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article image'Son of Saul': Film on Holocaust hell earns Oscar

By Peter Murphy (AFP)     Feb 29, 2016 in Entertainment

"Son of Saul" -- whose Oscar for best foreign language film Sunday adds to a string of accolades for the Hungarian movie -- pulls the viewer right into the hell of the Holocaust.

It tells the story of two days in 1944 in a German death camp where Saul Auslander, a Hungarian Jew forced to burn corpses in a crematorium, believes he has discovered his son amid the bodies, and endeavours to give him a proper burial.

While Saul -- played by newcomer Geza Rohrig, a New York-based Hungarian -- toils at the epicentre of the Holocaust inferno, the viewer follows him around the camp, seeing what he sees, much of the action blurred in the background.

"It is a pure film, intelligent," French director Claude Lanzmann, who made the acclaimed Holocaust documentary "Shoah" (1985), said last month, calling it "a monument for the Jews of Hungary".

The Oscar win caps a remarkable 12 months for rookie director Laszlo Nemes after "Son of Saul" won Hungary's first ever Golden Globe in January as well as the Grand Prix at Cannes last year.

"Even in the darkest hours of mankind, there might be a voice within us that allows us to remain human. That's the hope of this film," Nemes told the Oscars audience at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.

The film bested Colombia's "Embrace of the Serpent," French movie "Mustang," "Theeb" from Jordan, and Denmark's "A War" for the Oscar.

- 'Visually different' -

Shot and projected on 35-millimetre film, a rarity in modern cinema, the director told AFP last year that he wanted to do something "visually different" and "innovative" with the Holocaust period.

Director Laszlo Nemes accepts the award for Foreign Language film  Son of Saul on stage at the 88th ...
Director Laszlo Nemes accepts the award for Foreign Language film, Son of Saul on stage at the 88th Oscars
Mark Ralston, AFP

"It has been treated so many times, often with stereotypes, and as much emotion or drama packed in as possible," he said.

"But in a sense, the killings went on in silence, the harshness was often subdued."

After the Oscars nomination was announced last month, Zoltan Vagi, a historian who worked on the film, told reporters in Budapest that its sense of immersion is key to the movie's success.

"Watching it, many times I felt that I am right there in the film," he said.

As well as movies like "The Pawnbroker" (1964) by Sidney Lumet, and Elem Klimov's "Come and See" (1985), Nemes said Lanzmann's "Shoah" was also a key reference source which "fuelled the emotional background" for the movie.

Hungary's first Oscar contender in 28 years, "Son of Saul" is the first Hungarian film to win an Oscar since Istvan Szabo's "Mephisto" in 1982.

It has also become the most successful Magyar movie ever in America, bringing in over $1 million in box-office revenue so far.

At home, where mainstream big-budget movies rarely draw audiences of more than 100,000, over 140,000 have seen it so far, making it the highest grossing Hungarian film since a comedy blockbuster six years ago.

- Dissenting voices -

The positive reception by most Hungarian critics and audiences has however been tempered by some dissenting voices.

Saul -- played by newcomer Geza Rohrig  a New York-based Hungarian -- toils at the epicentre of the ...
Saul -- played by newcomer Geza Rohrig, a New York-based Hungarian -- toils at the epicentre of the Holocaust inferno
Valerie Macon, AFP

A politician from the far-right Jobbik party wrote on Facebook that "Son of Saul" was part of "a booming Holocaust industry" and said films should rather focus on other parts of Hungary's history.

Nemes told AFP in the interview last year that he feels Hungarians have not properly dealt with the trauma of the Holocaust, during which some 600,000 Hungarian Jews perished, almost all after Nazi Germany invaded in March 1944.

"Every kid should watch it," he said last month. "Not because the cinemas should be full, but that many of them lack empathy."

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