Sunset – Film Review

Napszállta– which translates to “Sunset” in English- was my first foray into the works of esteemed filmmaker László Nemes, and quite possibly the most interesting picture I’ve seen in quite some time. I got the chance to see it in a little room at the Watershed Cinema in Bristol a fortnight ago, and like a tunneling brain parasite it just won’t leave my head. Sometimes I’ll watch a movie and it will wash over me, leaving no imprint on my imagination. Sunset, however, leaves a kind of itch. It’s not the kind of movie you can expect to watch and be passively entertained. I think you have to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy it. You have to be curious. And that’s why, for better or worse, it’s worth talking about.

You might even say that watching Sunset is uncomfortable- not in a thematic sense, but in a structural one. It’s not poignant or scary or gross, but it’s shot in a way that prevents you from having a relaxing viewing experience. I felt like I had to unlearn the way I engage with a film. Throughout the first third of the movie, I really wasn’t sure what I was watching. I asked myself what kind of movie it was meant to be. A period drama? I was getting a lot of Dickensian vibes at the beginning; there were eccentric countesses driven mad with grief, wide-eyed stable boy types hiding secrets, raggedy-ass coachmen behaving ghoulishly in the glow of swinging oil lamps. But the use of dialogue is so minimal that there was nothing I could point to and identify as the defining feature. It just seemed like it was handing me a load of surface-level Victorian tropes in the hope that I’d be impressed. The plot seemed thin and the mystery vague.

But as the film went on, I started to get it. I realized that the exposition was being communicated visually rather than through spoken dialogue. The most striking feature of the film is the way in which it is shot. The protagonist- Irisz Leiter- is the center of everything. Irisz is not so much a complex character as she is a cinematic device that frames the narrative and world around her. She’s not just in every shot- she’s the focus of every shot. Nemes utilizes close-medium camera angles and tracking shots with Irisz positioned sharply in the foreground. Everything else is out of focus. A lot of shots are over-the-shoulder, showing Irisz from the waist up and following behind her with a moving camera. To me, this is just one step away from cutting out Irisz entirely and giving us a first-person perspective of events.

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What’s interesting is that, even though Irisz is in the foreground, our attention is drawn to the periphery. That’s what I meant when I said that Irisz is in many ways a framing device. It reminds me of photographs where an object in the foreground is sharply in focus, giving the background this mysterious, attractive quality reminiscent of Impressionist paintings. It’s a way of capturing that background landscape according to a particular artistic vision. Our desire for an omniscient “God’s Eye” perspective of events pulls us toward that blurry periphery. We want to see things for ourselves, but we are limited to Irisz’s viewpoint- which is itself limited. This reflects Irisz’s own curiosity and ties us in a very intimate way to her situation. We feel the smallness that Irisz feels as she tries to navigate a world far beyond her understanding. There are no wide-angle establishing shots of the Budapest skyline. We have an on-the-ground perspective of this immense city, our view further limited by the narrow streets and the shadows of old buildings. Most of the scenes take place in interior settings, and what few scenes are set outdoors are infused with this bright, hazy, bleached color scheme that feels halfway between a dream and sepia photograph. Budapest passes by in fleeting, bustling snippets of life; earnest boys standing on street corners selling papers, the hooves of stagecoach horses trotting over cobblestone thoroughfares, the unintelligible cloud of distant conversation moving overhead at the city market. The pace of life in this city is fast, and we- like Irisz- are the outsider struggling to take it all in. It all contributes to this fish-out-of-water scenario- one that we’re meant to feel, as much as simply observe.

Irisz has just arrived by train to the city she was born in but never knew, to try return to the mysterious high society she was never truly a part of. Perhaps her single defining trait is one of determination; she ignores every warning and attempts again and again to break through to that walled-off, irresistible realm of truth. She’s not drawn to this world for its material luxuries, or any ambition for social mobility, but simply out of necessity in her search for the truth about her family. This makes Irisz a sympathetic protagonist. She’s trying to find her place in the world, something solid to anchor her to it, a sense of belonging. Instead she seems to drift through it as in a dream, out of time and out of touch with reality. The disorientation we feel at the claustrophobic cinematography is reflective of the way Irisz is constantly trying to reorient herself in a hostile environment in which she doesn’t belong. She doesn’t communicate effectively (or in some instances, at all), and she has little effect on events at large. Despite her stubbornness and determination, she comes across as powerless. Even after she clubs in her long-lost brother’s skull with a weighty rowboat oar, his plans continue after his death; she is unable to prevent his promise of violence. And when everything does descend into a hellish orgy of bloodletting, Irisz just seems to float through the chaos like a ghost- or better yet, a fly on the wall. As much as she tries to insert herself into this conflict that’s far beyond her understanding, she remains somewhat excluded. For all her painstaking efforts, everything that was fated to happen happens anyway.

So what are we meant to take away from Sunset? What are we meant to feel when we leave the movie theater? What does it all mean?

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As I said, I understood the film better as it neared the end, but there was still a lot I was trying to make sense of. And this mirrors the journey of our protagonist. By the end of the film, Irisz has uncovered some shocking insights without getting to the root of them. This is intentional, in my opinion. Irisz- and by extension, we the audience- aren’t meant to know everything. We’re given a limited version of the truth, and often in life a limited truth is the best you can realistically hope for. The various murky plot points and meant to stay murky, in my opinion. I don’t think there’s a specific, concrete answer that we’re meant to unearth to give us that “aha!” moment. The mystery of what happens to the girls chosen to go to Vienna has connotations of the occult, but I don’t think we’re meant to understand precisely what happens to them. The horror of the unknown is enough. We see the fate of one of the chosen girls, whose face is grotesquely disfigured, and that’s enough to know that whatever happens isn’t good. Nemes is more interested in the wider themes of class conflict and the corruption of power.

The biggest clue to the meaning of the film is the title itself. When you think about the course of the plot’s events in conjunction with the title “Sunset”, its purpose becomes a lot clearer. This technique is used a lot in poetry, where the title serves as a kind of “answer” or “key” to a verse that on the surface is incomprehensible. The year is 1913, and the sun is setting on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The plot is completely fictional, and does not include specific historical events or people. But historian viewers will still have an edge however, because the narrative is in many ways an allegory for the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Leiter hat store represents the decadence of the Empire- or more specifically, the Hungarian elite seeking the prestige that comes with Vienna’s favor. Kálmán Leiter (Irisz’s long-lost brother) represents the anarcho-nationalist sentiment that’s slowly reaching a boiling point across Europe. Both factions are portrayed as equally depraved, in a rather bleak outlook on human nature. What may once have been a noble vision for overthrowing a corrupt regime descends into the primal hatred of tribalism. I find this idea very interesting, that when a person or group indulges violence, they get a taste for it, and it consumes them utterly. The sheer, unmitigated savagery of Kálmán’s gang anticipates the senseless violence of World War One, whose shadow looms over everything throughout the film. The golden, dusty haze of Sunset reflects a class-based society obsessed with elegance, one that is totally unprepared for what’s about to come. World War One is in many ways a great leveler for these hierarchical systems, something that has never happened before, that acts as a kind of apocalypse for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

As one character says of the Leiter hats: “the horror of the world hides beneath these infinitely pretty things”, which in the context of the film refers to the dark secret the hat store has long concealed beneath its veil of finery. The sinister ritual of offering pretty shop-girls to the royal court likens the relationship of Budapest to Vienna as that of a pimp to a client, as though Hungary is prostituting its beauty- and therefore its soul- to this foreign monarchy in exchange for prestige and the power that comes with it. This is further reflected by the way Oszkár Brill (the owner of the hat store) attempts to rationalize his arrangement with Vienna. He dismisses what happened to the last milliner sent to Vienna, Fanni, as an “accident”, despite the fact he is visibly uncomfortable thinking about her fate. This makes Brill a complex character as opposed to a villain, since he obviously knows on some level that what he did was wrong, and as so many people often do, he goes into denial rather than confronting his own moral responsibility.

But I also think that the “horror of the world” quote has a wider meaning. This is just my take, but I think Nemes is saying that every society carries within it the seeds of its own destruction, and that his film is largely about how the Austro-Hungarian Empire cultivated its own doom. As I said, that’s just how I interpreted it, and I’m sure it could also be seen as a critique of materialism.

I find it very interesting that both the Viennese establishment and Kálmán’s underground gang are portrayed as mysterious cults, both of them cut off from mainstream society. This definitely says something about the way Nemes perceives those who have power and those who desire it, the way it isolates them. Both factions are extremely exclusive clubs that Irisz tries to access, but ultimately fails. Perhaps the scariest scene in the film is the one where Irisz comes face to face with that bald fella with the monocle, who looks like something straight from the darkest corner of Cormac McCarthy’s twisted imagination. The Austrian nobles, all of them speaking German- which adds to the feeling of exclusivity, it being the language of the royal court, and not of Hungary itself- gather around Irisz like she’s a prize at auction. The whole scene is infused with this unsettling machismo sexuality, the men closing in around her, their hands wandering over her, their eyes boring into her, all of them completely desensitized to their behavior, as though she were an animal and not a person. They are so far removed from the experience of ordinary people that they seem like aliens aboard a flying saucer inspecting a human captive. This scene is mirrored by the one where Irisz attempts to gain access to the anarchist gang, who hang out in the basement of a warehouse at the railroad tracks at night. As she is denied access- for being a woman, by the way- several of the disheveled-looking men surround Irisz and attempt to gang-rape her. She is saved by her brother, who calls them away like they are a pack of trained dogs. They then scuttle back into the shadows. When Irisz finally does gain access to the gang’s headquarters, she is dressed as a man. You can definitely read Sunset as having a feminist narrative, in the sense that all the events of the film are dictated by these two masculine cults, and the fact that Irisz has to become a man in order to navigate this environment. I think it’s very important that the protagonist of the film is a woman. Sure, you could have the same plot but with a man trying to find out the secrets of his upbringing, but it wouldn’t contribute the oppressive feeling of exclusion Irisz feels as a woman at the turn of the century. Irisz being lost, rejected, and disoriented is crucial to the viewing experience Nemes wants us to have. The power of the establishment is the power of the patriarchy.

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Overall I enjoyed this movie a great deal. I understood it a lot better when I looked into the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, particularly the assassination of the Empress Sisi at the hands of anarchists in 1898. I look forward to what László Nemes brings us next!

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