Gloomy Sunday (Hungary, 1999, 112 min. Rolf Schubel, cast: Erika Marozsan, Joachim Krol, Ben Becker, Stefano Dionisi)
A love triangle ends in suicide over a song. Or is it resentment of the Nazi general who can order the piano player to play his favorite tune? The most amazing thing about Gloomy Sunday is how well it plays as a three-course melodrama in a restaurant that serves too much schmaltz.
The Jewish owner of a successful Budapest restaurant, Szabos, keeps them coming back for his special beef roll dish and his gifted piano player who composes the theme everybody wants to hear with their dessert. He’s in love with his beautiful waitress, and she’s in love with the new piano player. The two men decide to share her. A German businessman is in love with both the food and the waitress. He gets big portions but no love. Later he becomes a Nazi commander, stationed in Budapest. He sneaks off to the Jewish-owned restaurant for a good meal, a couple of tunes, and schnapps with his old friends.
Hans (Ben Becker) promises Lazlo (Joachim Krol) that he will spare him deportation. Just in case, Lazlo puts the restaurant in Ilona’s (Erika Marozsan’s) name. Hans reneges, Lazlo is rounded up, and Ilona sleeps with Hans to save Lazlo. It doesn’t work, Hans sends Lazlo to the camps anyway.
The peculiar, and endearing part of Gloomy Sunday is that everyone, save the piano player, seems to make an interesting life accommodation to time and circumstances. The two men understand they are rivals but Ilona won’t choose, so they share her. She becomes the helpmate to both. Lazlo insinuates himself in her love for the piano player by becoming his career manager and insuring the success of his song. The girl sleeps with the Nazi when she must, and the Nazi tries to shows, in his dying moment, that his betrayal was over love.
In the end, Ilona is left with the son she bore from her long ago liaison with the piano player. They toast to the past in the restaurant she now runs. If this isn’t the stuff of grand opera it should be. It’s from a novel by Nick Barkow, called A Song of Love and Death. This is a much better title than Gloomy Sunday and a hint that great melodrama awaits. Nothing wrong with melodrama if you are expecting it, and this is Gloomy Sunday’s real strength.