‘Son of Saul’: For Claims Conference, Oscar nominee was a big gamble

‘Son of Saul’: For Claims Conference, Oscar nominee was a big gamble

Geza Rohrig as Saul in “Son of Saul” is an Oscar favorite. 
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Geza Rohrig as Saul in “Son of Saul” is an Oscar favorite. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

BERLIN — Set amid a 1944 prisoner uprising at Auschwitz, “Son of Saul” stood out as a long shot when its producers first applied for funding from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The film’s director, Laszlo Nemes, had no experience with feature films; its lead actor hadn’t been on a film set in 15 years; and its script included long, silent and out-of-focus shots.

But the Claims Conference, which negotiates restitution for Nazi victims, ultimately decided to help bankroll the film. It’s a gamble that now seems prescient, as “Son of Saul” is favored to win best foreign language film at the Oscars on Feb. 28.

Worldwide ticket sales for the Golden Globe-winning film are north of $2 million, already exceeding the film’s slim $1.6 million budget.

“People all over the world are realizing we’re facing the last generation of Holocaust survivors, so we’re in a race against time to cling to the experiences of the survivors still amongst us,” said Greg Schneider, the Claims Conference’s vice president.

Since the 1993 release of Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” which won the Oscar for best picture, representations of the Holocaust have emerged as an important genre in cinema in and beyond the U.S. market. Other award-winning productions, such as “Life is Beautiful” (1997), “The Pianist” (2002), “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) and last year’s “Woman in Gold,” have followed.

In recent years, many filmmakers from Europe have trained their lenses on the same theme, resulting in such critically acclaimed productions as “Phoenix” (Germany, 2014), “Ida” (Poland, 2013), “Suskind” (The Netherlands, 2012) and “Sarah’s Key” (France, 2010).

The Claims Conference, which since 2008 has devoted a small portion of its budget to funding educational Holocaust films, provided about $50,000 of the “Son of Saul” budget. But even that relatively small contribution was subject to “serious internal debate,” Schneider said.

“It was a risk that paid off,” he said.

The Claims Conference receives funding requests for about 50 films a year. One factor that helped clinch the deal with Nemes was the quality of a short Holocaust film, “With a Little Patience,” that he had made back in 2007. Another factor was the director’s meticulous attention to historical accuracy, as demonstrated by the “Son of Saul” script.

While fictional, the plot uses an accurate backdrop in telling the story of Saul Auslander, a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of Jews whom the Germans forced to work in the gas chambers. In the film, an unemotional Auslander is seen herding transport after transport of his brethren to their deaths before becoming unhinged at the sight of a Nazi doctor suffocating a boy of 14 who had somehow survived the poison. Oblivious to the rebellion being planned around him, Auslander abuses the access that his gruesome job affords him in an attempt to bury the teenager.

“Auslander’s story is fictional, the rest is accurate,” Schneider said last month in Berlin, where the Claims Conference organized the film’s premiere in Germany. (The Sonderkommando at Auschwitz did stage a rebellion in October 1944. Separately, two teenagers were murdered after surviving the gas chambers.)

Whereas straightforward filming of an Auschwitz-Birkenau set would have yielded “a pornography of death,” as the lead actor, Geza Rohrig, said, the camera focuses on the living Sonderkommando and scenery, weaving the carnage around them into an out-of-focus but omnipresent background.

Though the Claims Conference provided less than 4 percent of the total production cost of “Son of Saul,” its contribution “came in the final stages of production when we were really lacking money,” “Son of Saul” producer Gabor Sipos said.

Since 2008, the Claims Conference has spent a total of $2.25 million, or an average of $282,000 a year, to fund educational Holocaust films. The organization’s total annual budget has ranged from $700 million to $870 million, with the vast majority going toward improving the quality of life for Holocaust survivors.

Of the dozens of films funded by the Claims Conference, “Son of Saul” is “by far the most successful in terms of return on investment,” Schneider said. It is the first film funded by the organization that has won a Golden Globe or been nominated for an Oscar. Among others that have received funding from the Claims Conference are the award-winning “Numbered” (2012) and “The Decent One” (2014).

The remainder of the budget for “Son of Saul” came almost entirely from the Hungarian National Film Fund. Agnes Havas, the Hungarian fund’s CEO, told the Budapest Business Journal that the film’s commercial appeal makes it “the most successful project supported by the film fund.” “Son of Saul” is also Hungary’s first Oscar nominee since 1988.

But the funding from Hungary is also exposing “Son of Saul” to criticism by those opposed to the right-wing policies of the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, whose government was recently accused of downplaying Hungarian complicity in the Holocaust and relegating all the blame to Germany.

“I wonder if getting money from the Hungarian state is a problem for you, or you just don’t mind,” one critical viewer, who accused the government of anti-Semitism, said at a post-screening Q&A.

In replying, Sipos said the filmmakers were “proud of the film fund,” which they “hope has nothing to do with [the policies of] Hungarian government.”

He noted that while requests for funding “Son of Saul” were “rejected in countries that are seen to be less anti-Semitic,” including France, Germany and Israel, “the Hungarian film fund decided to support us, meaning this film would not have existed if not for their help.”