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Moral responsibility is undeniably one of the great issues of modern Europe (indeed, the world) and Szabó István* addresses it in a powerful, moving and epic drama starring Ralph Fiennes, ironically titled Sunshine. Strangely, though, it was not a cathartic experience, he tells fellow Hungarian, Urbán András**.

At 62, István Szabó’s life covers a large chunk of the history he canvasses in his extraordinary film, Sunshine, set in his native Hungary over three generations. Like most of middle and eastern Europe, Hungary was in political turmoil for much of the century – the century coming to an end this month (December 2000). The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy (1867-1918) was followed by Fascism (1920-1944), followed quickly by Communism (1945-1989), each wreaking havoc on the very people who were meant to benefit from them.

"personal and collective consciousness"

No surprise, then, that a filmmaker of such inquisitive and probing nature as Szabó reached into his personal and collective consciousness to tell a story that has affected and involved millions of people. The fact that the film has enjoyed enormous popular success in Hungary (running for nine months in some cinemas) is of profound sweetness for all those who have experienced some of the country’s tortuous, oppressive regimes. At last, the black clouds of political oppression have lifted and freedom to talk about the dark years is cathartic. Although, strangely enough, not for Szabó himself.

Speaking from Berlin where he is working on his next film (more on that later), Szabó says there was no catharsis for him. "I’m not even sure I did what I set out to do," he says in accented but good English. "When I saw it with audiences in different parts of the world, I could see what works and what doesn’t. You never feel that you’ve finished a film. . . .the really important thing is how it communicates to the audience."

He is non-plussed about the vagaries of film marketing and popular success: "One of my films, Colonel Redl (1985), for instance, totally disappeared in France, but was a huge success in the UK and US. People still talk about it….Meeting Venus (1991) was a big hit in Italy and Germany! What’s common between those two countries, those two cultures, please tell me!?"

"Hungary’s most prolific, creative and successful filmmaker"

Originally intending to follow his family’s tradition in medicine, Szabó was sidetracked by school friends at age 16 when they started a theatre. Drawn to the stage, he became a theatre director until he read Bela Balzs’ book on the silent era, The Divisible Man. "It changed my life," he says. "I was a teenager so excuse the sillyness of it, but I saw theatre as just three walls. Films offered greater scope…. I started to see films and began to pursue it as a career." From 1960 until now, Szabó has created a body of work which has made him widely recognised as Hungary’s most prolific, creative and successful filmmaker, able to work with the biggest names internationally.

Sounding younger than his years, Szabó speaks in a measured way, and is polite in the old world manner which offers respect even before it is earned. Married but childless, Szabó still lives in Budapest, although he has worked for months at a time in Paris, London, Vienna – and Berlin, where he is now making a film called Taking Sides, adapted by Ronald Harwood from his own book. Set in the period after the war, it stars Harvey Keitel as a US officer interrogating a German musician (played by Stellan Skaarsgard) favoured by the Nazis. "It deals with moral responsibility . . ."

It is not a coincidence that this subject fascinates Szabó. "Having lived in middle and eastern Europe we have been often faced with the question of how to deal with people who live in ideologies and fight each other over ideologies. It has posed so many moral questions."

Indeed. Take the scene in Sunshine where Adam (the second generation of Sonnenscheins) is brutally put to death by soldiers in front of hundreds of fellow concentration camp prisoners – including his own teenage son. Years later after the war, an uncle visiting from America asks why the son and his fellow prisoners didn’t overpower the guards? "Why didn’t anyone do anything?"

"how can you explain"

My first reaction to this scene was to see it as an indictment of all those good men who stand by and do nothing in the face of evil, thus allowing evil to flourish. But Szabó points out he was talking about something else – these prisoners are not good men in a free environment. They CAN do nothing. It’s too late for that. “That’s why it is the stupidest question . . . but how can you explain to people who have never been in that situation what it was like. How impossible it was to do anything. How people were brought up differently and how different those mindsets were . . .” The time for good men to do something had already passed.

Szabó unhesitatingly chose Ralph Fiennes to play the three generations of men in the Sonneschein family, whose private lives are the window to the socio-political times. "I knew I needed a very talented actor with a face which could carry the film and bridge the three periods. But a face was not enough; they are three very different characters. The first man, a judge, lives behind a mask and never shows his emotions and is very intellectual. The second is a physical man, a sportmasn and he’s very successful with his muscles. So he becomes arrogant and naďve, thinking his muscles are enough.

"The third man is a secret service police officer who, as a youngster, sees his father murdered in the camp – he’s a silent volcano, suppressing his emotions. I wanted an actor who could convey these characters and differentiate them without theatrical devices. Ralph does it finely…" says Szabó, hardly aware of the fine pun.

Szabó’s first draft of Sunshine was over 400 pages; he gave it to Hungarian Canadian producer Robert Lantos, "who being a very courageous man accepted it, and we then sat down with two very talented lady script editors and reduced to 180 or 190 pages. We then invited Israel Horovitz to finish the screenplay and make it understandable to international audiences.

"I wanted to capture this chaos and struggle"

"The last century was an extraordinary time," says Szabó. "Over the last 100 years human beings have faced enormous challenges and threats to their safety, an extraordinary situation in which to try to love and work and be happy. I wanted to capture this chaos and struggle."

Lucky country that it is, Australia has little in common with Europe when it comes to extreme political regimes. The present Monarchy v Republic debate seems frivolous by comparison and Australian audiences will hardly comprehend the enormity of Szabó’s achievement or the importance of this story being told on screen.

Published 21/12/2000

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* Hungarian surnames precede first names.

** Andrew L. Urban’s name in its original Hungarian form

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