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Jewish Journal

Europe’s Tragic Melody

by Tom Tugend

November 6, 2003 | 7:00 pm

"Gloomy Sunday" is the English title for the more aptly named German-Hungarian film "A Song of Love and Death," but under either label it is a movie of exceptional visual and dramatic beauty.

Opening in the 1930s in Budapest, fabled in pre-war Europe for its handsome architecture and women, "Gloomy Sunday" starts as a good, old-fashioned love triangle, or rather a quadrangle.

Vying for the ravishing Ilona (Erika Marozsán) are Laszlo (Joachim Król), who employs Ilona in his cafe-restaurant; Andras (Stefano Dionisi), the cafe's soulful pianist; and Hans (Ben Becker), a somewhat awkward German tourist.

For Ilona's birthday, Andras composes "Gloomy Sunday," a ghostly but fascinating melody, whose somber lyrics tell of a distraught lover contemplating suicide to rejoin his dead mistress.

The 1930s song became a phenomenal hit in its native Hungary, throughout Europe, and in America through Billie Holliday's recorded version. To the horror of its creators, the song triggered a string of suicides by young romantics throughout the world.

Also affected is Hans, who tries to drown himself in the Danube after Ilona refuses to marry him. He is rescued by Laszlo, and the two men swear eternal friendship.

A few years later, Hans returns to Budapest in the uniform of an SS officer to assist Adolf Eichmann in the final solution of the Jewish problem. Hans has found a better way by demanding large bribes from wealthy Jews to spare them from deportation.

Caught in the Nazi net is Laszlo, an indifferent Jew ("If my parents had been Iroquois, I'd be an Iroquois," he shrugs) but a Jew, nevertheless. Initially, Hans shields his old rescuer, but ultimately turns his back as Laszlo is pushed on the train to Auschwitz.

Some 45 years later, Hans comes back to Budapest, now a fabulously wealthy businessman and even hailed as the noble savior of Budapest Jews during the war. He returns to Laszlo's old restaurant, orders the violinist to play "Gloomy Sunday" -- and finally pays for his betrayals.

German director Rolf Schuebel masterfully underplays a story that could easily have descended into mere sentimentality, and we guarantee that all male viewers will fall in love with Ilona, and all the ladies with the pianist Andras.

"Gloomy Sunday," in German with English subtitles, opens Nov. 7 at three Laemmle theaters: the Music Hall in Beverly Hills, the Playhouse in Pasadena and the Town Center in Encino. For more information, visit www.laemmle.com .

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