American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
June 6, 2000 "One gang was as bad as another," says an old woman at the end of Istvan Szabo's "Sunshine." In her long lifetime in Hungary she has lived under the emperor, the Nazis and the Communists. And she watched as the West betrayed the 1956 uprising. She has watched some members of her Jewish family spend the century trying to accommodate themselves to the shifting winds of politics and society, and failing. She has seen other members fight against the prevailing tyrannies, only to find them replaced by new ones.
And she has witnessed the Holocaust bearing down over three generations--not as an aberration, a contagion spread by Hitler, but as the inexorable result of long years of anti-Semitism. We are reminded of the 1999 documentary "The Last Days," also about Holocaust victims in Hungary, which observes that the persecution of the Jews there began fairly late in the war, at a time when Hitler's thinly stretched resources were needed for tasks other than genocide.
But the Nazis had help. "Nice ordinary Hungarian people did the dirty work," we learn, and there is even the possibility that some members of the Sonnenschein family, which the movie follows over three generations, would have helped, had they not been Jewish and therefore ineligible. The movie shows family members determined to think of themselves as good Hungarians. The family name is changed to Sors to make it "more Hungarian," and Adam Sors, in the middle generation, converts to Catholicism, joins an officers' club, and wins a gold medal for fencing in the Olympics.
But assimilation is not the answer, as he learns when he remains too long in Hungary, believing a national hero like himself immune to anti-Semitism. There is a heartbreaking scene in a Nazi death camp where he tells an officer that he is a loyal Hungarian army officer, too--and a gold medalist. "Strip," the officer tells him, and soon his naked body has been crucified and sprayed with water until it forms a grotesque ice sculpture.