Critically, László Nemes’ Sunset has been dubbed a slightly disappointing follow up to the triumph of Son of Saul. The invasive in-your-face camera work is no longer novel, the meandering plot doesn’t lead anywhere concrete, and the whole odyssey just seems a bit too long. All of these statements are true, but I don’t think these aspects of the film should be perceived negatively. In fact, I believe that they are the integral elements of this narrative. Although at the beginning of the film – I must admit – I felt exasperated and put off by the seemingly plotless wonderings of Írisz Leiter and her baffling interactions (or stare-offs) with other characters, I began to recognise that this was exactly how I’ve felt when reading Kafka’s somnambulant prose and subsequently getting entrapped in his nightmarish world of absurdity and alienation.
This is when it all fell into place for me. What Nemes does with this film is place us squarely in the turn-of-the-century central European literary tradition of dream-like magical realism. The intention of this film is to portray the sunset of old Europe right from the epicentre of decay. This decay is not straightforward or easily contained and thus hard to depict in a conventionally linear and plot-driven way. By utilising the dream-like narrative structures of central European writers such as Kafka, Antal Szerb, Milan Kundera and Stefan Zweig, Nemes invites the audience to assume a suspension of disbelief and to allow themselves to be taken on a seemingly irrational journey into the madness of this fading world.
Just like Írisz, we as an audience are constantly captivated and then repelled by the violent and mysterious events of the film. Yet, despite their unpleasantness and impenetrability, we cannot force ourselves to surrender. Instead, we are sucked further into the mire of senseless violence. This violence, like Írisz’s various family misfortunes -from her parents’ death to her brother’s murderous dealings – feels like an irrational curse. Despite her tireless pursuit of answers, Írisz only encounters more baffling atrocities, leading her deeper into the rabbit-hole of human darkness. The incoherence of these “answers” if reflected in the disjointed jump cuts from one scene to the next, which make us feel as if we are missing vital narrative information, or perhaps that we are being purposefully denied it.
This lack of any clear answer or fact makes us doubt if what Írisz is experience is actually real and not a product of her own paranoia. Indeed, there are constant hints throughout the film that her brother’s behaviour is due to insanity, and in combination with their parents’ scandalous death this allegation makes us wonder whether Írisz’s perspective is also tainted by madness. If this were the case, it would certainly explain her strangely wooden interactions with other characters, and – most importantly – her apparent assumption of her brother’s role as the leader in the climactic moment of violence at the conclusion of the film.
Nevertheless, this explanation seems to be too easy an answer to this narrative riddle. With the camera pointed directly onto her face or hovering just over her shoulder, the audience is invited not to simply share her point of view but to experience it simultaneously. Just as in Son of Saul, this trick is incredibly effective in allowing the audience to deeply and personably explore something that they otherwise would have trouble experiencing, namely senseless atrocity. It allows Nemes to not merely present us with the chaos of a decaying world, but to allow us to experience it for ourselves in the company of the protagonist. Thus, we do not assume Írisz’s point of view, but travel through this nightmare at her side.
The main focus of the film remains the death throes and the eventual “suicide” of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This entropic world appears to be crumbling more and more each day as civilisation falls prey to greed, cruelty and lies. Society lacks any social cohesiveness, with the stark distinction between the opulence of the rich and the degradation of the poor. Yet even the seemingly beautiful seems to be poisoned, expressed in the hat shops’ dubious dealings. Indeed, despite all of the social divides, there are striking parallels between the two opposing worlds, as can be seen in two scenes where Írisz is harassed by gangs of men on either side of the class-spectrum. Thus, we see that not only does “the horror of the world hide behind these infinity pretty things”, but that the horror has penetrated every layer of society, indiscriminately tainting everything within its reach.
The spread of this horror and darkness results in – and is then fostered by – the lack of honest communication and empathy between people. The individuals who help Írisz do not do it for her own sake, but in order to get her out of their own way. Indeed, I had honestly lost count of how many times someone mumbles “Go away” or “Leave Budapest”, adding to my own frustration as well as hers. Throughout the film, Írisz is continuously denied answers as well as curtsy, which is exactly what makes her stubbornly descend further into a world of cruelty and conspiracy. Thus, the lack of honest communication does not deter, but further aggravates the situation at hand, generating conflict and distrust that feeds on the lack of humanity within social interactions.
Nemes presents this narrative as an allegory for the decline of civilisation as a whole and the emergence of a physical and moral wasteland, which he alludes to through the use of a quotation from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland in the tarot card reading scene. The climax of this allegory is reached during the eventual bloody destruction of Leiter’s hat shop which, according to one character, “represented the peak of civilisation”. For Nemes, this decline is absurd, and it ushers in a new level of senseless and inhuman cruelty that will peak with the events depicted in Son of Saul.Most importantly, although it may seem that people just “sleepwalked” into this state – a speculation reflected by the somnambulant narrative style – Nemes does not let us forget that this state is created by individuals. Írisz is told that her brother “saw the horror in the world but the horror came from him”, resulting his drastic and savage actions. However, although this darkness may immerge from individuals, it soon permeates the larger society and continues as people become increasingly alienated from each other. This is something that we as society ought to remember as our own world sleepwalks into increasing division and distrust, mirroring the absurd and distorted nightmare of Nemes’ 1913 Budapest.