May 28, 2015 / 5:57 PM / 2 years ago

Hungary Cannes sensation may help country face dark past

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - 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.

Director of the film "Son of Saul" Laszlo Nemes (L) smiles during a news conference in Budapest, Hungary, May 28, 2015. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

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 Two 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.

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. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

Surveys show Hungarian anti-Semitism at a persistently high level and the far-right Jobbik party, which has capitalised on that sentiment, is the main challenger of the ruling centre-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 mesmerising performance as Saul, said Hungarians were growing immune to the suffering of people they see as different, be they Jews or Roma gipsies.

Lead actor of the film "Son of Saul" Geza Rohrig (R) gestures before a news conference in Budapest, Hungary, May 28, 2015. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

“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,” Rohrig said.

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 labourers as accomplices, whilst 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 Gabor 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.”

Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Michael Roddy and Angus MacSwan

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