László Nemes second feature outlines the sibylline roots of historical trauma

Ruairí McCann on László Nemes’s ‘Sunset’ (2018)

With his debut feature, Son of Saul (2015), Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes placed himself at the epicentre of one of the deadliest genocides in history. For his second film, Sunset / Napszállta, he winds the clock back to 1913, roughly thirty years before the Holocaust — the setting of the former — and the eve of world war that would dictate the trajectory of 20th century Europe. It is enough of a hint to suggest that Nemes is interested in going back to the genus of great historical calamity, to the tensions that precipitated the fall.

But before they erupt, first comes a young woman called Irisz (Juli Jakab) arriving new to Budapest with the expressed intention of winning a position at a prestigious haberdashery. Almost immediately it becomes clear that she has more on her mind than respectable menial work as a milliner, when it’s revealed she bears the same name, Leiter, as the one plastered on the storefront. For the enterprise originally belonged to her parents until their mysterious deaths, upon which she, then a toddler, was shipped off and the property changed hands. After Irisz delivers this revelation she receives one in her turn. For she’s told, contrary to her prior knowledge, that she isn’t the last Leiter. She has a brother who, at the mere mention of his name, inspires terror and disgust in all who hears it. Though that doesn’t dissuade her from setting out through the heart of the city and the twilit suburbs beyond to find him, even as her search brings her into close contact with the city’s deep-seated divisions which are both fed by and hidden under her brother’s enigmatic reputation and the façade of the hat shop.

Her journey is monitored by Nemes’ distinct style, wherein the camera, in close-up or from her point of view, operates at 360 degrees around Irisz’s person while never straying more than a few feet away from her. The world outside this circumference, often a parade of thronging crowds dressed in period wear and spectacles like a fuming steamship, a massive tent being erected or a hot air balloon taking flight, is either blurred by shallow focus or only briefly glimpsed.

The impression given, especially during the scenes of metropolitan Budapest, is of Irisz being shuttled through Austro-Hungarian society. A nascent, modern world which feels and functions like a great machine whose constituent parts, big and small, person and spectacle, just motor away, acting out their pre-ordained tasks with no flicker of individual, or even collective, will. The latter, there and possibly here as well, is the exclusive domain of the impersonal but bloody tectonics of history. An interest in which, along with the intricate Rube Golberg-machine staging, Nemes shares with his late countryman, filmmaker Miklós Jancsó.

Both men practice a pessimistic view of history, one where the individual is sublimated or destroyed by its movements. Though Nemes, unlike Janscó with his depersonalised ensembles, expresses this by sticking to singular protagonists while practicing an almost perverse approach to their illustration. His close proximity style encourages immersion into their perspective, yet Irisz has little to no psychology on show and so in part deflects our detachment. It’s in keeping with her ineffectiveness, as a woman with a pilfered past who’s groping, in vain, for a future. Surrounded by signs that seem to suggest she has power: her name on a shop that courts royalty but which she can’t own. Instead she is kept, by the store’s current owner Mr. Brill (Vlad Ivanov) as a faux symbol of the shop’s lineage. A thrall with privileges and so still just a thrall. And there is their kinship to an iconoclast who commands either mass fear or allegiance. Yet his is a sway and a political cause kept simple and vague because she is unable to understand or be comfortable with his action, never mind access his influence. She is then one of history’s extras. Set to wander and either get shunned or bowled over. As a result, she has a borderline blank quality, excellently played by Jakab, whose small but hard features offer up an inflexible mask save for little islands of expression–in the way she knits or relaxes her brow or her eyes glaze–where emotion, produced by inscrutable motivations, manage to surface.

Around the halfway mark, Irisz’ search and the film’s sustained formal brilliance reaches a climax with a massacre and a genuinely surprising turn in the plot. Then the film deflates. An inevitability following a crescendo, but it fails to reorient itself around Irisz’s perambulations, which are now moving in the vague direction of the promise of another mass killing. Though where it truly foils itself is in its depiction of villainy.

Even within the bounds of caricature, Nemes can remould the stuff of cliché into something, or someone, unsettling. Such as Van Koenig (Christian Harting), a sinister Austrian who stalks the first half of the film. His excessively prim and imperious character, dressed onto a delicate, stick insect frame, matches the general description of a haughty noble. Yet he also has a threateningly surreal quality, especially in the way that he first meets and greets Irisz. He spits out an empty ‘mademoiselle’ before settling for just staring at her face and not saying anything, past the point of both comfort and realism. It is as if this man, as rigid and distant as a wax figure, is displaying the requisite amount of propriety before he can slowly moult into a more openly predatory state. Which he doesn’t fully reveal or act upon in that scene, but it is a chilling forecast of a later, more explicit emphasis on the contrast between his stereotypically refined manner and the violence he is capable of dispensing.

He is a more interesting character than the Habsburg royalty who are the arch-villains of the latter half. The way they are introduced, shambling towards the camera with no interesting interactions between them and the frame or Irisz, spouting stuck-up barbs and asides that sound hackneyed. It is like a reconstruction in a history channel programme. Though it is unfortunately in keeping with where Nemes decides to end the film. On an image that loudly declares and intends to instill some foreboding that the winds of authoritarianism were blowing then and still are, maybe, possibly, now. But it falls short. In that, it is a thuddingly inelegant reiteration of what has been more ambiguously, and engagingly, expressed in this phantom of a film.

Showing in cinemas now

Ruairí McCann

By Ruairí McCann

Ruairí McCann is a critic based in Belfast. He runs a monthly film column for Film Hub NI and has appeared in Photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Little White Lies, and The Thin Air.