Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Sunset 2018
"Sunset while resisting the digital, flings us into a dreamworld where nostalgia for the past is twin to premonition of our future." | Photo: Courtesy of Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival

László Nemes mixes memory and desire unlike any other filmmaker today. His latest feature stirs us with the remarkable tale of Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), a young woman who returns, after years of apprenticeship in Trieste, to her native Budapest, the beating heart of central Europe, in hopes of working as a milliner at the famous Leiter department store her deceased parents used to own.

The name - in German it means ladder and also is another word for Führer - is no coincidence. The year is 1913 and the Austro-Hungarian monarchy is at its powerful peak. Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov), the new owner of the hat emporium, is busy preparing the festivities to celebrate the royal guests arriving from Vienna and has no intention of hiring Írisz.

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In a similar mode to the way Nemes chained us to the back of the neck of Géza Röhrig's Saul Ausländer in his groundbreaking, Oscar-winning Son Of Saul, he attaches us firmly to his Sunset heroine. Írisz's neck is veiled with an elegant gossamer, yet stiff white collar, like pedals held up through wire.

We know little of her life and thoughts, as she herself discovers clues about her family, and stumbles upon the rotting kernels that glue together K&K society at large. There is mention of a mysterious rebel brother she's never heard of and that she sets her mind to find. Everything resists clarity as we tumble with her deeper and deeper into the mesmerising mysteries at the core of the year before the world would be shattered beyond recognition.

From the breathtaking old-fashioned painting coming to life during the opening credits to the lack of CGI manipulation throughout, Sunset while resisting the digital, flings us into a dreamworld where nostalgia for the past is twin to premonition of our future. The film's tense is the futur antérieur, a vague future perfect of what will have been our fate.

Sunset is cinema at its astute and enchanting finest. Max Ophüls and Jean Renoir may come to mind and the scene in the shoe department of Romanze In Moll, Helmut Käutner's take on Guy De Maupassant. And yet, Sunset deeply feels of the present, as a kind of warning in the language of the rain and elegant gestures and barbarous tastes. The sound of horses' hooves on the pavement, a brooch with a swallow in flight, a limping man - are they symbols?

Are we perhaps already in T.S. Eliot's 'rat's alley where the dead men lost their bones'? "Blood will flow this week" says the ominous man. No history shortcuts here to signal - by, for instance, waving Archduke Franz Ferdinand's name like a limp flag - what is about to come.

In the hat store a part of the wall is taken out to expose a secret chamber that was built especially for Empress Sisi to enjoy. It feels like the opening of a tomb and the most refined shopping experience all at once. Sunset is like beloved, disturbing poetry, where you know that with each new visit another door of meaning will open and you'll discover something new.

Oszkár, the established businessman and arranger of fates, eventually gives in to Írisz and hires her. The girls making hats for him know that one of them will be chosen to work in Vienna for the royals in the palace. What is the name of the story that speaks of the desire to be chosen, only to be surprised by what the outcome entails?

Írisz takes a tram through the fog to the end of the line. What she encounters there is one of the scariest moments I have seen in the cinema in a long time. Far from short-lived horror movie shivers, it provokes a much more ancient dread. While the beautiful ladies in beautiful hats parade around European civilisation at its zenith - we, in hindsight, know where it led. The terror before the real terror is accompanied by the tunes of a charming operetta. Rain and thunder, merry widows and orphans are holding hands.

The ruins of a city - as if two world wars had already gone by - can be glimpsed from the window of a shabby hotel that once was our protagonist's home. How diabolical royal feet can look. How strange the German compliment "Augenweide" (in literal translation: a meadow for the eyes) sounds amidst the Hungarian conversations.

Why do these men offer Írisz a drink, insisting, maybe too vehemently so, that it is "only water"? What tale are we living? How easily Cinderella can turn into Bluebeard, with layers of civilised codes collapsing like a house of cards. Sunset demands and rewards our work. Escaping into the past of 100 years ago brings us right here into the present, as firmly as only dreams, or ghosts, or fairy tales, or great cinema can do.

Reviewed on: 11 Mar 2019
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A young wannabe milliner in Budapest meets a man connected to her past and begins to uncover family secrets.
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Director: László Nemes

Writer: László Nemes, Clara Royer, Matthieu Taponier

Starring: Vlad Ivanov, Susanne Wuest, Juli Jakab, Judit Bárdos, Levente Molnár, Evelin Dobos, Urs Rechn, Mónika Balsai, Björn Freiberg, Uwe Lauer, János Kulka, Sándor Zsótér, Mihály Kormos, Dusán Vitanovics, Laurent Winkler

Year: 2018

Runtime: 142 minutes

Country: Hungary, France

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