“Son of Saul”, the Holocaust film of László Nemes Jeles, is certainly on its way to becoming film history. After its success at Cannes the film has not slowed down one bit. Just this month it won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and was nominated in the same category for the Oscars. However it seems that there are many in Hungary who are not so satisfied with this success.
The main news in the past one year in the Hungarian film industry has been the triumphant march of “Son of Saul”, the first feature-length film of László Nemes Jeles. The film, which tells the story of a member of the Sonderkommando working in Auschwitz, became the centre of international attention right after its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2015.
Although it was shown early in the competition, one week later towards the end of the festival it was still the biggest phenomenon. Critics and film professionals complimented its new approach and breathtaking cinematic style, as well as the outstanding sound design. Therefore it was no surprise that it won the FIPRESCI prize, which is given by the international press, and the Grand Prix, the second-most prestigious prize after the Palme d’Or.
Ever since then the film has premiered in around 40 other countries (and the number is growing every day), winning countless awards and critical admiration. It was the first Hungarian film ever to win a Golden Globe, and now we await the Academy Awards in February.
After such a great success one couldn’t possibly imagine the rage this film has caused in Hungary. Following the publishing of the first articles after the Golden Globes, there were immediately hundreds of comments all over the internet stating this is not a Hungarian success, but a Jewish one.
The most surprising was the comment tsunami on the Facebook page of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who congratulated the authors of the film and film commissioner Andy Vajna, the head of the Hungarian National Film Fund, for winning the Golden Globe.
Under Orbán’s post one of his followers said: “This is not a Hungarian film. It is Jewish! Huge difference.” Others called it Jewish propaganda, such as: “If you create anything based upon the lie that they call Holocaust and it meets the expectations of the Zionists it will always be a major success.” or “Made by the Jews for the Jews.”
There were many others saying that a film about Trianon would be a film for Hungarians, but such a film – or any other about major Hungarian traumas – would never be made and, even if it were, it wouldn’t win any award.
However this rage was also expressed in most newspaper articles, where there were countless anti-Semitic comments. Although Holocaust denial is illegal in Hungary, one of the commenters said: “I didn’t even know that they also give out the Golden Globes for Science Fictions.” Even the more considerate voices claimed that this film is not for Hungarians and it is not about Hungarians; some even found it offensive.
After such rage it was inevitable that the crew had to respond at the press conference held after the Academy Award nomination. Zoltán Vági, who was consulted by the film-makers as a historian, said: “Fiction-realism, this is how I would call this type of film. Everything in this film is like it was in Birkenau in 1944, but the story of ‘Son of Saul’ is fiction, Saul is a fictive character but everything very strongly resembles how it looked like back then. We made a film about the faith of 430,000 Hungarian people. This film will influence the way generations think about the Holocaust.”
László Nemes said: “Reading such comments in such a situation is like going to a concert, recording the concert, and then editing all the coughing together and listening to that.”
He said the Holocaust has become an abstraction, which is problematic: “We lost the individual in the Holocaust. Our films always tell collective stories about surviving. It seems to be a new approach that this can be experienced as an individual.
“I talked to many people in different countries after the screening, who said they were worried about this film and who feared it will shock them. And they were very thankful to us for making this kind of film because this was very different than what they had imagined.”
But still there is a strange taste of all this in the view of the comments written by many Hungarians. Because they show that anti-Semitism in Hungary wasn’t just a phenomenon of the 20th century, but this resentment against everything Jewish is still there in the depths of Hungarian society even in the beginning of the 21st century.
It is lying dormant in the subconscious or driving the pen while writing internet comments.