By Susan Stark
Gannett News Service
(July 21, 2000) -- Humiliated beyond description, beaten to a pulp, forced to strip naked in front of thousands of his countrymen, a man is strung up on a tree in a Nazi concentration camp courtyard, sprayed with water and left to die in a hideously disfiguring cocoon of ice.
Movies have put forth uncounted images of Hitler's handiwork, but this one in Sunshine may just be the most piercingly resonant of all.
Sunshine is a lightly autobiographical film by Hungarian master Istvan Szabo, whose stunningly theatrical film of the Nazi era, Mephisto, earned him the best foreign film Academy Award in 1981. He's a man whose work commends itself to all but those exclusively addicted to movies defined by their chase scenes, special effects or gross humor.
Passionate in its point of view, sweeping in its perspective, scorchingly intimate in its attention to detail, Sunshine is equally instructive, heartbreaking and encouraging. It views the entire tumultuous, painful history of Europe in the 20th century through one family of Hungarian Jews, across the generations.
A provincial innkeeper named Sonnenschein (the Sunshine of the title) prospers on the strength of his familial elixir, A Taste of Sunshine. A ruinous fire at the tavern sends his teen-age son to Budapest, carrying the recipe with him. As he matures to manhood, that recipe becomes a passport to a most comfortable life for him, his wife, two sons and his brother's orphaned daughter.
Szabo's film tracks the gradually rising, precipitously falling fortunes of the Sonnenschein progeny through a century of history devastated first by Germany's Nazism and then by Russia's Communism. It is not a film that pushes a message, political or otherwise. Yet, you come away with a stern prescription: Avoid anything that ends in the letters ISM.
In a truly monumental performance, Ralph Fiennes plays the three key Sonnenschein males. He is Adam, the shy, severe, scholarly fellow who finds a place in Budapest's highest judicial circles only to be cut down by swelling anti-Semitism; Adam's son, Ignatz, an Olympic gold medalist and national hero for his fencing skills, who collides with Hitler's satanic plan for Jews; and Adam, a child of Auschwitz who embraces Communism with a fervor that offends both reason and conscience.
With his yearning eyes and sad, tight smile, Fiennes becomes the heart and soul of this film over its liquid three-hour running time.
In stunning supporting roles, Jennifer Ehle and, as the decades advance, her mother, Rosemary Harris, play the luminously blithe spirit of a cousin who humanizes the Sonnenschein men. Fabulous companies of Hungarian actors add depth and beautifully specified color to other roles.
Sunshine offers an immensely moving and memorable tour of the century just passed. You come away full of ideas and wonder, full of dread and of hope, as well.