It’s starting all over again.
I felt as though I was running circles throughout László Nemes‘ sophomore effort Napszállta [Sunset]. It doesn’t help that we’re often inches from Írisz Leiter’s (Juli Jakab) face—if not looking through her very eyes—as she winds her way through an unfamiliar and just out of focus Budapest, Hungary. I speak more of the narrative propulsion and metaphorical implications of the whole, though. Here’s a young woman stubbornly interjecting her way into the lives of strangers and yet constantly walking off to chase a clue about her past. The man who should be skeptical of these unsupervised sojourns (Vlad Ivanov‘s Oszkár Brill) never is and instead ignores her mistrust while everyone else implores her to leave as quickly as she can. This is no place for innocence.
Budapest is where she was born, however, and she’s driven to get her foot in the door of the hat store bearing her name. Just as “Leiter” bestows the elegant hats sold on the premises with legitimacy and worth beyond compare, affixing it to this newcomer earns looks of shock and fear. Perhaps this reaction is due to her parents having died in a fire (from which Brill rebuilt the store and repositioned its name at the forefront of European opulence) or maybe it stems from the discovery that she isn’t the only Leiter left. No, there is another: a murderous brother this city has strove hard to forget. Írisz’s arrival therefore can’t help but bring about unease. Why return after so long? And why do so now?
Nemes and his co-writers (Clara Royer and Matthieu Taponier) have given this reunion at the cusp of World War I almost two-and-a-half hours to delve deep into its sumptuous production design and deafening aural soundscape of suspenseful melodies and indecipherable whispers. That’s a long time to be running around in circles and I won’t lie and say I didn’t find myself growing frustrated as a result. Rather than arise from the journey itself, that annoyance was born from the confusion of watching something that appeared to be real perpetually scream the opposite. This has less to do with the contrivance of so much occurring in such a short period of time that possesses a personal connection to Írisz than the almost looped, mechanical nature of everyone around her.
If you were to tell me Sunset was set in a “Westworld” type amusement park, I wouldn’t have batted an eye. That just goes to show how often Brill and his right-hand woman Zelma (Evelin Dobos) steward Írisz one way while the mysterious Sándor (Marcin Czarnik) and his right-hand man Nulla (Balázs Czukor) push her the other. This dynamic isn’t predicated solely on the choice between accomplishing her goals and finding this boogeyman of a brother to which someone finally gives a name: Kálmán. There’s an undercurrent of good versus evil as well wherein good is only viable through evil. And with an epilogue less about the future than the present, Írisz becomes innocence itself trapped in a world at war with no end in sight.
The ways in which Nemes and company draw their lead as a vessel who knows less than we do isn’t therefore accidental. How they seem to revel in providing scenes and interactions that give us pause enough to wonder if Írisz and Kálmán are one and the same isn’t either. You need to watch this film from a distance—ironic considering our faces are forever pushed against the screen by the camera’s proximity to the action and shallow depth of field. You must not watch and think it’s about a woman trying to figure out what’s going on beneath a façade of tenuous prosperity that’s been cracked to the point of breaking, but as the cyclical nature of mankind caught in a tug of war it cannot win.
She’s been away long enough to have been sheltered from the ways of that world while the other women working under Brill’s supervision were not. Some believe that he provides them the chance of escaping Budapest for the royal pastures of Vienna while others realize the danger such a move conjures. Nemes talks about Europe having committed suicide during the twentieth century and you can’t disagree considering how much of the world’s ills stemmed from the continent. Think of Leiter Hats as Europe then—a place that’s been destroyed and rebuilt with more darkness than before, one with people who follow orders in the hope of surviving an inevitable onslaught. In come outsiders with backroom deals to steal a portion, ravage it, and eventually return for more.
The animals are therefore heroes, the pristine conversely monsters laying in wait. Írisz arriving to be a witness of what’s on the horizon isn’t thus a coincidence, but an imperative. She can neither help the fall nor prevent it. She can’t take the place of those destined to be victims nor kill the ones who seek to do them harm. Everything is set in stone, Írisz locked in place as our eyes and ears while the world conspires around her and anticipates/demands the worst. Both sides wish she would choose and yet she can’t because her choice is life for those innocent pawns like her who always bear the brunt of war’s carnage. But their purpose is to die. They are the cost, participants, and memory.
It happened before, is about to happen again, and will keep happening until the end of time. Írisz is a casualty of one war who’s unwittingly thrust into another without a feasible entry point as far as understanding why she should also fight. Those around her are lambs leading themselves to slaughter because there’s no alternative or escape. We watch Írisz ignore multiple opportunities to leave merely because her interest gets piqued. She stays to find meaning like we all do. History repeats itself and we act surprised until we’re the ones holding the gun. It doesn’t matter how strong, determined, or knowledgeable she is—Írisz will succumb like everyone else. In the end we numb ourselves to the reality that war’s a part of who we are.
 Right: Juli Jakab as Irisz Leiter. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Left to right: Juli Jakab as Irisz Leiter, Vlad Ivanov as Oszkar Brill. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Center: Evelin Dobos as Zelma. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics