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The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001) 233-252

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Jewish Assimilation in Hungary, the Holocaust, and Epic Film: Reflections on István Szabó's Sunshine

Susan Rubin Suleiman


An English-language film with an almost exclusively Anglo-American cast, produced in Canada, filmed in Hungary, with a screenplay co-written by an American playwright and a Hungarian director who is best known in the West for a prize-winning film in German: István Szabó's Sunshine is nothing if not global. 1 Yet, it treats a subject that is specifically and profoundly Hungarian, or if you will, Central European: the role and fate of Jews in 20th century Hungarian politics and history, and the pressures and contradictions (sometimes close to unbearable) of Jewish identity in Hungary after the Holocaust. Szabó is neither a historian nor a philosopher, and Sunshine is not a manifesto or a programmatic statement (although commentators in the Hungarian press, where it has aroused passionate debate, have treated it as such). This visually and aurally sumptuous film, epic in scale and ambition, raises compelling questions about the dilemmas of Jewish assimilation and about the filmic representation of traumatic collective histories.

A Family in History: 150 Years

Sunshine sums up the history of Jews in modern Hungary by telling the story of a single family over four generations. Emmanuel Sonnenschein, while still a boy, leaves the village where his father, the local tavern keeper, has been killed by an explosion in his distillery, and makes his way to the capital. While no exact dates are mentioned, we are evidently in the mid-19th century, after the revolutionary flames of 1848 have died down and just before the period of Hungary's greatest economic and cultural flowering under the Dual Austro-Hungarian Monarchy (1867-1918). 2 Emmanuel, a poor devout Jew, takes with him to Budapest the precious black notebook that contains his father's secret recipe. By the time the story begins in earnest--when Ralph Fiennes makes his appearance as Emmanuel's young adult son--the Sonnenscheins have become rich through Emmanuel's [End Page 233] distillery, which fabricates the tonic he calls "A Taste of Sunshine" (A napfény ize, the film's title in Hungarian).

While the narrative mode is that of the historical epic, Szabó introduces a mediating presence: the story is told with voice-over narration by the last male descendant of Emmanuel Sonnenschein, his great-grandson Ivan. Ivan's voice (in English, Ralph Fiennes's voice, for he plays all three roles of son, grandson, and great-grandson) opens and closes the film, and intervenes at various moments throughout. These interventions occur not so often that they disrupt the realist narration, but often enough to indicate that the story is recounted by a specific individual, not by an omniscient camera-narrator. This point is worth emphasizing, for it has not been sufficiently taken into account in the critical responses to the film.

After the prologue, the story divides neatly into three historical periods; extending the meteorological metaphor suggested by the film's title, we can call them the "sunlit age," roughly 1890-1914; the "stormy age," roughly 1914-1944; and the "overcast age," 1945 to our day.

When Emmanuel's two sons, Ignatz and Gustave, reach young manhood, in the 1890s, the era of Hungarian prosperity and cultural achievement is at its height, and Jews play a prominent role in it. Historians have often described the "assimilationist contract" that linked the liberal nobility to Jewish industry and finance in the period of the Dual Monarchy. The liberals, inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment as well as by Magyar patriotism, sought to modernize a backward, quasi-feudal country and to create a unified nation despite the number of minority ethnic groups scattered over its large territory. The "assimilationist contract" gave Jews, especially those living in Budapest, an opportunity to participate fully in the liberals' modernization project and in the creation of a modern Hungarian identity and culture. In return, as...


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