Hungarian rhapsody

Brian D. Johnson November 2 1998

Hungarian rhapsody

Brian D. Johnson November 2 1998

Hungarian rhapsody


It is a chilling experience to walk out of the soft drizzle of an October morning in Budapest and step into Nazi Germany. Inside the National Arena, a drab relic of Stalinism in the Hungarian capital, enormous red banners emblazoned with black swastikas drape the walls. Between them are the five Olympic rings with the words “Berlin 1936.” A thousand extras fill the stands, the majority costumed as Nazi SS officers—a mass of black uniforms and red swastika armbands. Below them, on the arena floor, Ralph Fiennes is fencing.

The movie is The Taste of Sunshine, an epic drama that Canadian producer Robert Lantos is filming in his Hungarian birthplace. The scene is a fencing tournament at the Berlin Olympics. And Fiennes plays a Hungarian swordsman about to win a gold medal. The director, Hungarian veteran Istvan Szabo, strolls the floor of the arena, a wireless microphone in his hand, and hushes the extras. A beat of dead quiet. Then Szabo sets his actors

Brian D. Johnson

in motion with a gentle command, first in Hungarian, then English: uTessék ... please.”

Fiennes, a slim figure in white breeches and tunic, slips his fencing mask over his face. He advances on his adversary in a volley of quick, rabbity steps, his body rigidly erect, like a chess piece on wheels. The swords clash twice—clak clak. Then, with a cry of victory, Fiennes lands the goldmedal hit on his opponent’s shoulder. On cue, the extras in the upper bleachers, those dressed as Hungarian civilians, burst into cheers, hugging each other and waving their flags. The ranks of Nazi officers applaud politely. Fiennes flings his mask into the air as the men playing his teammates leap from the bench and hoist him over their heads.

“Cut.” The illusion collapses. A crew member sprays some fake sweat onto the star’s face. His hair is adjusted. They shoot the scene again, and again. With each take, Fiennes is more jubilant, throwing his mask higher and higher until it almost hits the lights. There is

something unsettling about it all—to be sitting in Budapest, on the set of a Canadian production, watching an English movie star play a Hungarian fencer giddy with triumph in Hitler’s Germany, unaware that, as a Jew, he is destined to perish in a Nazi death camp.

The Taste of Sunshine is a huge saga about three generations of the Sonnenschein family, a Hungarian-Jewish clan locked in a camouflage battle with history. Set against the cataclysms of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Holocaust and Communist dictatorship, it tracks the fortunes of three men— grandfather, father and son—all of whom are portrayed by Fiennes. The first is Ignatz, a judge who changes his Jewish name to advance his career. His son, Adam, converts to Catholicism to win a spot on the fencing team, only to die in the Holocaust. The grandson, Ivan, joins the Communist secret police to avenge his death, then runs afoul of Stalinist antiSemitism. Along the way, each man’s life is complicated by an illicit romance.

The making of the film is itself a remarkable saga, a tale of identity lost and found. First, it is the story of Robert Lantos, a Canadian mogul striking out on his own to fulfil a lifelong dream. This $25-million epic marks his first production since he quit as chairman and CEO of Alliance in the recent merger with Atlantis that created Alliance Atlantis. In Budapest, Lantos reveals another side of himself—a Hungarian Jew going back to his roots and helping à his friend and compatriot, Szabo, the Oscar-winning 8 auteur of Mephisto and Colonel Redi, direct the most I ambitious and personal film of his career. Taste of I Sunshine is also the story of Molly Parker, a superb young Canadian actress getting a taste of stardom. One of three Canadians in the cast—along with Deborah Kara Unger (Crash) and Sir John Neville (Adventures of Baron Munchausen)—Parker plays

opposite Fiennes as the fencer’s wife (page 98).

Finally, this is the story of Fiennes, an enigmatic star resisting the lure of Hollywood. After his career hit a nasty speed bump last summer with The Avengers, Szabo’s film takes the British actor back to the kind of serious fare that served him so well as the smouldering Count Almasy in The English Patient. Once again, oddly enough, he is playing a misunderstood Hungarian—three of them, in fact—in another period tragedy about tortured national identity. Shooting for five months in Europe at a fraction of his Hollywood fee, Fiennes, 35, is attempting the sort of tour de force that should enhance his reputation as the new Olivier.

It is 9 a.m. on the set of Sunshine. The star, having just been through hair and makeup, has retired to his trailer, where he sits at a table in a striped terry-cloth robe, half-open to reveal a pale, slender chest. With his thin hair slicked back, and a narrow stick-on moustache, he looks like Valentino. He is a waxen, ethereal presence. On the table are several bottles of vitamins. The walls are pasted with old black-and-white photos of Hungarian Jews, inspiration for his characters.

Fiennes is not one for small talk. He is almost unbearably intense, speaking with a self-effacing erudition that lets perfectly formed sentences slip out almost under his breath. At times his silky voice is barely audible. It has the quicksand cadence of the English intellectual who lives in constant terror of sounding presumptuous. Much of the time Fiennes stares at the floor, laboriously scraping away the veneer of the table with a fingernail. Occasionally he looks up to register a touch of irony, the way a fencer lands a hit, and when he does, his sea-blue eyes have such a halogen intensity that it is no wonder he keeps averting his gaze. Fiennes talks about fencing. He has adopted the

Canadian mogul Robert Lantos returns to his birthplace to make an epic starring Ralph Fiennes


sport with a passion. For the role of Adam, he had to learn to fence left-handed. Studying with a former coach of the French Olympic team, he quickly became proficient and now takes lessons each night for his own pleasure. “It’s like playing chess with your whole body at high speed without having time to think,” he says. “I’ve done all that swashbuckling stuff onstage—showy sword fighting. That had to be exorcised out of me. It’s completely useless because it signals everything. You’d be dead in fencing terms by the time you lifted your arm up.” In fencing, he adds, “everything has to be minimalist so people can’t read what you’re going to do.”

In his best work, Fiennes is equally inscrutable.

Casting him as the compromised TV contestant Charles Van Doren in Quiz Show, Robert Redford said that, in the actor’s eyes, he found the “shadg owed, haunted, wounded” quality he was looking g for—“something dark and tricky.” Reminded of the £ quote, Fiennes looks nonplussed. “I don’t think of myself as haunted and shadowy. But as an actor, I’m always interested in characters that are conflicted.

Uncertainty in people is interesting, fallibility and ambivalence. I always wanted to play Hamlet, and he’s literally haunted.”

When Fiennes did do Hamlet, on the London stage in 1995, art and life weirdly intertwined. He fell in love with British actress Francesca Annis, who was playing Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, in an archly Oedipal interpretation of the play. The following year, Fiennes left his wife, actress Alex Kingston (Dr. Elizabeth Corday on ER), for Annis, who is 17 years his senior. The tabloids had a field day with the whole messy affair, and now—sitting with this actor whose distaste for interviews is legendary—it does not seem wise to even broach the subject.

However, Fiennes takes no offence when asked about the disastrous fate of The Avengers. “I tried to play someone who is not remotely conflicted,” he says. “The impression I get is that I didn’t succeed.” In The Avengers, Fiennes was cast as the consummate English gentleman. But he seems more at home playing men whose national identity is a riddle, as in The Taste of Sunshine.

His character in The English Patient, he explains, “was a faux Englishman, a man trying to be English. This film is about Jews trying to be Hungarian. What’s interesting about the script is you come away from it thinking, What is a national character?’ I don’t even know what the English character is. I know what the cliché is. And the cliché of the Hungarian is the moustachioed Magyar on his horse, slightly macho. Then there are all these clichés of what it is to be a Jew. And that seems to be a minefield to get into what that is.” Five years after his harrowing portrayal of Nazi commandant Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, Fiennes is now playing a man on the other side of the barbed wire. “I remember trying to comprehend what made the character in Schindler’s List do what he did,” he says, “and I don’t have any clear answer. I tried to be as informed as I could ... I can’t even begin to...” He is at a loss for words. “One can read books and see pictures and learn horrendous facts. But I don’t feel I’m qualified to talk about the Holocaust. Even the greatest minds who have studied it are ultimately baffled by it.”

Late afternoon. The crew is wrapping a scene outside Budapest’s 16th-century Kiraly Baths, one of the last relics from the days of the Ottoman Empire. Lantos has just arrived, fresh off the plane from Toronto. Unshaven, clad in a black leather jacket, smoking a cigar, he walks around the set as if he owns it, which he does. Buzzed on jet lag, he claims he is not tired. “I feel great,” he says. “I came straight in from the airport. I always love arriving in this city.” He points to a church with a custard-yellow wall. “I

Sunshine is a tale of love, war and genocide

love that color—you don’t find it anywhere else.” Lantos is curious to look inside the Kiraly Baths, a landmark he has never visited. Budapest’s various thermal baths are tourist attractions, but they are mostly frequented by old men who like to sit and chat, poaching their bodies to egg-white in the sulphur pools. Inside the entrance of the Kiraly Baths, however, there is a large crowd of young men waiting to get in. Lantos, Szabo, the cinematographer and the production manager use their VIP clout to jump the queue. Fully clothed, they troop down humid corridors, past rooms where burly masseurs rub down wet bodies.

An attendant hands the visitors cellophane booties to slip over their shoes as they descend to the thermal pool. The area is thronged with young nude men who are clearly cruising: it appears to be gay happy hour at Kiraly. The main pool, the same round stone bath where the Turks soaked 400 years ago, sits under the murk of a dome pierced by narrow slits of light. It is like a stone igloo, with a low tunnel-like entrance. One by one the film-makers squat down and poke their heads in. A bizarre sight.

The next day, Lantos arranges to meet for lunch in Budapest’s old Jewish quarter, the neighborhood where he was born and raised. He chooses a restaurant he knew as a child. It is more upmarket now, but still pretty basic. He orders beer, matzo-ball soup, baked beans with egg, and an appetizer of bone marrow—sections of bone that squat on the plate like little tree stumps. He scoops out the fatty marrow, spreads it on toast and smothers it with paprika. “It’s really bad for you,” he says. “But some things you have to have because they bring back a taste you remember from when you were three years old.”

This is a far cry from Lantos the bourgeois impresario, known for staging lavish Alliance parties with champagne, sushi, lamb and lobster. Showing off his Hungarian roots may be an equally calculated act of hospitality, but the sentiment seems genuine. Lantos is an only child. His mother, Agnes, was an upper-middle-class girl who dreamt of going to university and joining the Olympic swim team— until a Nazi edict banned Jews from both. His father, Laszlo, was a garage mechanic from a poor family. He built a trucking company that was confiscated by the Nazis. Sent to a labor camp on the Russian front, Laszlo escaped being shot by fleeing into the woods. After the war, he rebuilt the trucking business, only to see it nationalized by the Communists. In 1958, when Robert was 9, the family moved to Uruguay, and to Canada in 1963.

Lantos has kept up with his Hungarian roots. The first movie he


produced, 1977’s In Praise of Older Women, was based on the novel by Hungarian-born Stephen Vizinczey. For years, he has worked closely with Hungarian-Canadian Andras Hamori, Sunshine's coproducer, who is the president of Alliance Pictures. And now, with Sunshine, Lantos’s first movie set in his native land, he brings his career full circle. After spending two decades building his Alliance empire, and finally divesting himself of it—cashing in his chips for an estimated $30 million—the man some Canadian industry types sarcastically call “the Great Helmsman” is learning to relax.

“I can’t believe it’s taken so long to get myself into this position,” Lantos sighs. “I’m rediscovering how to breathe. This is the first trip I’ve taken where I wasn’t on my cell phone until the plane door closed.” Tomorrow, he says, he will drive into the country, to a vast organic farm on the shores of Lake Balaton. There, he will visit his first cousin Peter Letai, better known as Swami Sivarama, a prominent leader of Europe’s Hare Krishna movement. “We’re like brothers,” says Lantos. “He and I were born in the same hospital room three days apart.”

Neither has siblings. They grew up together, went to McGill University in Montreal together, and now their mothers live together in Toronto’s Forest Hills Village.

It is hard to imagine Lantos—a beefy, ebullient, pleasure-loving entrepreneur— even in the same room with a Hare Krishna devotee. “He is a really happy guy,” says the producer. “He lives in a spiritual world where there is no anxiety. But he’s a big deal in the movement, and now he complains to me he’s become a manager.

After we announced the deal, he sent me an e-mail saying, ‘I long to do the same thing, to shed myself of administrative duties and go back to my roots.’ ”

Lantos, however, does not seem on the verge of shaving his head and wearing saffron robes. In Toronto, he is setting up his own boutique production house,

Serendipity Point Films, which has a four-year distribution deal with Alliance Atlantis. The movies he has in development include: an adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version scripted by the author; The Statement, based on Brian Moore’s novel; 15 Moments, a comedy about fashion models directed by Denys Arcand; No Other Life, a political drama by Costa-Gavras; a remake of The Count of Monte Cristo by Roman Polanski; plus new features directed by Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg and John Woo.

The Taste of Sunshine, meanwhile, fulfils a long-standing ambition to work with his friend Szabo. Says Lantos: “He kept on telling me that before we could do a film together, he had to do this mini-series for German television. Finally one night, four years ago, sitting in this very restaurant, he told me the story of the Sonnenscheins. When I heard it, I cried. So he gave me his script. It was this mammoth thing, over 400 pages in Hungarian.” After reading it, “I told him, This is the most important thing of your life. Why would you want to waste it on German television?’ He said he was worried that nobody would want to make a movie this expensive and big. He’s extremely self-effacing.” The producer finally convinced the director to cut his script down to a feature and shoot it in English.

But Lantos had no idea how autobiographical the project was. “Little by little it came out,” he says. Even now Szabo does not volunteer details. One day, the director enthused about an old courtyard that is being used as the set for the Sonnenschein family home. ‘You must see it,” he insisted. “It is so beautiful.” What he failed to

mention, even to the crew, is that this is the house where he grew up. Like the Sonnenscheins in the film, Szabo’s grandparents manufactured a herbal liqueur. The basement of the building still contains a maze of cellars where they stored their stock. And like Ignatz, the Hungarian Jewish grandfather in the script, the director’s grandfather’s original name was Sonnenschein—German for “sunshine.” “Most Hungarian Jews changed their names,” says Lantos, whose own grandfather changed his from Löwinger. Hungary has had a deep history of anti-Semitism. Almost 600,000 of the country’s 650,000 Jews were killed in the Holocaust, many of them by the Hungarian SS. Towards the end of the war, they would line up Jews on the banks of the Danube, dozens at a time, shoot them and dump the bodies into the river.

“Anti-Semitism is still alive and well,” says Lantos, recalling a visit to Budapest in 1992 when the president of the Hungarian public television network came to meet him in his hotel room. “He was very solicitous and polite. But he kept telling me about the difficulty of cleaning up Hungarian television after all the years of communism, and the challenge of bringing back Christian family values.” As an example, the TV executive told Lantos he just had a film removed from the network’s schedule because he was so horrified by its content, even though it was already listed in the TV guide—a film about a nun who gets pregnant. “So I asked, What was the film?’ ” recalls Lantos. “He said, ‘Agnes of God.' Then he tells me, ‘It’s made by a Jew.’ At which point I said, You’re wrong about that. His name is Norman Jewison. He’s not Jewish ... but I am.’ ”

unch break on the set. The sun is out. Extras in Nazi uniforms are milling around in front of the arena, eating sandwiches. They have strict orders not to stray from the location in costume, for obvious reasons. Szabo, a shy godfather o who seems universally loved on the set, £ makes his way through the crowd, stopai ping to sign a couple of autographs. One of the Nazi extras holds out a camera and asks to pose with him in a snapshot. Szabo shakes his head, says something in Hungarian and moves on, looking for a quiet corner for an interview. He finds it around the back of the arena, on a stone ledge in the sun.

Asked why he is making The Taste of Sunshine, Szabo talks about what his country has endured since the First World War—a revolution, the Nazi scourge, Stalinist dictatorship, the 1956 uprising, an ice age of Communist rule, and the bracing shock of democracy in the ’90s. “If you had a relative in Budapest or Berlin or Prague,” he says, “and you were sending letters to your relatives, in the last 60 years they’d have seven or eight different addresses without moving, because every political regime changed the name of the streets. Middle-European history is full of enormous experiences. I think we have something to tell the world.”

Grudgingly, he concedes that The Taste of Sunshine is also a personal film, but will not elaborate. Revealing little about himself, Szabo goes on to talk about how “nationalism is one of the great poisons of our time.” He explains how his movie is about misguided loyalty, about three “thankful” men who are too eager to please their superiors. “I think it’s my problem, too,” he allows, “to please people and not do what I want. I think it’s everybody’s problem.” But a director “must be a little bit like an emperor,” he adds, “and if he is happy with other people, if he can learn from them, it’s not so bad.” Then Szabo strolls back to the set, to an arena of Nazis waiting for him to tell them what to do. □