The family name, sonnenschein, translates as Sunshine, and its bearers at first prosper in turn-of-the-20th- century Budapest, selling a herbal tonic with that cheerful word emblazoned on the bottles. But they are Jews in an endemically anti-Semitic society. By the end of Istvan Szabo's three-hour epic, which traces the family's decline through three historical epochs-the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nazism and communism-the irony of his title is almost unbearable. There is little sunshine in Sunshine, only degradation.
The three principal Sonnenschein heirs are all played by Ralph Fiennes. The first of them, Ignatz, changes his name to Sors, in order to advance his career as a judge faithfully serving the empire. He ends up bitter and betrayed. His son Adam abandons his religion to join the right fencing club. He becomes an Olympic gold medalist, but-in the film's most haunting sequence-dies in a concentration camp denying his Judaism. His son Ivan becomes a communist bureaucrat, then revolts against that totalitarianism. The picture ends virtually as the century does, with Ivan melting into a crowd, all ambitions, all faiths abandoned.
Including the romantic one. None of Fiennes' characters are lucky in love either. Perhaps that's because he's always a man who cannot yield his sense of self to ideology. Ignatz's wife (played first by Jennifer Ehle, then by her mother Rosemary Harris) is his opposite-serene, patient, an exemplary survivor. Written by Szabo and playwright Israel Horovitz, Sunshine is a trifle schematic. But it also makes you feel, quite poignantly, the crushing tides of history: heedless, inhuman-and tragic.