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Oppressive impressions: István Szabó’s Sunshine (1999), Jewish assimilation, the Shoah, and historical transition in twentieth-century Hungary

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  1. Introduction
  2. Istvan Szabo's Sunshine
  3. Reasons why the Jews were the favorite subjects
  4. Political divisions in the Jewish families
  5. Counter-revolutionary - White Terror
  6. The character of Adam Sors
  7. Hungary's attempt to the leave the war
  8. Ivan Sors vow of vengeance
  9. Conclusion
  10. Selected bibliography

István Szabó's 1999 film Sunshine depicts three generations of a Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century through the period after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Originally named ?Sonnenschein,? the aging patriarch Ignatz becomes a prominent judge but is faced with a moral dilemma when the government sanctions anti-Jewish prosecutions. Conversely, his son Adam changes the family surname to ?Sors? in order to advance his career as a sportsman, entering the Olympics as a champion fencer. After surviving the Shoah, revolution, loss and betrayal, the grandson Ivan realizes that his central allegiance is to himself and to his cultural and familial heritage. The film proceeds from wealth and prestige to poverty and oppression, absorbed with the time and political circumstances of Hungary. From the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef's liberal and booming Budapest through Admiral Miklós Horthy's impoverished counterrevolutionary Hungary in the 1920s and 1930s, to the German occupation and the Nazi-policies of the Holocaust, then to the post-World War II Stalinist regime, the film also portrays the anti-Soviet revolution of 1956, and, finally, to a neoliberal and cautiously prosperous post-Stalinist Hungary. The essay will explore the political themes and circumstances represented in Szabó's Sunshine (1999), analyzing the context of historical transition in east-central Europe; and will particularly focus on the experience of anti-Semitism (namely, the Shoah) and its consequences on Hungarian Jews; that is, the failure of Jewish assimilation.

[...] virtual golden age for the educated middle class in Hungary, and particularly for the rapidly growing Jewish bourgeoisie. By 1900, one of four persons in the Hungarian capital of Budapest was Jewish, and, while a minority in the overall population, Jews significantly occupied leading roles in industry, banking, the professions, the universities, and the arts [Brustein and King, 2004]. In fact, Jewish prominence in Hungarian society was such during the Austro-Hungarian empire that many Jews were able to make inroads into positions traditionally reserved for the Christian nobility. [...]

[...] Hungary attempted to leave the war by 1943, and the subsequent treatment of Jewish laborers considerably improved as army commanders realized the Jewish laborers were better disciplined and helpful than the Hungarian regular soldiers following the collapse of the Don front [Katzburg, 1981]. It was perceived that the Jewish presence had encouraged cruelty and corruption amongst the army, as soldiers would steal clothes and food from the Jews, and this was a significant factor in the Second Army turning into a rabble during the retreat more appropriately, rout) from the Don. [...]

[...] Szabó's Sunshine distinctly follows the effort of Jewish assimilation in Hungary before the disastrous events of the Shoah which would see its failure and the elimination of a majority of Hungarian Jews. The rage and backlash of the Soviet occupation would see further hardships for Jewish and Christian Hungarians, ultimately resulting in a sense of disillusion and resignation following the failed October Revolution of 1956. Drawing upon the experience of the Jewish minority in Hungary in the first half of the twentieth century, Sunshine parallels the drift from cosmopolitan refinement and urbane sophistication represented by the tolerance and success of the Habsburg Dual Monarchy to the disintegration following the loss of the Great War and the disastrous four decades (as represented in the film). [...]

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