Sunset: A Lynchian Waking Nightmare of Pre-Apocalyptic Intensity

If you visit Budapest, you’ll probably notice an unnerving monument to history: the walls of the city’s beautiful buildings are sprayed in spreading rashes of bullet holes. They serve as a stark reminder of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution – a serious challenge to Soviet rule and a notable turning point against communism. But we can trace those holes back further than 1956 – to when Hungary, an Axis Power in WWII, was invaded by the Red Army in 1944, seeing a gradual erosion of its democracy to communist totalitarianism. In fact, there’s a persuasive case that those holes have their origin further still into the wormhole of the past – a catalytic day deep in the summer of 1914 that drove a stake through the heart of Europe and whose radioactive fallout, amongst other things, sounded the death knell for the powerful Austro-Hungarian empire.

How can we ever understand history?

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was, to high-schoolers (who invariably become, believe it or not, Adults) the sowing of the seeds which bloomed into the Great War. But knowing is not the same thing as understanding – to view historical events as abstracted moments in a sea of timelines and faceless moral agents robs transformative, transient experiences of their human significance.

You, reader, are a ball of sensory experience hurtling through the cosmos – a short trail burning across the fabric of time. In one hundred (or more) years, other people – people who you never met because they were not yet alive – will write your history. It will be a history of moments, of events leading to each other in clearly outlined chains of causation; a history that might start years before you were born and end years after you die – or years before, who knows? These people will tell their people, and their people onwards until humanity fades from this Earth, what you did, and why you did it, and when you did it. The answers to these questions will change based on why they’re telling their story, and to whom, and what they ate for breakfast.

The characters of Sunset, László Nemes’ astonishingly accomplished sophomore feature, wander a hazy Budapest free from bullet holes in an empire yet to witness the assassination of its heir. They are agents in an emerging history that is yet to be written. They do not know where this particular story began and they certainly don’t know where it will end – splattered with blood and sprayed with lead, four decades and two world wars later. Its main protagonist, Írisz (Juli Jakab), is in name and in action a witness to history, until she becomes it. The year is 1913.

Írisz has come to this country from Austria, responding to a hiring notice at the hat company which bears her family name – Leiter. “The horror of the world hides behind these infinitely pretty things”, a miscellaneous spectator says about the shop’s wares. Truer words have rarely been spoken. Mysterious forces surround the shop – now owned by Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov). Írisz’s parents – the original owners – perished in a fire that just about destroyed the building, and for reasons best not revealed here (I urge you to avoid any other reviews, I’ve seen a lot of spoilers), Brill is keen not to hire their heir.

A film which begins with a veil being lifted from our protagonist’s face, Sunset gradually works at peeling back layers of its story, and increasingly depraved tiers of Hungarian society, over its relentless 2.5-hour runtime. Nemes’ now-signature style never sees the camera leave its star– we watch this film predominantly from Írisz’s first-person perspective, looking at her face, or from the back of her head. Soft focus and long takes conjure the spirit of a dream, bolstered by all-consuming clouds of fog and dust that mesmerically drift over the lens.

Spectral figures – some recognisable, some not – emerge from the shadows and stalk towards the frame, muttering enigmatic words of foreboding: “Get out of Budapest”; “We have been awakened”; “Blood will flow”; “It is starting again”. In the corners of the screen, we catch sinister glances and unsettling activities. Trapped in Nemes’ close-quarters perspective, Sunset is almost like walking through a Halloween horror maze: characters leap from nowhere, threat is everywhere, and fear is the prevailing emotion. An intense, paranoid premonition of extreme violence settles over the city – one that doesn’t let up for the film’s entire runtime.

This is what a feature-length adaptation of the orgy sequence in Eyes Wide Shut might have looked like – a Lynchian daylight nightmare that treads the atomic line between horror and noir. Once several fundamental boundaries have been properly blurred – between wake and sleep, history and reality, fantasy and actuality – things begin to get even stranger. A fetishistic manifestation of the murderous occult links the disparate strands of the film’s sprawling plot – one that runs so deep into the Leiter family that its roots are hidden deep within the walls of their shop.

There comes a time where Írisz herself becomes part of history, because there comes a time when this story is no longer hers to tell. Sunset’s currents and conspiracies eventually stack up higher than she (and, so, We) can comprehend. We do not have the gift of a Gods-eye perspective, because the vantage point in space-time for this tale has not yet been defined – we are swept along on tides outside of our control. In turn, Írisz abandons her name – her identity – and transforms into an agent of something much bigger. Her surname is stripped of individual, personal significance and becomes a symbol of a moment – a moment highlightable, definable, tangible. A link in the chain of causation. Something that would find its way into a textbook.

Intense, at-times terrifying, and always thought-provoking, Sunset is a greater achievement than Nemes’ Son of Saul. It does not seek to gain its power from an event that already exerts a death-like grip on our collective consciousness; it does not tell a story easily identifiable or understandable from a traditional perspective; it seeks to make a complex, abstract statement from a particular historical context. And yet it is still able to grip, to thrill, to frighten and enlighten in equal measure. Shot through in the glorious colours of white, black and yellow – yellow from the blazing sun, from gas lamps, and eventually from the roaring fires of rebellion – its postcard-perfect recreation of Budapest as seen from a waking dream serves to outline its own meteoric achievements in bright red.

The past is forever lost to us, and, if you ever visit Budapest, you might notice that the walls remain peppered with bullet holes.


James is an undergraduate law student at UCL, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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