Sunset: Nemes’ Follow-Up to his Oscar-Winner Son of Saul

Sunset, Nemes’ follow-up to his Oscar-winner Son of Saul, is a middling melodrama set in 1913, Budapest, the heart of Europe on the verge of World War I.

Eagerly expected after Nemes’s splashy debut, Sunset world premiered at the 2018 Venice Film Fest, where it was met with positive but not enthusiastic critical response.

The tale’s protagonist is a young femme named Irisz Leiter, who arrives in the Hungarian capital, hoping to work as a milliner at Leiter, the legendary hatstore that once belonged to her late parents, only to be quickly sent away by the new owner, Oszkár Brill.

While preparations are under way at the store to host important wealthy royal guests, a man abruptly comes to Irisz, looking for Kálmán Leiter, who he claims is her brother.

Refusing to leave the city, Irisz follows Kálmán’s tracks, who represents her only link to what’s by now lost past. Her quest brings her through the dark streets of Budapest, into the turmoil of a civilization on the eve of downfall.

Some information about the story’s political context is in order. Just before the outbreak of World War I, in 1914. the monarchy of Austria-Hungary was the center of Europe, a crossroads of all the European tensions, where modernity and obsolescence co-existed.

Politically, the old Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, ruled from Vienna, over vast territories, including many nations, cultures, and religions. Thus, Different political and ideological aspirations were rampant: socialism, anarchism, nationalism, not to mention anti-Semitism, especially in Vienna.

New scientific approaches blossom, the first psychological and psychoanalysis ideas, with many pseudo-scientific and intellectual groups, cult-like movements and sects, craving a special place in society.  Diverse movements co-exist in Austria-Hungary, manifest in the flourishing of all art forms, architecture, literature, movies.

The identity crisis resulting from the fragmentation and inevitable decay of the central royal order, combined with general sense of disenchantment, give rise to a world that was on the verge of prosperity–or its downfall. Indeed, beyond the love for technology within society and its boundless optimism, there was a deep malaise, a sentiment that something ominous, possibly apocalyptic was about to happen.

This society, whose codes and manner were embodied by the way people dressed and behaved, the hats they designed and wore, projected a facade of tranquility. But under the veneer of civilization, other forces could not be controlled. They were about to take people, unsuspecting and believing in progress, into a quagmire and destruction of hitherto unseen proportions.

Interview with Director Nemes

Even before my first feature Son of Saul, I had in mind the idea of making a film about a woman, alone, lost in her world, a world she tries but ultimately fails to understand. Probably under the influence of a certain literary and cinematographic tradition of Central Europe, I’ve been drawn to a main character that is partly surrounded by mystery and whose actions the audience has to assess and re-assess continuously–like a strange Joan of Arc of Middle Europe.

Unlike Son of Saul, which had meticulous documentary-style approach, Sunset is a mystery where the viewer is invited on this journey to find, along with the main character, a way through this maze of facades and layers. From the outset, I imagined this movie as a way to plunge the viewer into a personal labyrinth, along Irisz’s quest to find her brother and ultimately the meaning of the larger world. Behind every clue she seems to find, there is contradictory information. Behind every layer, a new one is revealed and the character herself might be unaware of the process taking place deep within her.

Irisz is a character caught between light and darkness, beauty and menace, incapable of dealing with the grey zones. In this sense, Sunset is also a story of a girl, the blooming of a strange flower.

Sunset follows its main character, Irisz, from close range, allowing a highly intimate approach in an unusual period movie. I also tried to use sound, which is a cornerstone of a strategy of immersion, to submerge the audience into an unknown world, where people speak different languages. This seems necessary to me. To reach the viewer differently is my ultimate goal.

The tale is set at the height of progress and technology–the personal story of a young woman becomes the reflection of a process that is the birth of the 20th century.

A century ago, from the height of its zenith, Europe committed suicide. This suicide remains a mystery until this very day, though historians have tried to solve it. It is, as if a civilization, at its pinnacle, was already producing the poison that would bring it down. At the core of this movie lies this personal preoccupation.

Sunset is set before WWI in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a seemingly prosperous, multi-national state of dozen languages, with its blooming capitals Vienna and Budapest, the cultural center of the world. And yet, against this flowering backdrop is the reality of hidden forces about to tear it apart.

As a child, I would listen to the stories of my grandmother who was born in 1914. Her life spanned the century, taken by the turmoil of the European continent, through all totalitarian regimes, genocides, failed revolutions and wars. She was Europe herself.

My deep European roots have pushed me to wonder about the age we live in now and the ages of our forefathers, how thin the veneer of civilization can be, and what lies beyond. In our modern, post-nation state world, we forget the deep dynamics of history, and in our boundless love for technology and science, we seem to forget how close to the brink of destruction they can bring us. I believe we live in a world that is not that far from the one before the Great War of 1914. A world utterly blind to the forces of destruction it feeds at its core.