Iconic pro­ducer re­flects on anti-semitism and ca­reer

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - Film - IEDEN WALL

In 1956, a stocky seven-year-old Hun­gar­ian boy was called into the prin­ci­pal’s of­fice for vi­o­lent be­hav­iour.

His par­ents – Agnes and La­zlo Lan­tos – were in dis­be­lief. What could have caused their even-tem­pered son Robert to strike a class­mate square in the face?

The meet­ing in the prin­ci­pal’s of­fice turned into a mo­ment of rev­e­la­tion – both for Robert and his par­ents.

Robert Lan­tos re­calls the in­ci­dent, now 60 years later. As he pre­pares to speak about it, his sit­ting-pos­ture moves from re­laxed to de­fen­sive. His eye­brows fur­row slightly and his deep brown eyes quickly turn from a mild twin­kle to a sear­ing glint.

Lan­tos was the first – and prob­a­bly the last – big movie pro­ducer to bring Hol­ly­wood power and panache north of the bor­der. He picked up the sag­ging Cana­dian film in­dus­try, put it on his shoul­ders and car­ried it right into the big leagues, one cigar at a time.

The in­ci­dent with the class­mate was a sem­i­nal mo­ment in the life of Canada’s iconic movie mogul.

“I was quar­rel­ing with this boy in my class over a lunch bag. This boy called me a stink­ing Jew in Hun­gar­ian, and I was over­come with the im­me­di­ate im­pulse to punch the boy right in the nose,” re­calls Lan­tos.

What makes this child­hood in­ci­dent so mem­o­rable for Lan­tos is that up un­til that point, he had no knowl­edge what­so­ever of his Jewish her­itage.

His par­ents, Hun­gar­ian Jews who sur­vived the Holo­caust, made the de­ci­sion to raise their only child as a non-jew. They had suf­fered enough and the last thing they wanted was for their beloved son to en­dure any of the tor­ment and pain that be­fell them so trag­i­cally.

The next day fol­low­ing the al­ter­ca­tion, both Lan­tos and the kid he’d popped in the shnozz were sum­moned to the prin­ci­pal’s of­fice with their moth­ers. From that mo­ment on, Lan­tos has kept his Jewish iden­tity close to his heart.

The Univer­sity of Haifa re­cently awarded him an hon­orary doc­tor­ate in recog­ni­tion of his firm and un­com­pro­mis­ing sup­port for the State of Is­rael and his fight against anti-semitism, anti-zion­ism, and the boy­cott, di­vest­ment and sanc­tions move­ment.

Just a month ago Lan­tos flew back to east­ern Europe for yet an­other ac­co­lade. He was hon­oured by the Camer­im­age International Film Fes­ti­val in Novem­ber, along with two-time Os­car win­ner Jes­sica Lange in the grand hall of the Opera Nova in the town of By­d­goszcz, Poland.

The Lan­tos film pan­theon is pil­lared by sev­eral Holo­caust movies but the one that holds a spe­cial place in his heart is Sun­shine, star­ring Golden-globe win­ning ac­tor Ralph Fi­ennes.

Sun­shine is a 1999 his­tor­i­cal drama film writ­ten by Is­rael Horovitz and Ist­van Sz­abo, di­rected and pro­duced by Sz­abo. It fol­lows three gen­er­a­tions of a Jewish fam­ily (orig­i­nally called Son­nen­schein, a name that lit­er­ally means “sun­shine” in Ger­man, but later changed to Sors, mean­ing “fate” or “des­tiny” in Hun­gar­ian) dur­ing the changes in Hun­gary from the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury to the pe­riod af­ter the 1956 Hun­gar­ian Rev­o­lu­tion.

While the film’s lack of com­mer­cial suc­cess was a mild dis­ap­point­ment for the Or­der of Canada re­cip­i­ent, the project was rich with per­sonal sat­is­fac­tion.

“Not every­thing has to be about money,” as­serts Lan­tos. “One of the re­ward­ing mo­ments for me was just af­ter the first screen­ing of Sun­shine, both of my kids turned to me and said: ‘Wow Dad, now I know where our grand­par­ents came from and what they went through.’

“Sun­shine is a project that has touched so many peo­ple all over the world. As I travel all through Europe, to this day, I get peo­ple com­ing up to me and ex­plain­ing how this sin­gle film has touched their lives,” says Lan­tos.

When asked about the huge spike in anti-semitic in­ci­dents around the globe, Lan­tos takes a big deep breath and looks into the dis­tance. For the first time in the in­ter­view, he looks dis­traught. No­tice­ably trou­bled. He is some­what ex­as­per­ated at how to ef­fec­tively en­gage this topic with­out los­ing his cool.

“A lot of peo­ple have grap­pled with this eter­nal ques­tion. We Jews have an in­cred­i­ble drive to suc­ceed. What­ever ob­sta­cles that are in front of us, we seem to be able to rise above them, or go un­der them, or get around them,” says Lan­tos. “As a re­sult of our re­source­ful­ness and in­nate sur­vival skills, we have a rather high in­ci­dence of suc­cess. And this suc­cess breeds envy,” he ex­plains.

“When suc­cess be­comes so dis­pro­por­tion­ate to the weak­ness of its num­bers, this gives way to a toxic cock­tail; and the re­sult is part envy and part sus­pi­cion,” Lan­tos says.

At 67, Lan­tos has pushed the film art form sub­stan­tially, us­ing its broad strokes to paint the cul­tural iden­tity of our na­tion on a global stage. He has in­spired scores of in­de­pen­dent film­mak­ers with his abil­ity to fly in the face of the gi­ant Hol­ly­wood mar­ket­ing ma­chines. And he has made more than a few shekels for all of his ef­forts.

So the ob­vi­ous ques­tion is what mo­ti­vates him to keep go­ing?

“I still re­ally like it,” Lan­tos says. “It’s kind of like an ad­dic­tion. I am wean­ing my­self off of it slowly. In the cur­rent state of the in­dus­try, it is be­com­ing al­most im­pos­si­ble to make the kind of films I like - but I got some stuff left,” Lan­tos says with the will of a prize­fighter, who knows he has one more good fight left in him.

For all of the sto­ries of ex­cess, ego­ma­nia and he­do­nism that en­treats the icon’s legacy for due cov­er­age; the Lan­tos of to­day - dare I say - seems to have mel­lowed. Funny how life does that.

Lan­tos comes from a coun­try where 80 per cent of the Jewish pop­u­la­tion was dec­i­mated. He knows deep in his heart, he was cho­sen for great­ness as much as he has achieved it. His grat­i­tude is pal­pa­ble. It’s in his eyes. It’s in his smile. It lights up the aura of Agnes and La­zlo’s only child.

SAB­RINA LAN­TOS PHOTO

Robert Lan­tos, right, with Dustin Hoff­man and Paul Gia­matti on the set of Bar­ney’s Ver­sion.

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