Istvan Szabo's Sunshine is one of those irresistible family sagas spanning generations. The family is the Sonnenscheins, a Jewish Hungarian clan that builds its fortune on the liqueur of the title; the generations encompass the late 19th century to the 1960s, during which the country is under sway of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazis, and the Communists, among other governments. The casting establishes a throughline, with Ralph Fiennes playing three successive Sonnenschein men, and Jennifer Ehle and her mother Rosemary Harris portraying the same woman at different ages.
The visual style, devised by Szabo and cinematographer Lajos Koltai, who has shot all of the director's films since Confidence, in 1979, also gives cohesion to the three-hour film. "We started with the script, and planned everything together, including the wardrobe and the backgrounds," says the DP, whose credits range from Szabo's Mephisto and Colonel Redl to such American films as White Palace and Mother. "We know all the locations in Budapest, because we've used them in each movie."
The most important setting is the Sonnenschein family house, created on a soundstage by production designer Attila Kovacs, partly from Szabo's memories of his own childhood home. "Very important in the movie is the dining room table, which I call the 'family island,' " says Koltai. "The people change, the politics change, everything around them changes, but the warmth of the family island remains."
The lighting in the first part of the film, set at the end of the 19th century into the 20th, emphasizes rich golden tones. At first, the chandelier over the table is a candlelit source, actually suggested by dimmed tungsten through diffusion. "Even when electricity comes in, it still gives you the same warm feeling sitting around the table," says the cinematographer. "I used a lot of CTOs, and the lab kept everything on the warm side. I used tungsten even in daytime, interior and exterior."
The second part of the film covers the post-World War I years into the Nazi era, and focuses on Adam Sonnenschein, an Olympic fencer. "This is a very, very rich period in Europe, with new styles like Bauhaus and Art Deco," Koltai says. "We made more movement in this part of the movie, to go with the fencer's physicality, and we brought in new colors like red and lilac. But the island is the same." When several of the characters end up in a concentration camp, blue enters the film's lighting palette for the first time.
The third part of Sunshine takes place in the Communist era, which is represented primarily under the harsh light of uncorrected fluorescents. "The movie goes to a very cold area at the end," says the DP. "Everything now is like an office." The Sonnenschein family home is divided into apartments, and the wood-paneled dining room walls are painted white. But Harris' character, who is confined to one room in the house, recreates the "family island" there, with a smaller version of the table and the same warm light.
One other set serves as a similar microcosm of the changes undergone by 20th-century Budapest. "It's a cafe in an old hotel which is not functioning anymore," Koltai says of the location, where each of Fiennes' three characters meets with a woman he loves. "It's an island away from the family, with the same kind of warm, varnished wood background. I used a huge tungsten light to create the sunshine that comes in. But by the end of the movie, they have taken away half of the cafe for a buffet, and I used again the blue fluorescents. We put the woman [Deborah Kara Unger] against this background, but where Ralph Fiennes is sitting, it's still the warm interior, and there's a guy playing the harmonica. These two worlds are across the table from each other."
Sunshine was released in June by Paramount Classics.