A place of memory for the Holocaust

Robert Lantos speaks about bringing ‘The Song of Names’ to the screen.

Violin player (illustrative photo) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Violin player (illustrative photo)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Hungarian-born, Canadian film producer Robert Lantos felt driven to tell an unusual story of the Holocaust in The Song of Names, which just opened throughout Israel.
The Song of Names gave us a unique opportunity to tell this story, which takes us to this place of memory which few want to go to voluntarily,” he said in a recent phone interview. Lantos, who was born in Budapest not long after World War II and moved to Canada with his family, has produced more than 70 films and television series, including Where the Truth Lies, Eastern Promises and Barney’s Version.
The Song of Names
, which was directed by François Girard, is based on a novel by Norman Lebrecht. It is a complex tale set in three timelines, and focuses on the friendship between a gentile British boy Martin, and Dovidl, a Jewish violin prodigy from Poland.
On the eve of World War II, Dovidl’s father manages to get him to London. There, he is taken in by a British musical family and shares a room with their son. Martin is jealous of Dovidl’s talent and the devotion it elicits in Martin’s father, a music impresario, and he can’t understand why the news from Europe is so upsetting to his roommate, who eventually becomes a friend.
The film opens not long after the war, when they are in their early 20s and Dovidl is set to make his musical debut at a sold-out concert in London, but instead of performing and launching his career, he disappears. The adult Martin, played by Tim Roth, sees a violin student in the 1980s he believes must have studied with Dovidl and goes on a search for him, eventually encountering Dovidl, now played by Clive Owen, in the last place he would have ever thought to look.
It’s difficult to say anything else about the plot without revealing any spoilers, but a key point in the story revolves around the titular song, which is a memorial set to music, the words of which are the names of all the Jews killed in Treblinka. While the film is a drama about friendship and memory, it also plays out like a thriller in which we are kept in suspense about the truth behind Dovidl’s disappearance.
“The film is not set during the Holocaust, so it doesn’t have the horrible images we associate with it, but it has the same emotional impact,” Lantos said.
Although a period film that has the Holocaust as its center might not seem like an easy sell to financiers, Lantos said that what pushed him to the film was the musical component.
“That was my inspiration to overcome all the obstacles,” he said.
He knew that it was crucial to find a director who was knowledgeable about music and who could film the musical sequences – and there are many – in an interesting, cinematic way.
“Attaching the right director was key, because of the pivotal role of music in the story... and François was the only person I could think of who could bring that kind of sensitivity to music to it.”
Girard directed the acclaimed 1993 film Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, a collection of vignettes about the acclaimed Canadian classical pianist that use unconventional storytelling to probe his talent. Many of Girard’s films, such as the 2014 Boychoir starring Dustin Hoffman, put music front and center.
“He read the script and shared my excitement. He became passionate about the project,” Lantos said.
With Girard on board, there was still another obstacle: finding someone to write the key piece of music from which the film derives its name.
“Enter Howard Shore,” Lantos said. Shore was the musical director of Saturday Night Live when the show started, and he has conducted and composed the score for dozens of movies, including the Lord of the Rings and Twilight series.
“He began to work on the music two years before we started the film. We couldn’t start without it.”
Lantos knew that “we would need stars to get this film made,” and was happy when Roth and Owen, both of whom are cast against type here, signed on. They also needed to match with two sets of actors playing their younger selves. Explaining the Holocaust background to the youngest actors was a delicate task, he said, but one that he felt was important, particularly because Lantos is the child of survivors.
The story of his family, inspired in part by 20 hours of audiotapes his mother recorded detailing her wartime experience, became the basis for Sunshine, the 1999 film directed by István Szabó that Lantos produced which stars Ralph Fiennes and chronicles the story of a Hungarian Jewish family.
“That film was about the Hungarian Jewish experience,” he said. “In making that and The Song of Names I was motivated by the words ‘Never Again.’ Those two words are more imperative now than any time since I was born because of the resurgence of Jew-hatred across America and Europe.
The Song of Names is told in a way that I hope is original and attractive,” he said, adding that he is optimistic it will help keep the story of the Holocaust alive.