"Gloomy Sunday" ("Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod") is a hauntingly beautiful gem of a movie, a unique blending of romance, drama, and tragedy all compressed under the oppressive weight of history. This film lives and breathes, transporting you back to 1930's Budapest with beautiful cinematography, a fascinatingly brooding musical score, and the most human of characters. Released in 1999, I have no idea why this German-Hungarian film took so long to make its way to American audiences or why it was not rewarded with an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Those of us fortunate enough to have seen it have certainly appreciated it. Just asks the folks in Boston, who kept the film running for a record-breaking 70 weeks in 2004-2005. If you have a heart and soul, this film will touch and haunt them both for a long, long time.
The title refers to a song written by one of the characters, but the historical reference is to a song by Hungarian composer Rezso Seress which became known, especially in America, as the Hungarian Suicide Song. Supposedly, many souls took their own lives after basking in the emotional power of this melody, but there is virtually no corroboration for the stories that have grown up around it. (One should keep in mind that the era of the 1930's was a time of worldwide economic depression, in which the Nazi menace cast its foreboding shadow over Europe and eventually the entire world). In the film "Gloomy Sunday" is basically a love song, written by a pianist named Andras (Stefano Dionisi) for the absolutely captivating Ilona (Erika Marozsan). Ilona is the hostess of an elegant restaurant in which Andras finds employment as an in-house pianist. He falls for the dark-eyed beauty just as Laszlo (Joachim Krol), the restaurant owner did, and the three soon develop a strange but very close relationship. Jealousy sometimes arises, as Ilona shares herself with both men, but both Andras and Laszlo would rather share her than lose her. I should point out here that Ilona in no way comes across as a loose or in any way disrespectable woman. She's an angelic creature, a woman with whom men constantly fall in love, including a shy, awkward German youth named Hans Wieck (Ben Becker), who leaves Budapest broken-hearted but returns several years later as an important Nazi colonel.
Laszlo, Andras, and Ilona grow ever closer over these same years. Andras finds instant fame as the composer of "Gloomy Sunday", yet still struggles to understand just what his song is trying to say. When he despairs over the staggering numbers of suicidal men and women who left life serenaded by his mysteriously cursed song, Laszlo and Ilona are there to rescue him emotionally. Their mutual bond is eternal and true. All too soon, however, the trio's strangely enchanted world begins to come apart. The restaurant is still prospering and "the song" is still being played every night by popular demand, but the arrival of the Nazis in Hungary casts an increasingly foreboding shadow on the lives of these incredibly captivating characters. Fear takes on a palpable presence in their lives as Jews are rounded up and transported to concentration camps. Only Hans affords them, especially Laszlo (for he is Jewish), any kind of safety net in this oppressive and increasingly dangerous environment.
The dogs of greed, betrayal, and pure evil inevitably come to have their day, making for an emotionally jarring final half hour of this film. The subtlety with which the most painful blows strike only makes the tragedy all the more intense and instructive. That subtlety carries over to the ultimate conclusion, which could not have been presented more effectively.
I could go on and on about the unsurpassed strengths and natural beauty of this film, but words can never communicate my true passion for this film. "Gloomy Sunday" approaches cinematic perfection, in my humble opinion, and I would urge any and every person to experience its emotional power for himself.