Synopsis: A woman in Budapest searches for a man who may be her brother in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Dir. László Nemes. 142m. 1.85:1.
Watch the Trailer.
Sometimes a work is brilliant to you in a straightforward way, and you’re at a loss for why it’s dismissed by the rest of the world. How could this happen? Such is the case with László Nemes’ masterpiece, Sunset (Napszállta). It's simply so evident to me this is among the best films of 2019 (US release year), and were I aware of it when I made my enormous 2019 list, it would’ve placed 3rd or perhaps even 2nd. It beguiles us with the rich unfathomability of life, achieving an apotheosis of film style’s ability to communicate subjective reality.
And you can’t even watch it on Blu-ray, let alone DVD.
I dismissed opportunities to see it theatrically because of its middling critic reception worldwide, especially stateside. They just weren't going for it. One of the only films in over 5 years to screen on projected 35mm at its Venice premiere (the only other title to do so that year was Vox Lux, another overlooked art film triumph), director László Nemes tirelessly travelled the western cinema world with it in a touring capacity alongside a 35mm presentation. It is not one to miss.
But missing it is exactly what I did, and I’d give anything to see it projected as intended with a director passionate enough to travel with it (how often do you hear of someone doing that?). I pushed it aside because it had a 65 Metacritic and no rave reviews. Let’s look at what those critics had to say. But before we do, a word on the film itself:
1. On Style as Substance
Nemes’ second film, his follow-up to the universally praised Son of Saul (Saul Fia), utilizes a similar aesthetic to limit our experience to a single person’s Danteesque journey through hidden horrors– in this case, a woman searching the underworld of 1913 Budapest for a man who may be her brother. Like Saul, Nemes’ camera stays on its protagonist’s head for nearly the entire runtime. We only see what Irisz sees.
We experience life as she experiences it– and she may be seeing things that aren’t there, fears and projections.
Photography and cinema are intensely subjective mediums, given the degree to which seeing is a decision (as a bus driver I know intimately that you only see what you look for), and Nemes maximizes that natural tendency to a hilt. It’s hugely involving because it's so much like our own experience: one perspective, and not much else.
Irisz Leiter, played by screenwriter Juli Jakab in what should be a star-making performance, is daughter to two deceased parents killed in a fire set upon the family’s high-fashion hat store, a prominent fixture in pre-WWI Budapest. The shop refuses to hire her despite her being rightful heir to the place, and she gets wind her brother may have had something to do with the fire. Irisz begins to sneak around and ask questions. Things go from bad to worse as she fearlessly plucks up the courage to keep digging deeper, ultimately settling on a way of functioning in a world heavy with evil.
Sunset is the most immersive recreation of a time period I have ever seen on film. No other picture I’ve ever sat through– and I’ve sat through a lot of terrific cinema– locates us so fully in a lost world. How?
Because period films are expensive to make, they tend to emphasize their historical trappings. The camera tends to be reverential to production design, resorting to more wide shots of streets or buildings and emphasizing decor and costly recreations of buildings or crowds in era-appropriate attire. It becomes the gaze of the present upon the past, because the past wouldn’t memorialize itself so if it was merely the present.
There’s a courtroom scene in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies I find exciting precisely because it doesn’t do this. The characters are situated in a cavernous art-deco interior, but we barely see it because neither the camera nor the characters have the slightest interest in their time period’s architecture. They’re preoccupied with the business of living in what for them is the present. That incredible ceiling dips into the frame for only a moment or two. Paradoxically, we appreciate it more as real, how we might exist in the space if we were present in the characters’ time.
Sunset takes a similar approach but amplifies it. Ridley Scott speaks of making a point to fill in the frame with background action seen past open doors or windows, the better to simulate reality– period films often don’t do this enough, because it means more production design and thus more expense. But going that extra distance makes a difference. You believe it more: they're not on a soundstage in Burbank. From Kingdom of Heaven: Director's Cut:
As mentioned above, every shot of Sunset is of one of two things: the head of the main character, or what she’s seeing.
Director Nemes restricts us entirely to her reality, and being restricted entirely to one person’s reality can be terrifying. There is so much we don’t see, don’t know. Without resorting to the copout of dark rooms and jump scares, this is about as tense as cinema can get. The world goes on around her, but like Son of Saul, in which the horrors of the Holocaust are visible as blurry figures in the corners of the frame– we only catch glimpses of the vast and seething density of the metropolis that was Budapest before the fall of the Empire.
It’s clear that enormous crowds have been assembled, with intricate costumes, buildings constructed, locomotives and carriages wraught in exacting detail, celebrations in the street, lives all around with problems of their own– but we only get glances. The film isn't quite a mystery, but it feels like one: all those fraught peripheries and the stories they contain.
Irisz rides a streetcar past a train yard and several city blocks which any other film would’ve lingered on, given the millions it takes to build such spaces. Note the small ovular window in the back of the interior carriage ride earlier in the film, and how much activity is going on outside that we just barely see. This extra mile is what so many films lack. Isn't the difference between very good and great always the last ten percent?
Many things we don’t see at all but only hear, on the film’s densely cacophonous soundscape. Happenings are transpiring all around, but this isn’t the past. It’s the present, Irisz’s present. When you’re trying to find your lost brother, you don’t care about the decor or the crowds. But they’re there on the edges of the frame. No film besides Nemes’ own Son of Saul has taken such a perversely anachronistic approach to recreating a city on film at a specific point in time, and no one has ever been more effective.
Nemes and his DP Mátyás Erdély favor long roving steadicam takes with a challengingly narrow depth of field, the better to restrict us to Irisz’s specific perspective. We drift around pillars and through doorways and in and out of vehicles, revelling in the truth of the unbroken take and its effective analog to the reality of how we see while walking.
It’s small wonder that Nemes thanks Erdély second in the credits, right after his own name (Welles would go one further with DP Gregg Toland, sharing the frame for their screen credit), as the follow-shot aesthetic they create here transforms the film entirely. It’s akin to the Dardenne’s formal rigor but with the elaborate planning and premeditated smoothness of Nemes’ mentor, Béla Tarr.
Period pictures also tend to have things a touch too neat. The cars are all immaculate, as they’re often on loan from collectors who keep them in great shape; the newly made costumes too obviously never worn. Here the clothes are torn and scuffed in the street, the carriages heavily used; Irisz wears only two outfits for the film’s runtime, and her dress doesn’t stay starched but gets progressively further soaked with sweat and grime. Accuracy makes a difference.
The early twentieth century involved a lot of particulate pollutants in the air of dense cities, from coal burning and other industry, and this led to what the black and white photographs of the time can’t show– a yellow cast, amplified by the prevalance of the use of gas lamps. Any film about urban environments during the fully developed Industrial Revolution that’s aspiring to accurate color should be yellow, and this one is.
Shooting on 35mm (with a coda on 65mm) also enhances the immersiveness, as film was the capture medium for how we saw during the Twentieth century. There are precious few excuses for shooting digital (Mann, who has his reasons, notwithstanding) in a time when only film existed. Nemes makes no such gaffe here.
Together with the immersiveness into a time and place is also a similar immersion into the protagonist’s mind. Staying on a person’s head for an entire film is quite an experience. We are right there with her, and we feel it. Anything she doesn’t know, we don’t see.
There is something too, about following behind a character's head for so much of the runtime, and especially following behind a woman's head: similar to how men are almost never portrayed horizontally in art, while women often are, women are usually never shown from behind in cinema, while men are regularly. Because shooting from behind legitimizes the character’s experience. We’re looking with her, not at her; our gaze into the world is aligned with hers, and even when we’re in front of her, we’re sympathetic to her perspective.
This is the power of Mann’s– to bring up his name thrice makes sense, as like Nemes he’s obsessed with reality– of Mann’s signature behind-the-ear shot. From Collateral:
I found it refreshing and intoxicating to spend so much time in this woman’s experience, looking at the world with her, through her, more than at her.
Alongside this, the subjective element of perception begins to expand as the narrative progresses and the rabbit holes Irisz is digging into get scarier. Though we see nothing graphic, this film goes to some truly horrific places. How much of what we’re seeing is real, versus only imagined?
Are we so deep in her mind we’re seeing projections of her fears and suspicions? Walking through a crowd of strange and belligerent men would certainly inspire the fear of being attacked by them; is that why we see her getting attacked? Did that really happen?
Or is it similar to the sinister menace she feels in that scene, the one with the men who have removed their shoes, who may be harmless?
Did she imagine killing her brother in the Danube, or did she really do so? Either interpretation yields a similar and concrete emotional journey. Truth exists in one mind at a time. Whether she the girls at the hat shop are really united against her or not, she certainly feels as if they are, and that’s what Nemes immerses us in.
This is exactly what cinema is best at: defining the interior reality of one or perhaps two individual characters through careful selection of images. It’s as far away from the strengths of theatre as you can get. Even multistrand narratives are still doing this, just one character at a time.
2. The Question of Violence
“A storm is coming,” a character says in one of the film’s first lines. I take the title to refer to quiet dread calm before the storm that was World War I. As László Nemes tells Sight & Sound, not much was happening in Hungary in 1910. But a confluence of things was brewing in the air, and in this film you can feel it; evil is lurking in the spirits of men, and there is a pall forming over Europe. What do you do about it?
Most films use violence to articulate morals coming from an otherwise good place. Sunset opts for the more painful truth: that violence usually begets more violence. Irisz’s brother figure Kalman is trying to do good. He wishes to dismantle a system of untouchable men who brutalize women, but his aims fall short, and the women in question fall into even worse hands.
Kalman seems unaware of the evil around him, in his own followers, as Irisz is unaware of her brother’s existence and deeds. For a film taking place on the eve of two World Wars, the metaphors are clear. We end with [spoilers] Irisz as a nurse in the trenches, perhaps representing either or both of two approaches I find more suited to my perspective– 1) you do what good you can with the means you have control over, and 2) you rest at peace with the idea that it’s enough to be a witness. She abandons a role as leader to serve goodness on her own terms, perhaps invisibly, perhaps on a small scale, but without hypocrisy. [end spoilers]
Knowing of the film’s rejection by the critical community and complete ignorance by the masses, I went in prepared for something challenging. Much was made critically of a labyrinthine and hopelessly confusing plot. Only Jonathan Romney and Kristin Thomson loved it; the universal praise that Saul received sat this one out. I was surprised to find the film relatively straightforward in its narratival construction, with its themes articulated quite clearly as outlined above and even further in some key lines of dialogue toward the picture’s close. Why, exactly, did educated critics fail so mightily in comprehending this piece?
3. Nathan Goes to Town
Philip Kemp at Sight & Sound brings down the esteemed magazine almost to the low that Tony Rayns’s infamous misreading of First Reformed brought it in 2018 when he calls the Sunset’s tendency to leave questions unanswered a bad thing, and says that although he likes ‘staring at the back of Irisz’s lovely neck,’ he gets little out of it, finding the approach wearisome. Not much awareness of subjective realities here.
He also pokes fun at Nemes' approach as being like Tarr’s without realizing the real-life connection between the two; jokes about the film’s number of hats without searching for meaning in a society preoccupied with such displays of ostentatiousness; describes his unwillingness to engage with the picture at large as the film’s fault for having an “absence of sufficient substance,” and in a moment that tells us far more about him than the film, calls the thought-provoking coda “ultimately pointless.” Why did I find the film so easy to comprehend, and he not?
Over at the Film Stage, Rory O’Connor faults the film for having an ‘overly familiar MacGuffin’ and relying too heavily on a ‘few reliable tropes,’ worrying that the film uses “rape in service of what could cynically be described as a thrill ride, à la Son of Saul used the horrors of Auschwitz to similar ends.” Pardon me as I gape in disbelief here. No amount of insensitivity could ever compel me to call either Sunset or Son of Saul “thrill rides,” and one of Nemes’ very best moves as a director is in knowing when to hold back.
I believe there is never a cinematic justification for showing a woman getting raped onscreen, and I appreciate that Nemes, like Scorsese, Tarantino and any number of others who deal with otherwise objectionable material, don't cross that line. I’m also at an utter loss as to what the "overly familiar MacGuffin" and "reliable tropes" Mr. O’Connor is referring to are. The film has no MacGuffins, and “tropes” of plot need to be considered with their execution taken into account. He’s also one of several critics who don’t realize the film is quoting T.S. Eliot when he labels a key line as “portentous.”
As with the venerable Sight & Sound, Simon Abrams brings RogerEbert.com to a low point in his shortsighted appraisal also, saying Sunset “isn’t a movie you can easily get lost in.” Simon, I'm sorry. I don’t even know what that means. I was immersed from the opening shot, in which a woman slowly lifts her head to reveal herself to us as we hear the line, “let’s lift this veil.” It’s the first of a continuous peeling back of layers, and with the period setting conveyed as described above, it doesn’t get any more immersive than this. Abrams says “the movie's disorienting and visually austere style takes some getting used to,” which again I find as incomprehensible as foreign language– the vernacular Nemes deploys in his camera is precisely what draws us in so fully.
Although no one in their right mind would call Consequences of Sound a noteworthy cinema journal, Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s review does find itself included on Metacritic, wherein they call Sunset’s relatively comprehensible linear narrative “almost impenetrable.” Original Cin, another publication that definitely shouldn’t be included in Metacritic’s tabulation of major cinema reviewing outlets, finds Liam Lacey struggling “to discern the poisonous seeds of the violence that would wrack Europe” in the “fancy costumes, class hatred, vicious misogyny and official corruption… The connections are somewhat fuzzy.” If deep-seated societal problems of violence and misguided attentions don’t clue Lacey in as seeds representing larger unsolved issues, I don’t feel there’s anything I can add to be more explicit.
Philip Kemp proves himself the worst of all when he actually quotes the doctor’s lines at the end of the film, which explain the film’s thesis. The lines in question: “He projected his own darkness on this world. He was dragged down by the abyss your parents created. Your brother saw horror in the world– but it came from him.” Irisz’s brother looked for evil, basically, and thus saw it. You see what you look for– much like Irisz, fearing the worst in many around her, as we see her subjective reality.
Kemp calls these illuminating lines an ‘enigmatic pronouncement” that “explains frustratingly little.” You can do better, Philip. The idea of both of one's parents dying in a fire creating a void in one's life seems only too self-explanatory. I must be missing something here.
The uniting factor in these Sunset reviews and so many others is singular: they reveal a lack of engagement with the material. And by "engage," I'm referring to a two-way street: it isn't enough that a film engage us. We have to engage back. We have to make an effort, pay attention. When obviously incorrect appraisals like “tedium” (Glenn Kenny), “theatricality” (Movie Nation) and “lacking in any narrative substance” (Austin Chronicle) are thrown at something that’s so objectively none of those things, I begin to realize what’s going on.
They’re not leaning in.
Paul Schrader calls them “lean-in” movies: films where the director’s decisions are subtractive rather than additive, forcing you to “lean in” and fill in the gaps. The austere minimalism of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer are his examples; Haneke is a living director who does the same.
In the way that Scorsese doesn’t tell you what to think about his characters, or Malick expects you to find meaning between juxtapositions of images, Nemes expects you to pay attention. You have to supply the meaning that will complete the picture’s ingredients. It's enormously satisfying to do.
4. Room to Rise
The populist Marvel and Disney franchise pictures are children’s films; they frequently restate themes and plot points, and make sure the concepts go over for even the most uncomprehending or distracted viewer. They disallow engagement. You don’t act with the film; it talks at you. No 2019 film was a worse offender of this than the insufferable Best Screenplay winner Jojo Rabbit, which was akin to being yelled at for 108 minutes. I’ve never felt so acutely stupid. For me, Sunset and films like are a breath of fresh air; they keep those muscles of engagement and comprehension alive.
Only when one forgets how wonderful discourse is does one acclimate to the numbing laziness of being ceaselessly talked at. Sunset keeps your brain working, able to focus on thought-provoking art. People aren’t dumb. They just get beat down to that if they’re treated as if they are all the time. You give them a chance, and after a bit they rise up with aplomb. People can’t read maps or write cursive or tell time on analog clocks– because they don’t have to. If they had to, they’d be swell at it, as they once were.
Sunset failed because modern society has precious little room for ambiguity, sensitivity, or leaning in. It doesn’t matter that these critics are esteemed and educated; they have fallen prey to society’s whim of reactive shortsightedness as handily as any teen sitting in front of MTV. Maybe that's why Parasite was a smash and Burning wasn't; they're both Korean films about widening class inequality. Both are fine films, but you'd have to asleep not to know what Parasite is saying. Burning you have to work with. And boy, does it stay with you.
I believe expectations have everything to do with how you receive a film. Expectations and your own worldview, the degree to which you aligns or find compatible the view(s) in the work. These critics were expecting something easy. They were also living in a culture that has become deeply uncomfortable with ambiguity.
“I’m interested in the idea of human understanding not being infinite,” Nemes told Sight & Sound in June 2019. “Nowadays we give ourselves as a civilization the impression that we have infinite knowledge and capabilities. The main story [of Sunset] is straightforward, a girl looking for her lost brother– but what is this world around her? The plot us constructed to be a maze. I know it creates frustration and difficulties, but I trust that if the viewer has no preconceptions, they can expect a journey that might be unique.”
I agree but feel you’re being to hard on yourself, László. Sunset doesn’t create frustration and difficulty. It’s an exultant breath of fresh air to be so believed in as an audience.
My blog is about trusting people to be good, treating them as if they’re good– and then watching them generally rise to that. Sunset is about many things. It resonates with me because Nemes, like me, sees perception as a choice, and chooses to build the film on that theme. He doesn’t need things to be concrete, and the mad rush to force life to be didactic, always known and quantifiable, bores me. László Nemes and Sunset leave room for the sensitive, the ambiguous, trusting us to pay attention. He shares with my approach a belief in the good qualities of others– in my case goodness, and in his case, thoughtful, careful, and engaged reflection.
Doesn't it feel good to be believed in?
Further reading: Kodak. "Kodak film captures the grandeur of old Budapest and the portents of WWI in Sunset."