Children of a Lesser God


On New Year’s Eve, 1899, the Sonnenschein family of Budapest toasts the future. Ignatz (Ralph Fiennes), the elder son and a successful judge, predicts that the 20th century will be a time of justice, love, and peace. This is the first, and, perhaps, only dramatic irony in István Szabó’s Sunshine, save for the title itself. Sunshine is a chronicle of four generations of a Hungarian Jewish family, narrated by its last surviving member, Ivan Sonnenschein. Ivan is also played by Fiennes, as is Ivan’s father, Adam, son of Ignatz. If this seems confusing, it’s not so on-screen, since the film plods, with devout linearity, from one generation to the next and one political regime to another. That said, Fiennes himself may well have been confused, not only in playing three characters but also in having to keep track of the four actresses who at various times play his mother, as well as four others who play his wives and lovers and with whom he engages in one urgent sex act after another, as historic catastrophes crash about them: the assassination at Sarajevo, World War I, the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the rise of Nazism, World War II and the Holocaust, the Communist takeover of Hungary, the 10-day revolution of 1956, the Soviet invasion, and in a hasty epilogue, the fall of the Iron Curtain.

An English-language film that employs British and North American actors in the leading roles and Hungarians to play everyone else, Sunshine is, for its first 30 minutes, a heavy Euro-pudding, overwhelmed by generic TV lighting and theme park costumes. But it slowly gathers force as the succeeding generations of Sonnenscheins attempt to assimilate into Hungarian society by denying their Jewish identity. Advised by his mentor that no one named Sonnenschein could be appointed to the high court, Ignatz, his brother, and his cousin change their name to Sors. Ignatz’s son Adam, who aspires to be on the Olympic fencing team, takes the next step and converts to Catholicism. He wins the gold medal in the infamous Berlin Olympics of 1936, but it doesn’t save him from being sent to a concentration camp, where he’s tortured and killed. To avenge him, Adam’s son Ivan joins the Communist secret police. Ivan thrives on ferreting out Nazi collaborators, but he’s forced to reconsider his options when he’s asked to investigate his boss as a suspected Zionist conspirator.

Szabó is an intelligent and capable filmmaker, but despite Sunshine‘s historical scope and multiplicity of characters, it doesn’t shed half as much light on its subject—identity and anti-Semitism—as does, for example, Agnieszka Holland’s claustrophobic chamber piece Angry Harvest. As the three Sonnenscheins, Ralph Fiennes is most alive when he’s angry, which isn’t often enough.

The women in the cast fare better than the men, in particular Deborah Kara Unger and Rosemary Harris. Unger, almost unrecognizable coiffed in a late-’40s blond pageboy, plays the wife of a Communist Party thug who has an affair with Ivan but refuses to give up the security of her marriage for a loose cannon. Unger’s trademark narcissistic sexuality is mixed here with a powerful paranoia. Szabó uses the character to show the paralytic effect of living in a police state, and Unger’s panicky sideways glances and evasive body language make the point more indelibly than any of the film’s big speeches. Harris has the far more crucial role as Valerie, Adam’s mother and Ivan’s grandmother, who’s an accomplished photographer. Valerie survives into old age with grace and equanimity because, as she explains, she hasn’t much use for politics or religion and always looks for the beauty in life. Szabó puts Valerie on a pedestal, and he’s lucky to have Harris to bring her down to earth.

The Children of Chabannes is a more modest but also more informative and moving film about the situation of European Jews during the Nazi period. Lisa Gossels and Dean Wetherell’s documentary uses extensive interview and archival material to depict how the people of Chabannes, a small, relatively isolated agricultural village, resisted the Vichy government, sheltering 400 Jewish children during the war and keeping all but six of them from being deported to the camps. (Among the saved children was Peter Gossels, Lisa’s father.)

While most of the French communities credited with saving Jews were strongly religious (either Catholic or Protestant), Chabannes was not. Its citizens viewed themselves as “true Republicans,” believers in freedom and the brotherhood of men, inheritors of the spirit of the French Revolution. In the face of massive evidence of French collaboration and anti-Semitism, The Children of Chabannes, among other things, restores the belief that the romance of a France still committed to its revolutionary ideals does in fact exist.

Gossels conceived the film when she accompanied her father to the 1996 reunion of the villagers with the children they had saved. In Chabannes, a remarkable cast of characters presented itself, including many of the teachers whose ingenuity, dedication, and courage insured the survival of the refugees, who were integrated into the village school until the Vichy government started rounding up children for deportation in 1942. George Loinger, a Jewish engineer turned gym teacher, trained the children’s bodies so that they could endure the possible hard times ahead; the Paillassou sisters demanded that their German- and Polish-speaking students learn perfect French so they’d be easier to hide. Both teachers and pupils pay tribute to Felix Chevrier, the principal of the school, who defied the authorities on many occasions, risking his own life. Chevrier, who was already in his late fifties during the war, died in 1962, but he left an archive of the children’s drawings and compositions in addition to his own journals. Chevrier and the Paillassou sisters managed to find sympathizers in the police and the Vichy government who would warn them when there was going to be a roundup. The police would arrive, find no one in the school, and accuse Chevrier of hiding the children. His response: “I don’t know where they are. They can go wherever they want. They’re free.”

Americans are notoriously more oriented toward geography than history. Unlike Sunshine, which examines a lineage of fathers and sons over a period of 125 years while seldom moving outside of Budapest, Pop & Me, like a pint-size M:I-2, jets around the world in six months on the impossible mission of restoring the tattered relationship between Chris Roe, an aspiring filmmaker, and his father, Richard Roe, a self-made millionaire. The elder Roe is in the throes of a midlife crisis, exacerbated by having just lost most of his money and having been divorced by his wife. The father wants to revisit the happiest time of his life—a 1979 trip around the world taken in the company of his wife and three young sons. Chris seizes on his father’s invitation to accompany him as an opportunity to break through the anger that separates them. It’s also a way of making a documentary about fathers and sons on his father’s dime. The last of Dad’s fortune is spent on plane tickets and food and travel expenses, not just for two, but also for the cameraman whose constant presence is a guarantee against the intimacy that the son and father both claim to desire. For the purpose of this indie documentary, the Roes visit families in about 20 countries, but they are so blinded by their own neurotic power struggle that they are only capable of viewing other relationships in terms of their own. Tears flow, but the most revelatory moment is provided not by the spectacle of the Roes clinging to each other on a bungee cord, but by Julian Lennon, who pops up on the beach in Monaco to give a terse evaluation of his father: “He loved the world more than he loved me.”

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