Gloomy Sunday

In “Monty Python’s And Now For Something Completely Different,” there’s a sketch about how the allies created a joke so lethally funny that anyone who hears it dies. The allies planned to use the joke as a secret weapon against the Germans, having it translated one word at a time into and shouted phonetically at the enemy.

As absurd as it sounds, it worked, literally forcing the Germans to laugh themselves to death.

Movie ImageImagine a song that had the same power, a haunting melody that caused people to kill themselves. Anyone who has ever had their heart broken knows the potency of a sad song, every chord a reminder of lost love. “Gloomy Sunday” is one such song, a 1933 tune that has been banned at one time or another because of its depressing effects on the listener. Even though the song has been recorded over the years by everyone from Billie Holliday to Elvis Costello, its tragic history serves as the perfect backdrop for director Rolf Schubel’s timeless love story “Gloomy Sunday.”

Set in Budapest, Hungary, in the 1930s, just before Hitler’s war machine rolled into town, “Gloomy Sunday” is a small, insular film. I’m sure this is because of budgetary limitations, but in fact these limitations work in the film’s favor. This isn’t a movie about locations, but about people. At the beginning of “Gloomy Sunday,” we meet restaurant owner Laszlo Szabo (Joachim Krol), whose menu and attention to detail has made his establishment a success.

When we first see Laszlo, he’s busy preparing for the grand opening. At his side is Ilona (Erika Marozsan), a beautiful woman who serves as his hostess and love interest. In the middle of the stylish interior is a grand piano, and as Laszlo explains to Ilona, every great piano needs a great piano player. They find one in Andras (Stefano Dionisi), a strikingly handsome young man whose talent at the keyboard is equally affecting. With his hot, smoldering looks, it doesn’t take long for Ilona to fall for Andras, and he for her.

You can’t blame Andras, Laszlo, or visiting German entrepreneur Hans Wieck (Ben Becker) for falling for Ilona. As she glides through the restaurant, time stands still. She is a vision of beauty, a muse who uses her power to better the men around her. Even though she is in love with Andras, she champions Laszlo, never forgetting what he has done for her. She inspires Andras to complete the lyrics for “Gloomy Sunday,” a song he composed and performs every night in the restaurant.

And when Hans joins Hitler’s army and returns to town to round up the Jews, Ilona is willing to sacrifice everything in order to save Laszlo from the Nazis. This tragic love story is told around the surprising success of Andras’ song “Gloomy Sunday,” which has captured the fancy of the world. While watching a newsreel, Andras is shocked to learn that his song has caused so much pain. They say that with success comes misery, and as each man in Ilona’s life experiences success, misery is not far behind. Their success becomes their downfall. Laszlo is spared from being sent to the death camps because Hans loves his beef rolls, his signature dish. Yet when Hans brings a comrade along for dinner, Laszlo cannot deliver the beef rolls because the Nazis requisitioned all of the meat.

Since Laszlo is only as good as the beef rolls he serves, he no longer serves a purpose. Andras achieves success through other people’s suffering, a bittersweet victory at best. Likewise, Hans uses his power to amass a post-war fortune by trading people’s lives for their life’s savings. How Hans’s success turns on him plays out in the film’s final moments, a wonderful finale for a wonderful little movie.

Even though there are traces of “Casablanca” in Schubel and Ruth Toma’s screenplay (restaurant owner, love triangle, Nazis), “Gloomy Sunday” stands on its own as an engaging, suspenseful tale of love and revenge. Shot and released in 1999, “Gloomy Sunday” is just now making its way to local theaters. How sad that it took four years for America to discover this lush, smartly written and beautifully acted gem.

Schubel is excellent at painting a broad picture on a small budget. He uses cinematic short cuts, only showing us small sections of town, a street corner here, a villa there. Because the characters are so strong and memorable we don’t need to see more. The characters become the landscape, taking us on a journey of emotional highs and sad lows.

As Ilona, Erika Marozsan ignites the screen. She reminded me of a young Sophia Loren, an earthy woman filled with will and spirit. It is easy to see why men throw themselves at her. Stefano Dionisi, looking like a cross between a young Maximilian Schell and Horst Buchholz, is also easy on the eyes and charming. When Andras and Ilona first make eye contact, the look is so intense yet so coy you just know it’s going to complicate things.

As the catalyst for the story’s numerous subplots, Joachim Krol is outstanding. Krol makes Laszlo exactly the kind of person we would imagine running such an establishment, the very model of perfection. Laszlo’s quest for perfection makes him an unlikely suitor for Ilona, but Krol helps us understand that love comes in many different shapes.

Song Sung Blue

“Gloomy Sunday” dramatizes haunting melody


Erika Marozsan, Joachim Krol, Stefano Dionisi, Ben Becker. Directed by Rolf Schubel. Not Rated. 114 Minutes.


Comments are closed.