Gloomy Sunday

A 1999 film that took 4 years to get theatrical release in the US (I saw it in 2002 in New Zealand, of all places), Gloomy Sunday takes an intriguing premise – that the titular song was so depressing that people throughout the world spun it on their record player as they took their own lives – and fictionalizes it to the point of tedium.

The actual song was composed in 1933 by a Budapest citizen named Rezso Seress. The film's story begins in 1930s Budapest, but that's about its only connection to real life. Here the composer is a lonely restaurant pianist named Andras, who writes the song for the beautiful Ilona, the woman who runs the restaurant together with her Jewish lover Laszlo.

Did somebody say "Jewish"? Yep, the moment you finally hear that loaded word, halfway into the film, you know it's just a matter of minutes before the story swerves from a complicated love triangle between our three heroes into yet another Holocaust tragedy. Cue the return of the lonely German who longs for Ilona and nearly drowned himself for her... only now he's wearing a crisp black SS uniform. You've seen it all before in a dozen other WWII films.

The real Rezso Seress had plenty of tragedy in his own life: the woman he wrote "Gloomy Sunday" for killed herself soon after hearing it; his song was banned in England and several other countries after reports of multiple suicides resulting from its play; and Seress himself ended it all in 1968. It's a shame that his own story was ignored and replaced by this rather predictable and shallow melodrama. But it's well-made, considering its low budget, and respectably acted by a mostly Hungarian cast.

I should also mention that "Gloomy Sunday" itself, as depressing as it is, remains one of the most beautiful ballads of the 20th century, and its sadness infuses the film with deep feeling. Much more than it deserves, actually.