“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world's view of us.”
—Virginia Woolf, Orlando
Like any article of clothing, a hat is never simply just a hat. Embedded in it brim, woven into its form are codes and symbols, hints and meanings. The size of the hat, the color of its fabric, the shape of its crown can signify wealth, pride, modesty; it radiates belonging to one social group or another, delivering a message of the wearer’s status, class, vocation, country or city of origin. These nuances, embedded in European society at the turn of the 20th century, become more difficult to decipher from the hatless world in which we live in, for its codes were swept away by the destruction that was the Great War.
It is on the eve of this event that would soon plunge Europe into yet another 30 years of bloody and technological warfare which Sunset takes place, a sunset upon the Austro-Hungarian empire; a sunset upon Europe’s old order about to come to a brutal end. The film’s opening intertitle slyly reminds us that Budapest too was once the “center of the world.” History is a juggernaut, hints the text, in which global centers can become peripheries, falling into the oblivion of ruin as quickly as they emerge.
If László Nemes’ first film Son of Saul was a lamentation upon the past, Sunset is a foreboding, if not a warning for the future.
It is no accident that this second film begins at the moment just prior to Europe’s lurch into bloodied chaos, so alike to today’s Europe, pregnant with anger and uncertainty, struggling to adapt to the vast changes effected by mass economical migrations and a liberated movement of capital. At the moment when Italy, Hungary, and Poland are swinging once again to the right, with Sweden soon likely to follow suit, nationalism, having lost its weighty menace of the past, is beginning to sweep across the Atlantic. Sunset, in making a simile between epochs, acts as a portentous reminder that the grand European ideal of unified rule, free borders, multilingual cities is not making its first attempt, not dealing with its first struggle.
Like in Joseph Roth’s Radestky March, Nemes’ film is saturated with the sickly sweet ambience of Austro-Hungarian richness, decadence, and imperial decline. And like in Roth’s novel, here too is the royal Hapsburg family the center and pivot of life for every subject in the empire, symbols and figures of a history about to come to an end.
Our eyewitness to this history is the young stony-faced—and presumably Jewish—Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) who returns to the Budapest of her birth for the first time since was two years old. Her parents were the royal milliners of the eponymous Leiter Hats, and they perished in a fire whose cause is mysterious. Returning to her birthplace, Irisz, herself a hatmaker, seeks a job in her parents’ store, now owned and managed by the slick businessman Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov).
In a procedure similar to Son of Saul, cinematographer Mátyás Erdély’s camera follows Irisz Leiter’s every movement through the imperial city from the moment of her arrival. Almost immediately intrigue blooms like an evil flower, as Irisz discovers that she has a brother she had never heard about, a certain "Kálmán," said to be a murderer and troublemaker. While taking a job with Brill, Irisz sets upon her relentless inquest, marching steadily, aggressively, through streets and rooms and offices in obstinate search after traces of a family she never knew. Irisz’s personal search for her brother through the bustle of the metropolis coincides with the preparation for the arrival of the Hapsburgs, for which the entire staff of Leiter Hats, and one can presume the entire city of Budapest, is preparing.
Our perspective is as limited as that of Irisz. And the longer her search for Kálmán continues, the more questions abound: Who is Brill? How did the fire begin in Leiter Hats? And how did Brill take over the Leiter shop? Who is the mysterious German Count? Where is Kálmán? And what history lies between him and Brill?
In Sunset Nemes uses the same stylistic procedure as in his first film to present a tangential eyewitness who lives a story that is in parallel to this defining moment of history, living through History with a capital H, but only as an individual can—with limited understanding, limited perspective, limited time. This stylistic device presents a more individual version of history—not as seen by documents and decrees, by armies and politicians—but by the sensorial and phenomenological existence of a single subject.
Traipsing through this space and time which would later become History, Irisz is instilled with same unwavering determination as Saul—she shares the same set jaw, the same unwavering regard, the same relentless gait. The camera barely ever leaves Irisz’s face and surroundings, although the world exists in full, even if it is not always visible. Crowds bustle and roil, coaches and carriages burst into the image, characters emerge from off-frame, from out-of-focus, and the camera, blocked by coaches, balloons, buildings, struggles to keep up with Irisz. All this motion gives an impression of a world that is not so much constructed for the camera but rather is full, whose existence seethes even beyond the edges of the frame.
In Son of Saul this limited historical perspective served to provide an entry-point into a world of still-incomprehensible horror; in Sunset it serves as a gateway to an epoch of incomprehensible political fragility and factionalism. History at the moment of its occurrence, is never clear, and by providing a viewpoint filtered through mind (the face, the eyes) of a single character Sunset renders History tangible, comprehensible, human.
Irisz knows almost nothing, and we know as little as her. Irisz is overwhelmed by the very presence of events, and so are we. The frame is scotched to her face, and from outside pours in the mad rush of the world, its people, it objects, and most of all, its sound. One character can only live through so much, and Nemes’ ‘eyewitness of history’ can only catch (and provide the audience) brief glimpses of meaning, small pieces of an immense puzzle which will never be entirely assembled. Sunset is steeped in ambiguity, yet an ambiguity that is not the arbitrary ambiguity of confusion, but the constructed ambiguity of limited knowledge.
The confusion of history at its moment of occurrence is rendered tangible, and its significance is all too clear, for those granted the perspective of History, a perspective that allows us to imbue the gestures, the images, the facts with meaning.
As Irisz moves through this bygone era, the secret of her brother’s disappearance is peeled back like an onion, layer-by-layer, each revelation uncovering yet more mystery, more confusion. We discover that the enigmatic Kálmán is a feared murderer and revolutionary, that dark secrets inhabit the past of Leiter Hats, that the royal visit may not be as innocuous as it seems.
If every hat has its coded meaning, than ever moreso those hats which the Hapsburgs wear. As the royal visit nears, all the pretty young milliners prepare with great trepidation and enthusiasm for their arrival, and for a special ball that Herr Brill organizes for his girls. It begins to dawn both upon us and Irisz that Brill’s hat shop is more than just a simple luxury clothing shop, but is rather a sort of finishing school for those girls who might become the mistresses and playthings Viennese royalty.
Evil hides within the hearts of men and women. And under the most civilized and rich of cloths lurks the most licentious demons. The prettier the clothing, the more civilized the manners, the more evil it conceals, and more rot it hides. “The horror of the world lies behind these infinitely pretty things,” whispers Kálmán’s anarchist comrade-in-arms into Irisz’s ear, and through Irisz’s regard are peeled back the velvet curtains to reveal the soggy rotten core of wealth, privilege and contempt that lies at the heart of the empire.
When later Brill confronts Irisz after her narrow escape from a group of Hapsburgian men, he shouts at her: “What did you see?” “Nothing!” In fact Brill may be right—Irisz saw nothing; we saw nothing. But what she saw was enough. Ambiguity is not incomprehensibility.
When Sunset’s final moments bring Irisz’ to the lair of her brother’s comrades, the violence and anger is palpable. As Irisz tries to find her brother, she is confronted with the brutality of revolutionary violence. (Will she join the anarchists? Will she repudiate them?) The black-clad, grim-faced mass of proletarians and ex-aristocrats burst out from their fiery lair like scorched demons riding out from the depths of hell, ready to send corrupt core upon its way, and with this apocalyptic vision comes the film to an end. Almost.
In Son of Saul, Nemes’ challenge was how to cinematically approach a past whose horrors and imagery seem often beyond that of human comprehension. The challenge of Sunset may be even greater—how to approach a future that is not yet written? In fact, there is but one path towards depicting the future—through an image of the past. But history in fact rarely repeats itself, and its comprehension is never linear. If Sunset is ambiguous, it is rightly so, for images of events that have not yet come to be can never be clear. Oracles have always spoken in riddles, and visions of the future are always buried in obscurity.
If the denouement remains a mystery, the comparison between the two epochs is however clear—Europe is at the beginning of a crossroads, and the History that will be written, whether violent or peaceable, is still in the hands of its actors. And like Josef Roth, who writing in the twenties about the dangers of Nationalism and Prussianism had the precocity of, if not predicting, at least sensing the future, let us hope that the film remain but a warning, and not become a portent.