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Son of Saul, Oscar-nominated Holocaust film, denounced as 'Jewish propaganda' in Hungary

Budapest: Countries usually celebrate when their filmmakers are nominated for an Oscar. Not so in Hungary after Son of Saul, directed by Laszlo Nemes, had been nominated for an Academy award.

In fact, some Hungarians responded with anti-Semitic abuse to the news that an acclaimed movie set during the Holocaust could win this year's award for best foreign film.

Son of Saul won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival last northern summer and took a Golden Globe this month for its searing portrayal of a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz trying to give a dignified burial to the body of a boy he takes for his son.

It made an international star of Hungarian actor Geza Rohrig, who plays the lead role of Saul Auslander, a member of the Sonderkommando, a group of prisoners whose job was to incinerate the dead.

This struggle to remain human is the only light in the unremittingly grim setting of the death camp's crematorium, where prisoners, soon to die themselves, shovel the ashes of those who have already passed through the gas chambers.

But some Hungarians are calling it "Holokamu" (Holocaust con or hoax). "Science fiction!" wrote one Holocaust-denier on Facebook in reaction to the film's success.


"Jewish propaganda!" and "For Jews, about Jews," were among the more printable slurs that filled social media.

"So many anti-Semitic comments have been made; it's a disgrace," said a member of the Budapest Jewish community.

"I wonder if the West is aware of how people here think."

Hungary has been in the spotlight recently for building fences and holding back waves of Middle Eastern and African migrants trying to reach the European Union. Images of desperate people being herded behind barbed wire or packed into trains bring back uncomfortable memories of World War II.

But Hungary's government says it is upholding EU law and order.

To liberals, Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a dangerous authoritarian, rivalled only by Russia's President Vladimir Putin, whom critics have compared to Hitler.

But in the wake of the New Year sex assaults in Cologne, Germany, Mr Orban is fast becoming the darling of the European right.

His portrait was held high at a recent rally in Leipzig, which attacked German Chancellor Angela Merkel for opening Europe's doors and pursuing policies of "political correctness and soft multiculturalism".

East European members of the EU, emerging after 40 years of communism, have rejected Dr Merkel's call to take their share of migrants.

Hungary, which saw 400,000 people cross its territory on their way to Germany and other countries last year, has granted asylum to a mere 500.

Another 1100 are in detention camps for illegal border crossing and likely to be deported after their cases have been reviewed.

The change under way in Hungary, visible in the caustic reaction to the Son of Saul, can be seen in Mr Orban himself.

In 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, he famously began his political career by telling Soviet forces it was time to leave Hungary. But he swung to the right after the election of his Fidesz party in 2010.

Since then, Putin-style, he has sidelined the opposition and commandeered the media.

Laszlo Majtenyi, a former ombudsman concerned with issues of privacy and surveillance, says Hungary is not yet a totalitarian state but has certainly become illiberal. And Poland, under its new right-wing government, is going the same way.

Warsaw faces corrective measures from the EU for its recent moves against independent media and courts, but Budapest says it will veto any punishment from Brussels in a clear sign of a new alliance between Poland and Hungary, both majority Catholic countries.

This can only please the Kremlin.

For while Poland remains wary of Russia and Hungary claims a pragmatic relationship with Moscow, anything that suggests a split in the EU is music to Mr Putin's ears.

The EU status of East European countries like Hungary was hard won, which perhaps explains their distaste for new arrivals, as well as their desire to airbrush out the darker pages of history.

A new kitsch monument erected by the Orban government in Budapest shows a Nazi German eagle swooping down on innocent Hungary in 1944.

The Jewish community was not consulted.

On the pavement opposite, protesters have placed pebbles, spectacles, shoes and suitcases to remind passersby that Hungarians played an active part in the deportation of Jews and Roma gypsies to Auschwitz.

Nearby another memorial to Holocaust victims, conceived by film director Can Togay, sits along the banks of the Danube: rows of shoes as a reminder of Jews who were shot and dumped in the river during World War II.

"There was a delay here because of communism," said a teacher, looking at the monument and counter-display. "We've been victims but also perpetrators. Only now are we starting to do the homework about Nazism that most Germans did long ago."

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