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Hungary Cannes Sensation May Help Country Face Dark Past

  • Reuters

Scriptwriter Clara Royer (L-R), director Laszlo Nemes and lead actor Geza Rohrig attend a news conference for the film "Son of Saul" in Budapest, Hungary, May 28, 2015.

Scriptwriter Clara Royer (L-R), director Laszlo Nemes and lead actor Geza Rohrig attend a news conference for the film "Son of Saul" in Budapest, Hungary, May 28, 2015.

The makers of the award-winning Hungarian film Son of Saul said on Thursday they want as many Hungarians as possible to see it in a country that has been plagued by anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

The film -- the tale of a Jewish "Sonderkommando" death camp worker who finds a corpse he believes is his son's and sets his mind to burying him amid the horrors -- won the jury's Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival this month.

It will be released in at least 48 countries this year, its producers said.

Director and screenwriter Laszlo Nemes told reporters that his first feature film was partly a testament to hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews killed during World War II after Hungarians cooperated with the Nazis in their deportation.

He quoted a text message from the film's historical consultant, Zoltan Vagi, who wrote that Hungary had a lot to atone for.

The message said Hungary set a European record by sending 430,000 Jews to Birkenau within eight weeks in 1944, among them more than 100,000 children.

"This film is about Saul's drive to give one Hungarian child of the 100,000 a proper, honest burial," he said.

Surveys show Hungarian anti-Semitism at a persistently high level and the far-right Jobbik party, which has capitalized on that sentiment, is the main challenger of the ruling center-right Fidesz party.

The government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has declared a zero-tolerance policy against anti-Semitism, but has displayed signs of xenophobia and radicalization itself.

Geza Rohrig, an amateur actor who gives a mesmerizing performance as Saul, said Hungarians were growing immune to the suffering of people they see as different, be they Jews or Roma gypsies.

"I want as many people as possible to watch this film as I believe Hungarians, for some time now, have ignored the pain of certain other people," said Rohrig.

The filmmakers rejected criticism that they depicted the Sonderkommando in an overly understanding way, saying they worked painstakingly to remain faithful to facts. Some accounts see the Sonderkommando forced laborers as accomplices, while others say they had a choice between working or certain death.

Asked about Jobbik, whose vice chairman said films about the Holocaust were not worthy of receiving public funds, which helped finance Nemes's movie, the filmmakers were reluctant to discuss current affairs.

"We made the movie," producer Abhor Simon said. "What kind of waves it makes at home ... we agree on what effect the waves should have, but we would rather stay out of direct politics. Let's see how the waves splash, which it seems they do."

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