In John Berryman‘s 1945 short story ”The Imaginary Jew,“ an Irish Catholic poet gets into a late-night argument with a pair of slobbering anti-Semites, on the eve of America’s entry into World War II. When he makes a reasonable assertion about the looming conflict, his listeners cut him short with an insult. ”Shut up, you Jew.“ The hero replies that he would be proud to admit he was Jewish, if he was Jewish, but that in fact he‘s a cradle Catholic. His listeners only mock him. ”My persecutors were right: I was a Jew,“ he finally realizes, ”as real as the imaginary Jew hunted down, on other nights and days, in a real Jew.“
This confounding hatred, which has driven so much of Western history, forms the central agony of Sunshine, a passionate, beautifully wrought new film by Hungarian master Istvan Szabo (Mephisto, Colonel Redl). The family at its center, the Sonnenscheins (their name means ”sunshine“), manage in the course of a century to live out every terrible destiny along that phantom boundary in Berryman’s fable. They begin as Jews marketing a popular beverage, then strike it rich and change their surname to Sors (”fate“), the better to assimilate in the Budapest of Emperor Franz Josef. During the confusion and reactionary dictatorship that follows World War I, they convert to Roman Catholicism. For a brief moment, the Sunshine-Fates even enjoy a heady celebrity as one of their number becomes a fencing champion, winning a gold medal at the 1936 Olympics hosted by Adolf Hitler. The historic upheavals that follow — also hosted by Hitler — bring them to the brink of extermination. Under the subsequent communist regime, the surviving son is reborn as an assimilated follower of Stalin, only to be thwarted yet again by echoes of those same scapegoating hatreds that tormented his forefathers. Ordered by a supervisor to draw up a list of fellow officers who may be Jews (and knowing all too well that this is a bell that will toll for himself), he protests, only to be told, ”[If] there are anti-Semites, whose fault is that?“
Szabo binds the diverging, unruly events of a hundred years into a unified forward movement, by grace of a great threefold performance on the part of Ralph Fiennes, and through a wonderful heroine (played at different ages by Jennifer Ehle and Rosemary Harris), whose epic lifespan forms the through-line for the saga. Fiennes — playing grandfather Ignatz, father Adam and grandson Ivan — creates a dazzling counterweight to the Nazi he embodied in Schindler‘s List, investing each man with an explicit singularity. He even seems to grow younger as the movie unfolds. Ignatz, fatally loyal to the Austrian emperor, becomes, like the empire itself, a brittle fossil before our eyes. His son Adam, who takes up Catholicism and fencing the better to fit in, is forced at midlife to complete his assimilation in the most ghastly way, through a Christ-like martyrdom. Adam’s son Ivan, our narrator, throws off the premature old age with which the Nazi Holocaust burdens him, recovering hope as he rejects conformity, and reinventing himself as a fearless rebel against the empire of the Soviets.
The heart of the movie is inhabited by Valerie, the family‘s matriarch. Ehle, who plays her as a young woman, has a sensuous intelligence worthy of the young Meryl Streep. In one magical moment, she dashes barefoot into a courtyard whose cobbles have sprung a carpet of flowers overnight. As she bends to pluck a thistle from the sole of her foot, a mischievous cousin snaps a photo. The resulting image, a bit of spontaneous beauty that might otherwise have left no trace, haunts the family mantlepiece in the ensuing decades. Szabo refers to it repeatedly until, shortly before the Holocaust, Adam Sors visits a Berlin museum and discovers the Greek sculpture of a girl 2,000 years ago in an identical pose. In this instant, whose iconic power is sealed by the deluge of death that follows, Valerie is commemorated as the film’s emblem of life, its healing force. ”What was the purpose of this miserable life?“ her cousin asks, when life has nearly broken him. ”Life itself,“ she replies. ”We are here. We were happy a long time ago.“ Harris, who plays the aged Valerie in radiant continuity with Ehle, so fills these simple words with light that one might not notice how closely they border, however balanced their precision, on simple-mindedness.
Szabo‘s original screenplay has been energetically rendered into English by playwright Israel Horovitz. The dialogue has an operatic directness, which is good news in a drama rich with ideas. The melodramatic eventfulness of the piece (which abounds in forbidden loves, broken hearts, romantic fits and infidelities) is saved time and again by the lightness and swiftness of the film’s pace, a parody of the overloaded busy-ness of the Old and New Testaments. But as the story swings into its final movement, and the philosophical remarks become more explicit, one is more inclined to argue, and perhaps reject, Szabo‘s blunter conclusions. A stirring admonition is offered, father to son, near the film’s beginning: ”God wants us to live without lust or power — two things that would lead us to destroy other people, and them to destroy us.“ This is a beautiful encapsulation of the discretion that was vital for the survival of Judaism prior to the Holocaust. But when Szabo repeats these sentiments in even stronger terms near the film‘s end (”Do not join with power. Despise all rank“), such meekness feels like an inadequate response to the ordeals just witnessed. For those at whom the genocide was aimed, the ordeal was an end in itself, beyond philosophical ”response,“ without redeeming value. Yet redemption and affirmation are the tidal forces to which Szabo attends in the film’s last third. In such a context, the patriarch‘s negation of power bespeaks the wellspring in Judaism that produced Jesus.
And it is here, in this paradox, that Szabo’s vision recovers its potency, and danger, and saves Sunshine from a reductive simplicity. Late in the film, in powerful contradiction to the metamorphoses acted out by Fiennes and the reparative life-energies embodied by Ehle and Harris, we are introduced to a peculiarly forceful character, the Jewish policeman Andor Knorr, played by William Hurt. Knorr comes out of nowhere, and for a time he dominates the film: Auschwitz survivor, moral presence, super-ethical communist, he is a man who was once shot by the Nazis and left for dead, but has been resurrected only to find that he is still being persecuted, this time by the Soviets. Asked to prove that he was shot, he shows the wound in his side, like Christ with doubting Thomas. That Hurt and Szabo manage to give us this moment without corn or undue inflection is a testament to their shared integrity. We‘re never preached to through symbols, but appealed to through metaphor and imagery. Hurt moves with the dreamy alertness of a man freshly awakened in his tomb, and Horovitz gives him a blazing line of 20th-century scripture: ”Auschwitz is our baptism; it’s like a circumcision. Surviving it doesn‘t make a man better or greater. It’s just something that remains inside the brain. You can never keep it out of your thoughts. It defines us.“
The intricate beauty of this fine film comes not of endorsing Christianity at Judaism‘s expense, or vice versa. Nor is its true strength to be found in its tough-minded dismissal of any and all political miracle cures. What makes Sunshine unique, what rewards a first viewing and lives in the mind long thereafter, is that Szabo has attempted to place Judaism and Christianity on a continuum that is both historically truthful and highly personal. Christ is risen, he seems to be suggesting, and what’s more, he‘s still Jewish.