Matthew Hisrich is a policy analyst with the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a free-market research and educational organization in Columbus, Ohio.
As Richard Weaver remarked in Ideas Have Consequences, “The typical modern has the look of the hunted. He senses that we have lost our grip upon reality. This, in turn, produces disintegration, and disintegration leaves impossible that kind of reasonable prediction by which men, in eras of sanity, are able to order their lives.”
Arguably, much of the twentieth century, barring an initial boom of optimism, was marked by a critique of the “modern man.”
The loss of something central to humanity’s core was lamented by literary figures from T. S. Eliot to Ernest Hemingway, as well as by a host of political and social philosophers. These days, all eyes seem focused on visions of the future, either predictions of progress and peace or fears of powerful new technologies. In such an environment, introspection can be hard to come by. Enter Sunshine, a recent critically acclaimed film (now on video) by director István Szabó, which stars Ralph Fiennes. Here the great tyrannical tragedies of the twentieth century are displayed as sobering reminders for the generations to come.
Sunshine tells the story of three generations of the Sonnenscheins—a Jewish family living in Hungary—with Fiennes playing the central character in each segment. The family suffers as power changes hands from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Nazis and then to the communists. “I have seen the collapse of government after government, and they all think they can last a thousand years. Each new one always declares the last one criminal and corrupt, and always promises a future of justice and freedom,” laments one of the movie’s characters, revealing the slowly gained awareness of political realities.
The three generations make every effort to accommodate each passing regime, casting a blind eye to the corruption and abuses around them. The movie is in large part about this natural tendency—Fiennes is neither a hero nor a moral monster. This is the depiction of individuals who want to find a place for themselves within society and who wish to belong, to succeed, and to fulfill a self-developed idea of who they are. The ability of groups to maintain power is less the mysterious enigma often contended and rather a more frightening proposition—the subtle manipulation of desires over time.
Political power found its ally among those in the twentieth century who, as Weaver suggested, had lost the foundation necessary to find meaning in other areas. Hayek states in The Road to Serfdom: “Probably it is true enough that the great majority are rarely capable of thinking independently, that on most questions they accept views which they find already-made, and that they will be equally content if born or coaxed into one set of beliefs or another.” Weaver’s image of the hunted finds a recurring place in Sunshine—the elites of each regime relieve the stress of their day jobs by hunting wild boars in an increasingly brutal manner. Hunting for animals, and later for scapegoats, provided the framework by which political leaders and their citizens led their lives. Unfortunately, as depicted in the film, the Jews suffered this role time and time again despite initial glimmers of hope from those newly in power.
The high note as the film closes is the arrival of democracy. Having represented humankind through a century of the state’s attempts to remold its citizens, the final Sonnenschein we encounter emerges with a wary optimism from the tyrannies of the past.
It is in reflecting on the lessons portrayed in Sunshine that we must ask ourselves whether we have truly advanced beyond those windblown modern men of old. If not, then perhaps an increasingly complacent allegiance to abstract democratic ideals may not prove sufficient to forestall a repetition of the last 100 years’ tragedies. A greater awareness of seemingly insignificant political shifts may be long overdue. “It may well be true that our generation talks and thinks too much of democracy,” Hayek reflects, “and too little of the values which it serves. Democratic control may prevent power from becoming arbitrary, but it does not do so by its mere existence.”