Before the film was screened, László Nemes advised the audience: ‘You’ll not need facts you usually need.’ And: ‘Accept the lack of control.’ There’s a nightmarish, disorderly quality in the bleached-out images of a pre-war Budapest of 1913 as the film opens. A young woman tries on hats in an exclusive hat shop. Scenes soon twist and turn – with the revelation that she’s a hatter not a customer, and she’s looking for a job. Her name is Irisz Leiter, and she’s the orphaned daughter of the previous owners, who died in a mysterious fire on the premises. Irisz is warned off searching for her long-lost brother and efforts are made to put her on the train back to Trieste, but she’s on a mission to find out the truth. Was her brother responsible for her parents’ death? Did he murder a count and attempt to kill Brill, the owner of the rebuilt Leiter Hat Store? Her brother cuts a mysterious and feared shadow across the lives of many. As Brill tells her: ‘I don’t want to hear about that maniac anymore.’
Nemes uses long takes with lingering close-ups of the lead character’s face throughout the film. There’s whispered conversations, sometimes overheard by Irisz or just out of shot, a style he developed in his debut academy award winning film Son of Saul (2015). Similar to this masterpiece, Sunset also has an enigmatic main character, who clings on to the idea of a close relationship. Each narrative envisions the obsessive nature of their quest. However, in Son of Saul, the main character moves towards some inner light – a glimpse of hope. In Sunset, Irisz evolves towards more and more darkness. Nemes suggested that Saul’s an ‘angel of life’ whereas Irisz is the ‘angel of death’ in a search for family.
Nemes explained that he was drawn to the 1900s – the birth of the twentieth century – because there was so much promise displayed in the arts and the realms of scientific discovery in Europe. Yet at the same time, imminent self destruction was waiting to be unleashed by the First World War. This is shown in some febrile celebratory scenes which disintegrate into terror and violence.
Mystery clings to Irisz and the camera follows her frustrations in a labyrinthine search for answers Nemes wanted the audience to share in this sense of frustration. The way we see the world’s more limited than the impression given by TV and internet that we control the world. Nemes argues that this leads audience to being less able to exercise their imagination. Film-viewing and -making is moving in the direction of reassurance, whereas he wants to rebel against this trend and challenge the audience. His main character’s point of view gives only a small window on reality and this inevitably restricts the audience’s worldview as well. In Sunrise, Nemes wanted to explore a time in history that’s ‘not about the facts, more about the feeling and atmosphere’. He also wanted the audience to discover a world that’s complex and volatile through Irisz’s eyes, saying: ‘We don’t perceive history as history when it’s happening to us.’
In the Q&A lots of questions emerged, including what the reason was for featuring a hat store in the story. The answer? It was an instinctual decision, to convey the ‘very immediate sophistication of the period. In the 1900s there were a hundred hat stores for women but now millenary in Budapest is all but gone’. Mayer added that the symbolism of the hat fitted very well with the themes of light and dark in Sunrise, as a hat covers the face from the sun – light on top and shadow underneath.
Sunrise was a compelling film, complex, brooding and dark as Nemes succeeds in showing a world on the brink of self-destruction as a lived experience.