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Vol 2, No 16
25 April 2000
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Rolf Schübel's Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod (Gloomy Sunday, 1999)
Love and menace
in Budapest
Sensual Passion,
Nazi Terror

Rolf Schübel's
Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod

Elke de Wit

Strange as it may sound, Rolf Schübel's
Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod (Gloomy Sunday, 1999) uses the portrayal of a ménage a trois to provide an insight into the politics of the Third Reich.

The film is set in 1930s Budapest where Lasló Szabó (Joachim Król) runs a very upmarket restaurant with his beautiful girlfriend Ilona Várnai (Erika Marozsán). Ilona uses her charms and beauty to entrance the guests, amongst them Hans Eberhard Wieck (Ben Becker).

Rolf Schübel's Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod (Gloomy Sunday, 1999)
Perfect threesome
In order to complete his perfect restaurant, Lasló buys a piano and hires András Aradi (Stefano Dionisi) to play. Predictably András and Ilona fall for each other. But there are no mad scenes of jealousy and rage. Instead there ensues an intricatly observed and engaging depiction of how these two men cope with sharing a woman. The changing patterns of alternately vying for more of her attention and ganging up on her together are both funny and pathetic.

Growing menace

The fun and romance of the first half of the film gradually gives way to the strident march of the German National Socialists into Austria and Hungary. Lasló, who is Jewish, tries to accommodate the German officers in his restaurant, but it is mostly Ilona's feminine allure that keeps them in check. The restaurant also becomes "cursed" by a haunting melody that András composes for Ilona on her birthday.

Rolf Schübel's Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod (Gloomy Sunday, 1999)
Ilona: Cursed beauty
When the song is published it results in a wave of suicides. (According to Schübel this actually happened, and such a song was banned by the BBC until the 1960s). András becomes increasingly affected by the deaths and finally disappears. He allocates all royalties from the song to Ilona and Lasló.

Unfortunately no amount of money can save Lasló from his inevitable fate under the new regime. Ilona tries to rescue him by using her charms on Hans Eberhard Wieck. Hans has become an influential wheeler-dealer in the German army. Just when it seems that he will help her, he rapes her instead. The story ends fifty years later in Lasló's restaurant, where Lasló and András are avenged.

Sensuality and fascism

Rolf Schübel's Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod (Gloomy Sunday, 1999)
Relaxing in a tense time
Although numerous films have been made about this period of European history, it was refreshing to see such an interesting and often quirky love story woven into the plot. The rising menace of the period is contrasted with exquisitely sensual scenes in bathtubs and beds. Although both the men are very different from each other, it is easy to understand what Ilona sees in them both. Her coolness and sensuality also make it credible that both men would rather share her than lose her completely.

Schübel has been making films since 1968, although mostly documentaries. Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod is, as a result, extremely accomplished as both a piece of narrative and an evocation of an era. Schübel's documentarist's eye captures the detail of the period, in the costumes and the witty and sharply observant script.

German film has a variable track record in getting onto the international market. This is one film which certainly deserves to have wider distribution. If it does attract internaitonal attention one can only hope that it does not suffer the fate of other European films, which are eventually bought by Hollywood and have all their poetic beauty replaced by a nice, safe, glossy sheen.

Elke de Wit, 24 April 2000

Elke de Wit reviews other Neue deutsche Filme shown at the 50th Berlinale:
Ossies on Ice
Pepe Danquart's Heimspiel
Rosa von Praunheim's Der Einstein des Sex
Wasted Lives in Changing Times
Andreas Kleinert's Wege in die Nacht
Dreaming in Colour
Veit Helmer's Tuvalu
One Last Lunge at Freedom
Sebastian Schipper's Absolute Giganten
Pricking Germany's Racist Conscience
Frieder Schlaich's Otomo
Devilishly Bad
Bernd Eichinger's Der Große Bagarozy
Chance at the End of the Millennium
Thorsten Schmidt's
Schnee In Der Neujahrsnacht
Growing up Late
Doris Dörrie's Erleuchtung Garantiert
The Sunnier Side of East Germany
Leander Haußmann's Sonnenallee
Broken by the Streets
Maren-Kea Freese's Zoe

Click here for the Berlinale website

Moving on:


Jan Čulík

Mel Huang
Lithuania's Loons

Sam Vaknin
More Yugoslav Myths

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
EU Identity Crises

Oliver Craske
The UK and Eastern Emigrants

Pavel Pafko
Czech Healthcare

Sue Bagust
Early Modernism

Slavko Živanov
Milošević on the Way out?

Elke de Wit
Passion and Terror

Elke de Wit
Ossies on Ice

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