Just when you thought it was safe to go back into Hungary and listen to a song that supposedly causes people to kill themselves, along comes Gloomy Sunday. This tragic romance is elegant, picturesque, sensuous, and rather stilted, but three out of four makes for reasonable enough viewing. As long as you happen to like the title song — which repeats something like a bazillion times in various versions throughout — this field trip to Budapest proves engaging enough, if also a little limp.
Known during its limited 2001 US release as The Piano Player, in Germany by the bilingual moniker Gloomy Sunday: Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod, and in Hungary in 1999 as Szomorú vasárnap (bug Blockbuster for that last one), this is a tale of woe dressed up pretty. At the crux of the matter is a rather shallow looker named Ilona (Erika Marozsán). Early in the narrative, we realize that Ilona is essentially a nice set of boobies. Director Rolf Schübel basically trots out these perks whenever his narrative sags, which is quite a few times, and he probably should be thanked.
Anyway, the boobies are adored by elder Jewish restaurateur László, who shares his bed, bath, and swank Budapest eatery with Ilona. However, these boobies are also instantly coveted by András, a young Christian piano player full of passion, whose glorious tinkling enchants Ilona, who in turn convinces László to hire him, the better to tickle her fancy. László, a nice guy, buys moody András a new suit and encourages the pianist to tinkle away in the middle of his restaurant. Then there is a mild dispute in a street market regarding some unsatisfactory potatoes and sharing Ilona, and before long, nobody’s complaining.
Except there’s a problem: It’s the 1930s. While this in itself is not inherently bad, it’s really not a good time to be hanging around in Budapest. The growing Nazi presence is uncomfortably near, and thus we get the initially inoffensive Aryan bastard Hans (Ben Becker). A German dork who insists on calling the house delicacy a “beef roll,” Hans, alas, also craves the boobies. He’s pretty nice about it at first, but when Ilona, in a rare fit of primness, turns down his assorted proposals, including marriage, he returns for a while to Germany to become a successful entrepreneur. Oh, and a Nazi officer.
Things obviously aren’t going to turn out well, since we begin the story in the present day, with a framing structure involving venerable “war hero” Hans returning to the legendary restaurant with his old German wife to hear his favorite song and eat his beloved beef roll. He drops dead while admiring a photo of the young Ilona, which launches us back into the past, where the lovers hash out their mess.
There have been some comparisons made between Gloomy Sunday and Casablanca, but let’s not get carried away. Where Michael Curtiz delivered every note just about perfectly, Schübel can be said to do a capable, if somewhat meandering, job of telling his story. Basically the title tune — composed by Rezsö Seress, who himself committed suicide in 1968 — keeps the sticky theme of woe alive when the narrative manipulations don’t quite jell.
Oh, yes, it bears mentioning that in the film it’s András who is credited with bringing the hit single “Gloomy Sunday” — and a rash of suicides — into the world. Some of these deaths are depicted, some reported, but in sum they bring the movie’s feeling of encroaching dread to its fullest. You will emerge humming this melody, so be careful on your way home.
Based on the novel by Nick Barkow, the plot here offers adequate twists to keep things moving most of the time. Particularly when the local atmosphere is infected with hatred, the leads’ methods of dealing with an insane, fast-approaching evil represent the best writing. It’s a shame, though, that the performances don’t stack up. None of the leads are particularly sympathetic, so even though it’s easy to dislike Hans, the other two guys don’t elicit more than an average sense of compassion. And Ilona, as aforementioned, is a decorative prop.
It’s possible that Gloomy Sunday is more “significant” than it is compelling. Nonetheless, a German-Hungarian coproduction about 20th-century Europe’s hideously wasted potential for beauty and enlightenment does indeed provoke thought and sentiment. If there’s continued cultural healing amid the sappy melodrama, then the production obviously wasn’t in vain.