The song "Gloomy Sunday" was written by two Hungarians in 1935. A year later, the melancholy ballad was linked with an outbreak of suicides. An American version was recorded by Billie Holiday. The song was eventually banned.
This engrossing German film directed by Rolf Schubel is based on the book Gloomy Sunday by Nick Barkow. It begins with the 80th birthday celebration of a rich and powerful German businessman in his favorite Budapest restaurant. After asking that the violinist play the song connected with the place, music that mesmerized him as a young man, he suddenly dies of a heart attack. In a flashback, we are taken to the 1930s when the restaurant is run by Lazlo Szabo (Joachim Krol), a Jewish entrepreneur who has a keen appreciation for fine food, beauty, and sexual pleasure.
He is madly in love with the alluring Ilona (Erika Marozsan), the hospitable hostess in the restaurant. When they both decide that they need a pianist, Andras (Stefano Dionisi) is hired. Having no claim on Ilona's private life, Lazlo is not surprised when she begins an affair with the handsome newcomer. Andras then composes "Gloomy Sunday" for her, and it soon becomes a favorite among the patrons of the restaurant. Lazlo helps the young man sell it to a record company, and soon it is on the radio along with a commercial for the restaurant. Ilona decides to share her love and body with both men, and for a while they all seem to be happy. But the bittersweet nature of "Gloomy Sunday" leads many Hungarians to commit suicide.
The other central character in this moody drama is Mr. Wieck (Ben Becker), an ambitious young German who falls under Ilona's spell and rashly proposes to her. When she turns him down, he plunges into the Danube and is saved by Lazlo. Years later, Wieck returns to his favorite restaurant as a leading Nazi officer. For large sums or money or jewelry, he arranges safe passage for Hungarian Jews to Switzerland. Although he is beholden to Lazlo for once saving his life, he has a few surprises in store for him. But it is Ilona who surprises Wieck when he least expects it. Gloomy Sunday is a well-acted drama about the trinity of love, death, and the grace moments that make life worth the wear of living.