deeply disappointed. 

Greta wants the entire Sors family to flee to some safe place.  She says that they have to get out while they still can.  They must do it for the sake of their children.  But it is already too late.  They stand in long lines to get exit visas, but the Jewish quotas have already been reached and they are denied.  Hannah asks Adam if he still wants to be married to her and Adam answers in the affirmative. 

Germany occupies Hungary and things now become much worse.  Hannah and grandmother Valerie are forced to wear large yellow stars and are sent to a Budapest ghetto.  Valerie survives, but Hannah is lost when she is marched away to some unknown place.  Adam and his son Ivan are sent to a forced labor camp.  There Adam stands up to the guards.  For his defiance he is stripped naked and hung upside down tied to a long pole as if he was a dead animal being carried back from a hunt.  But Adam just keeps repeating his accomplishments.  So he is hung from a tree and is wet down with a hose.  Adam freezes to death covered from head to foot in ice.  Ivan can only stand and watch as he is held back by two of his fellow victims.  Someone informs on Greta and she is accused of harboring Jews.  She, Istvan and their son are taken to the river and shot like so many before them.   

Valerie returns to her home followed by Gustave, home from his exile in France.  Next comes Ivan.  He has to tell his grandmother and Gustave that their son and brother respectively is dead.   Five days later, Soviet troops push the Germans out of Budapest. 

Ivan Sors, bitter about the death of his father, now devotes himself to tracking down Hungarian Nazis and collaborators.  He becomes a member of the Communist Party and even starts to become a little crazy and obsessed with finding and prosecuting anyone suspected of working with the Germans.  And sometimes he is just a bully and is unfair to those who are among the accused.  He demands that the accused name names.  He viciously bullies a poor film cameraman and editor to give him twenty-five collaborator names, some of which are probably innocent people.   His boss Andor Knorr crosses out a number of the names and urges him not to throw talented people away. 

On Stalin's birthday, Ivan gives a big anti-Fascist speech.  The film man that he had bullied is there in the crowd to record the event.  Soon he starts an affair with Major Carole Kovacs.  She is a married woman with children.  Ivan's boss warns him not to get mixed up with the woman because her husband is very highly placed in the communist party.  But Ivan does not listen to the good advice and continues the affair. 

Anti-Semitism rears its ugly head once again in Hungary.  A high placed Communist official tells Ivan that the authorities have uncovered a monstrous Zionist conspiracy and it should be rooted out.  He then tells Ivan that he will have to interrogate his boss Knorr because the man has been accused of speaking with Israeli agents.  Knorr tells Ivan that he has had no connections what-so-ever with Zionist agents.  Ivan tries to defend Knorr to the authorities, only to be replaced by another official. 

Gustave dies.  Now there are only two Sonnensheins (Sors) left: grandmother and Ivan.    With Ivan being demoted, Carole now rejects him.  He calls her a "cold bitch". 

Stalin dies.  A power struggle follows.  Knorr is now considered a hero.  Ivan is asked to speak at his funeral.  (Knorr had been beaten to death.)  Ivan promises to punish those responsible for Knorr's brutal death. 

October 1950.  The Hungarian Revolution begins.  Stalin's statue comes down.  There are ten days of euphoria until the Soviet tanks arrive.  Ivan speaks for liberation and is filmed by that same cameraman that he had bullied.  The Revolution fails and Ivan is arrested.  The film of his speech is used against him and he receives a five year sentence.  His grandmother visits him in prison.  He is released after serving three years.  Ivan returns home to find that another family is living with her in the huge apartment.  While looking for the secret recipe for a "Taste of Sunshine", his grandmother has a heart attack and has to rest.  Later she dies. 

Ivan starts throwing out many of the old items of his grandmother.  While going through things and throwing them into the garbage truck, the secret recipe drops out.  Ivan does not see it.  The garbage man picks it up and throws it into the garbage truck. 

Ivan changes his name back to Sonnenschein.  At last he fells like he does not have to hide in his own country.  The communist regime fell.  And Ivan walks the city of Budapest a free man. 

Good movie.  It was long (about three hours), but worth the time.  A lot of time is covered in the movie, but it goes fast because you care about what happens to the Sonnenschein (Sors) family and you want to see how it all turns out for the family members.  Anti-Semitism was always a factor this Jewish family had to take into account in making their life choices.  It was always rearing its ugly head to make trouble or difficulties for the family.  The many changes of government in Hungary also spelled troubles with each power shift.  And yet despite all the obstacles, including the Holocaust, the family persisted and with the fall of Soviet control over Hungary, the one surviving Sonnenschein, Ivan, finally is able to feel like a free man.   May those like Ivan live long and prosper!

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

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