by director/co-writer László Nemes
Even before my first feature film Son of Saul, I already had the idea of making a film about a woman, alone, lost in a city at the dawn of the 20th century, her personal story reflecting the fate of an entire continent.
A century ago, in a flourishing age full of promises and sophistication, Europe committed suicide on the frontlines of WWI. This suicide remains a mystery until this very day, even if historians, philosophers and social scientists have tried to solve it. As if a civilization at its pinnacle was already producing the poison that would ultimately destroy it.
As a child, I would listen to the stories of my grandmother, born in 1914. Her life spanned across the century, taken by the turmoil of the European continent, through totalitarian regimes, genocide, failed revolutions and wars. She was, in a way, Europe herself. Today, we seem to forget about the deep dynamics of history, and in our boundless love for technology and science, we seem to forget how close to destruction they can bring us. I believe we live in a world that is not that far from the one before the Great War of 1914.
Probably under the influence of a certain literary and cinematographic tradition of Central Europe, I’ve been drawn to a main character that is partly shrouded in mystery, even becoming at some point a figure of unexpected dimension, like a strange Joan of Arc of Middle Europe.
Unlike Son of Saul, which had a documentary-style approach, Sunset resembles a tale, and the viewer is invited on this journey to find, along with the main character, a way in this maze of facades and layers. From the outset, I imagined this movie as a way to plunge the viewer into a personal labyrinth of unclear information, following Irisz on her quest to find her brother. Behind every piece of clue she seems to find, there can be contradictory information. Behind any layer, a new one might be revealed and Irisz herself might very well be unaware of forces inside her. She is a character caught between light and darkness, beauty and menace, incapable of dealing with the gray zones. In this sense, Sunset is also a coming-of-age story, the blooming of a strange flower.
The monarchy of Austria-Hungary, in the very center of Europe, before the outbreak of World War I, is at the crossroads of all the accumulated European tensions, between modernity and obsolescence. The old Emperor of Austria-Hungary, Franz Joseph, rules from Vienna, over vast territories, a dozen nations, many cultures and religions. Vigorous political and ideological aspirations are present or rampant: socialism, anarchism, nationalism. Modern antisemitism reaches its maturity in Vienna. New scientific approaches blossom, psychoanalysis is born, whereas many pseudo-scientific and intellectual groups, cult-like movements, occult sects following illuminated leaders seem to crave for a special place in society, or on the edge of society. Thus, many fundamentally marginal, albeit enthusiastic movements co-exist in Austria-Hungary, where all art forms, including architecture, literature and motion pictures, flourish. The identity crisis resulting from the fragmentation of aspirations and the decay of the central royal order, coupled with a disenchantment of the world and a crisis of masculinity, give rise to a vibrating world that could lead to ecstatic prosperity or to downfall.
In a way, beyond the love for technology and a boundless optimism, there is a deep malaise—a floating sentiment that something ominous, possibly apocalyptic is about to happen. This is the age of an almost biblical expectation.
This society, whose codes and sophistication are embodied by the way people dress and behave—the hats they design and wear—preserves a façade of tranquility. But under the veneer of civilization, many forces cannot be controlled. They are about to take all the people, unsuspecting and believing in progress, into a quagmire and destruction of hitherto unseen, industrial proportions.
It is today’s filmmaking practice to orient the viewer and reassure them continuously—but I’ve always wanted to find new ways to present the audiences with a subjective experience of uncertainty and fragility, the underlying currents of our very human condition. Like in Son of Saul, I did not want to present the audience with a conventional period piece, interested in politics and topics. I thought we could achieve much more by giving a glimpse of a world and not try to fully uncover it. The imagination of the viewer would do the rest. This is my hope.