Political Film Society - Newsletter #75 - July 1, 2000

July 1, 2000


"Politics has made a mess of our lives." These words sum up the three-hour-long saga Sunshine, a film about five generations of a Jewish family in Hungary named Sonnenschein (German for "sunshine") over the past one hundred or so years that has some parallels with Alex Haley’s seven-generation Roots (1976), though the principal male in the last three generations (Ignatz, Adam, and Ivan) is a sort of Hungarian Jewish Forrest Gump (played by Ralph Fiennes). The last of the line provides numerous voiceovers throughout the film to provide continuity. The movie is directed and cowritten by István Szabó. When the movie begins, the patriarch of a prosperous family, who has developed a moneymaking tonic from local herbs in the days of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, dies due to an explosion in the distillery. When the twentieth century dawns, desires for upward mobility prompt the younger Sonnenscheins to change their German surname to the Hungarian name Sors due to pressures for assimilation. However, two Sonnenschein sons gradually diverge in matters of politics; Gustave (played by James Frain) is eventually active in the short-lived Communist rule of Béla Kun in 1919, while Ignatz remains loyal to the monarchy in which he served as judge. When the monarchists (allied with Romania) oust the Communists in 1919, Gustave flees to exile in Paris, but Ignatz remains. However, no monarch is restored; Horty de Nagybány sets up a dictatorship instead. Ignatz’s son Adam becomes a champion in the sport of fencing, and converts to Roman Catholicism to advance his athletic career, which eventually results in a Gold Medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Fearing Hitler, Horty later decides to appease the Nazis by rounding up many Jews, but there are exemptions at first, and the Sonnenschein/Sors family remains free. When the exemptions are abolished, the family is placed in a Budapest ghetto. Later, father Adam and son Ivan are among several thousand Jews taken to a concentration camp; upon arrival, the Hungarian guards torture the father in the eyes of the son and the rest of the Jews. Within five days, Russians liberate Hungary in 1944.

By 1948, Communist rule is established, and Ivan is inducted into the police force with the mission of rooting out the "fascist bastards," thanks to the intervention of his elderly uncle Gustave, who returned from Paris to become a Communist official. In due course the next scapegoat of the Communists becomes the Jews, and Ivan is placed in charge of a portion of the purge. Since he has no stomach for the purge, he is active in the Hungarian revolt of 1956, only to be incarcerated for three years after Russian tanks end the uprising. At the conclusion of the film the Hungarian people end forty-five years of Communist rule, a development in which the surviving Ivan Sors plays a not inconsiderable role. He then changes his name back to Sonnenschein. Although the story is not a biography of an actual family, the rather simplified historical events are based on fact. One message in the film is that undemocratic regimes start out full of promise but always degenerate into despotism; when the film ends, true democracy hopefully arrives, though of course in 1994 former Communists, calling themselves the Socialist Party, won a majority in parliament. Unlike the Italian Jews of Life Is Beautiful (1998) or the Polish Jews of Jakob the Liar (1999), the experience of the Hungarian Jews in Sunshine appears closer to reality, depicting a family that tried to show proper loyalty to Hungary first by practicing ethnic coexistence, later by following an assimilationist path, and finally by showing ethnic pride in a cultural pluralist mode. Thus, a second message that becomes clear is that Hitler’s rejection of the policy of ethnic assimilation made inevitable the later assertion of cultural plural-ism, with worldwide consequences. For both insights, the film has been nominated for a Political Film Society award as the best film promoting the values of democracy and human rights in the year 2000. MH

Scott Crosson of the University of Oregon has made a contribution to the Syllabus Series of the Political Film Society, the fourteenth in the series. For a copy of his syllabus or any of the other thirteen, which are available for $1 each, send a check to "Political Film Society" at P.O. Box 461267, Hollywood, CA 90046.