László Nemes’s difficult second film is a disappointment, despite being a technical marvel.
His incredible debut, the devastating Son of Saul, was always going to be a hard act to follow. That earlier film depicted the horrors of Auschwitz in a way we had never seen before, it (literally) followed a single character in almost real time, looking over his shoulder. Many of the atrocities were just out of frame or out of focus and the immersive sound design make the unseen terrors even more devastating. It forced the viewer to image the unimaginable.
In Sunset he repeats that technique, but in a manner that obscures rather than enlightens.
Yet again, the film closely follows a single character. Írisz Leiter, an intense, expressionless young woman played by Juli Jakab, comes to Budapest in the 1910s and seeks out Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov), the owner of a hat makers that used to belong to Írisz’s parents and still bears her family name. Írisz was orphaned as a young child and placed with a family in Vienna, her parents seem to have been killed when the hat factory went on fire. Brill rebuilt the factory on the same site and reestablished the business.
Írisz discovers that she might have a brother, Kálmán, a shadowy violent man who seems to be involved in an collective of anarchists, who it’s rumoured may have set fire to the factory himself, and who probably murdered a Count whose devastated window is still grieving five years after the event. Everyone in Budapest seems to hold Írisz in disdain, disinterest or contempt as she discovers fragmentary clues about Kálmán and the wider society.
However, rather than solving a mystery, any revelations lead to only confusion. We see society events with sinister strangers, moments of anarchic violence and there’s a subplot where Brill’s millinery girls complete to be sent to court in Vienna for what seems to be a sinister, abusive fate. However, it’s impossible to fathom an entirely coherent narrative, or piece together the connections between these individuals.
The film is a succession of encounters with often menacing characters where a few words are spoken and things are hinted but without much substance. It felt almost Kafkaesque, and reminded me of Orson Welles’s The Trial where the lead character despairingly attempts to discover what’s going on. However, unlike that film, Írisz also remains opaque and it seems that Nemes is deliberately frustrating the audience. It’s a bit like being in a video game, with the single point-of-view protagonist blankly moving from encounter to encounter.
Nemes uses the same claustrophobic techniques as in his previous film – long takes, sustained close-ups on the lead character, narrow depth-of-field, immersive sound, blank expressions – to maintain a very subjective point of view. In Son of Saul that approach was supremely effective to show the unshowable, this time it only serves to deliberately obscure and confuse. We feel blinkered, and at times even entire scenes are out of focus.
In the Q&A after the screening, Nemes emphasised that he wanted his film to depict a subjective experience, and bemoaned that most of today’s films are objective and omniscient. He made the point that most people living through periods of change are only able to appreciate the bigger picture in hindsight. They might get a sense of decay or chaos at the time, but it would be a lie to suggest they have a god’s eye view of events. He wanted his film to impart the same fragmentary, disconnected mystery.
The film is clearly meant to depict a society at the point of collapsing, and with a sense of violence and chaos that prefigures the first world war, which was triggered of course by the assassination of the heir to the Austrio-Hungarian empire (although as far as I can tell the characters in the film are fictional). In that sense, the film has a kinship with Michael Haneke’s White Ribbon, which prefigured World War 2. Whilst Haneke’s film exposed a calm, cold cruelty and inexorability, Sunset shows fragmentation and chaos. However, Nemes’s obfuscations means that the viewer is entirely detached from the events and the film fails to impart a sense of foreboding, despite a heavy-handed final shot in the trenches (that might even suggest that Írisz becomes her brother’s double), included it seems just in case the viewer missed the film’s subtext.
Despite the deliberate narrative confusion, the film is technically impressive. Nemes handheld camera effortlessly weaves through complex busy scenes in long takes, moving with ease from the ordered and refined interiors of the high-class millinery to the chaos and colour of the crowded Budapest streets. Sustaining a very narrow depth-of-field, the camera’s focus picks out individuals for brief encounters before they vanish into the background. The costumes and locations bring pre-war Budapest to life, and the beautiful 35mm print was luminous.
The sound design is equally remarkable. Nemes’s aural world was far more expansive than the restricted visuals, with layers of unseen events and voices coming from all directions. Sunset is also a very musical film, there are several scenes with live music with a refined Hungarian style: a string quartet, a young boy playing violin, even Bliss plays piano during one scene of dialogue with Írisz. The overlayed film score often adds a sinister dissonance to the pleasant melodies.
However, despite the technical brilliance, the film’s narrative confusion and Nemes’s deliberate obfuscation make Sunset a frustrating and ultimately disengaging experience.