Tag Archives: Nobel Prize

“Son of Saul” and its reception by the Hungarian right

A month ago Medián conducted a survey on the current state of anti-Semitism in Hungary. This was Medián’s fourth such survey since 2006, and the results are not exactly heartwarming. During this period Medián measured the number of extreme and moderate anti-Semites as well as those who are free of anti-Jewish prejudice. The good news is that the number of extreme and moderate anti-Semites dropped from 38% to 32% between 2013 and 2014, but of course this is still way too high in comparison to the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, or Denmark, although it is more in line with some other Western European countries such as France and Spain. For a handy comparison, see the Anti-Defamation League’s Global 100.

Jobbik, Hungary’s neo-Nazi party, is well known as a racist organization which has two arch-enemies, the Jews and the Roma. Although Gábor Vona, the party leader, believes that the party ought to move more to the center of the ideological spectrum to attract larger popular support, many members of the top leadership are staunch anti-Semites who have serious reservations about the new strategy. Moreover, as the Medián survey illustrates, 75% of Jobbik voters are also anti-Semitic.

It is difficult to keep the Jobbik party members in line, especially when there is a hot topic that stirs up the Hungarian anti-Semitic crowd–in this case, the new film “Son of Saul,” which just won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.

No one, except for the people at Cannes, have seen the film yet, but critics find it exceptional. For example, “no single entry in this year’s competition impressed more than first-time Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes’ ‘Son of Saul,'” or “‘remarkable’ may not do Laszlo Nemes’ holocaust drama ‘Son of Saul’ justice.” By all indications, the film might be a strong contender for next year’s Oscar.

László Nemes, director of Son of Saul in Cannes

László Nemes, director of Son of Saul, in Cannes

But the far-right crowd, including some of the leaders of Jobbik, are not at all happy. They were already outraged when Imre Kertész won the Nobel Prize for his book “Fateless” in 2002. As far as they were concerned, the book was not good literature and Kertész received the prize only because the Holocaust is a theme guaranteed to garner acclaim in literature as well as in the film industry.

László Nemes, the young director of the film, tried to get money for the production from all over the world, but in the end it was the Hungarian government’s fund for the arts that underwrote 75% of the project. When the funding decision was made in 2013, Előd Novák, one of the most outspoken anti-Semites of Jobbik, complained bitterly. He pointed out that this was the second film on the Hungarian Holocaust that had been paid for by the Hungarian government. The first one, directed by Lajos Koltai, was based on Kertész’s book (2005). Novák grumbled that “Fateless” had received 920 million forints, and now another Holocaust film was getting 205 million. Moreover, the committee also allocated 4.5 million forints for the development of a movie script (“The Lawyer”) about the trial of the Jews accused of ritual murder in Tiszaeszlár in 1882, “naturally written from the point of view of the lawyer who defended the Jews.” Instead of such films, he argued, the Hungarian government should support films about national heroes and great moments in Hungarian history–for example, the Battle of Pozsony (Pressburg/Bratislava) of 907 or the Ragged Guard (Rongyos gárda) that defended the western borders of Hungary in 1921. Novák called all this interest in the events of 1944 no more than “Holocaust industry.”

Novák is not impressed by the success of “Son of Saul.” He wrote on his Facebook page a couple of days ago : “Now they expect me to fall on my face because of the international success of the Hungarian Holocaust film. But it is not merely a joke to say that the greatest holiday of the Jews is the day the Oscars are given out…. Kate Winslet confessed that she decided to take a role in a Holocaust movie because then an Oscar is guaranteed. Earlier she had been nominated four times, but didn’t win once.” Winslet received the Oscar for her role in “The Reader” (2008).

For the government and its supporters, the fact that it was a government grant that made the production of “Son of Saul” possible comes in very handy. A group of right-wingers on HírTV who discussed the film had difficulty mustering enthusiasm for the prize and often referred to the Holocaust as a theme that guarantees critical success. One of the participants thought that “picking the Holocaust as his subject was a clever move on the part of a first-time director.” But, however critical they might be, they argued that the production of a film about the Holocaust “proves that there is no anti-Semitism in Hungary.”

György Dörner, the far-right director of Új Színház whose appointment by Mayor István Tarlós was accompanied by demonstrations and protests, expressed his hope that László Nemes’s next film will be about that great battle between Árpád and the Bavarians in 907. Előd Novák’s views on the real task of the Hungarian film industry must have made a great impression on Dörner.

The Orbán government is trying to change the general perception that it doesn’t do enough to combat anti-Semitism in the country. Today I read with astonishment that from here on students at the Péter Pázmány Catholic University will be required to take a course on the Holocaust. Keep in mind that the Catholic University is an institution close to the heart of policy makers. The rector of the university explained that he had been impressed by the view of Israeli Ambassador Ilan Mor that days of remembrance are not enough, that something new and different is needed to make a real impact. The one-semester course will be called “The Holocaust and Remembrance.” It seems that there is already a compulsory course called “Introduction to Catholic Teaching.” The right-wing reaction to the Catholic University’s decision is predictable.

As for “Son of Saul,” once it is available for public viewing, I suspect there will be a very serious discussion about the accuracy of its depiction of Saul as a member of the camp’s Sonderkommando. One such article already appeared in mandiner.hu.

The Orbán government bestows the Order of St. Stephen on Imre Kertész

A couple of days ago a stunned Hungarian public learned that the Orbán government will bestow on Imre Kertész, the sole Hungarian Nobel Prize winning author who until now has been the target of scorn from the far right and the object of studied neglect on the part of Fidesz, the highest state decoration, the Order of St. Stephen.

In November 2011 I wrote a post entitled “New Hungarian regime, new or not so new decorations.” The Order of St. Stephen was established by Maria Theresa in 1776, and it was abolished in 1946 when Hungary was declared a republic. Actually, no Order of St. Stephen was given out between 1920 and 1940 because by law the Grand Master of the Order had to be the Hungarian king. So for twenty years Horthy did not feel at liberty to bestow the order. By 1940, however, he no longer had any compunctions about taking over the role of the king. Once the order was reestablished, the recipients included Joachim von Ribbentrop, German foreign minister; Gian Galeazzo Ciano, Italian foreign minister and son-in-law of Mussolini; and Hermann Göring, marshall of the German Reich. It is this order Imre Kertész that will receive–and this company that he will keep.

It is difficult not to suspect that the Hungarian government’s sudden interest in Imre Kertész has something to do with Viktor Orbán’s efforts to improve his self-image abroad after the fiasco of the Holocaust Memorial Year. How many people will he manage to fool? I have the feeling not too many. The whole scheme is so obvious and cheap when, for example, only a few weeks ago Viktor Orbán was ready to appoint the anti-Semitic Péter Szentmihályi Szabó to be Hungarian ambassador to Rome, the same man who consistently called Kertész “Imre Kertész” instead of using the proper Hungarian word order “Kertész Imre,” indicating that he does not consider him to be a Hungarian.

I suspect, and I’m sure that I am not the only one, that it is Mária Schmidt who is behind this devilish idea. She “discovered” the deeply anti-communist Imre Kertész. Last Thursday Heti Válasz published a fairly lengthy article by her about the greatness of Imre Kertész, which bears little resemblance to the Kertész most of us know. The Hungarian original is not yet available, but thanks to the website Mandiner an English translation of it made its appearance online.

But before I talk about the Schmidt essay I should say a few things about Kertész’s attitude toward Hungary. Kertész has lived in Berlin for ten years. He loves the city and is grateful to the German reading public that discovered him. He also appreciates Germany’s efforts to face the country’s past as opposed to his own country’s reluctance to take even partial responsibility for what happened in Hungary during the spring and summer of 1944. He went so far as to deposit his archives in Germany instead of Hungary.

Kertész’s 2007 visit to the Bundestag: “I feel that people understand me better here.”
Source: AFP Photo Axel Schmidt

Given the fact that Kertész is a very ill man–he is in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease–it is difficult to know how much he understands about what’s happening around him. It is highly unlikely that he will be able to receive the highest Hungarian decoration in person. In the last two years he has not appeared in public. One thing is sure. In 2012 when he gave an interview to Florence Noiville of Le Monde, which was republished in part in The Guardian, he had a very bad opinion of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. He was dismayed by the Hungarian people’s enthusiasm for Orbán. He felt that “the current situation is nothing but a further illustration of that tendency [of Hungary] to choose wrong.” After talking about Orbán’s anti-EU attitudes and about the majority of Hungarian young people at the university who sympathize with the extreme right, he concluded that “Hungarians are holding on to their destiny. They will undoubtedly end up failing, without understanding why.”

As for the official attitude toward him, Kertész was aware that some of his right-wing friends kept in touch with him only in secret. “It not well seen for them to be friendly with me. Remember the unleashing violence when I won the Nobel Prize–people were angry to see me become the only Hungarian Nobel when I was not glorifying “Hungarian-ness. After my novel Someone Other, I was attacked because of my dark portrayal of the country. Some even wondered if I was a real Hungarian writer….”

In January 2013 an article appeared in The New Yorker entitled “The Frightening Hungarian Crackdown” by Hari Kunzru, himself a writer. When Kunzru heard about Kertész’s decision to house his archives not in Hungary but in Germany, he thought it was “a profound gesture of reconciliation.” The friend corrected him:

I’m afraid there is something more to it: he has also good reasons to believe that in Hungary his legacy wouldn’t be treated with as much respect as in Germany, as he is regarded by the current political elite as an “unHungarian” and then I’ve been euphemistic. For example, currently his work is not part of the Hungarian national education program, due to some changes in school material in which, at the same time, three famously antisemitic writers have been included.

The article ends with these words:

Hungary remains in a wistful, toxic relationship with the nineteen-thirties, with a fantasy of Jewish conspiracy and national moral decline. As the memory of the iron curtain fades and Europe recenters itself, Hungary’s fascist resurgence should be a matter of concern for all. Kertész’s own reaction is to quote Karl Kraus: “The situation is desperate, but not serious.”

All in all, it is unlikely that Kertész would accept any kind of decoration from Viktor Orbán’s government if he were in perfect mental health. Mária Schmidt and Viktor Orbán are taking advantage of an old, sick man.

To justify honoring Kertész Schmidt paints a very different portrait of his views. She uses three sources. All three appeared in the last few years when Kertész was not entirely himself. When he said a few things that perhaps were not only not fair but were dictated by resentment and suspicion of his liberal friends. In typical Schmidt manner, she presents a one-sided image of a very complex man by concentrating on a small segment of his output. She picks statements of Kertész which to her mind supports her own highly flawed thesis of the Holocaust. She is using Kertész’s Nobel Prize winning novel, Fateless, to justify her own House of Fates. Despicable.

Tomorrow I will give a taste of Schmidt’s revisionist description of Imre Kertész.